Why ISIS Vandals Destroy Ancient Temples at Palmyra and Bel

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An image distributed by Islamic State militants on social media on August 25 purports to show the destruction of a Roman-era temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Reuters/social media

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

The ConversationSlamming sledgehammers. Toppling statues. Decimated artifacts. Detonating charges that flash in an instant, but destroy centuries of history.

The images coming out of Palmyra, Syria, Mosul, Iraq and other locations in the Levant viscerally illustrate how ISIS is destroying shrines, statues and sundry other artifacts as they seek to establish their version of a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

A flood of reports and live video over the past few months show ISIS militants wrenching artifacts from museum walls, imploding sacred shrines and churches and reducing historic effigies to rubble.

In their official publications and online rhetoric, ISIS representatives affirm these actions as typifying the group’s commitment to combating “shirk”—the sin of practicing idolatry or polytheism: in this case, the reverence of anything other than Allah.

While jihadi-Salafi grandiloquence and Islamic terminology may undergird these acts of vandalism, I argue that they are perhaps indicative of “modernist” or “skeptical” streams of thought rather than solely and strictly “Islamic.”

The Islamic State and the concept of shirk

As violent Salafi jihadis, ISIS is trying to cleanse Islam through the establishment of a caliphate, which would be enforced by violence and coerced adherence to their doctrines.

They view their movement as a return to the roots of Islam (although this claim is contested by Muslims throughout the world), but this perception involves a built-in brutality toward non-Muslims and a definition of shirk as any form of innovation (or “Bid'ah”) in Islamic belief, theology, worship or custom.

In the overarching scheme to “command right and forbid wrong,” ISIS militants will often physically destroy all material artifacts and edifices they define as shirk.

In their own media (YouTube videos, Twitter, the Dabiq magazine) ISIS officials praise the efforts of other Salafi groups for their zeal in eradicating material testaments to polytheism and idolatry, including the Taliban’s March 2001 destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda’s toppling of the Twin Towers in New York City (considered a pronouncement against the idolatry of “Western” capitalism) and the demolition of shrines and altars in Mali, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

ISIS militants, as outlined in their publications, seek to emulate their forerunners and praise those “visionary leaders” who “minted coins to avoid imagery and shirk” and take their example to heart. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—the leader of IS—enjoins his followers to “strike the apostate’s shirk with your tawhid, and Allah will break their strength.” ISIS also proudly displays a multi-page “Photo Report” of the “Destruction of Shirk in Wilayatninawa (the “Left-side” of Mosul, Iraq).”

Demolishing the “Grave of the Girl” and admonishing the people for paying homage at tombs and for not recognizing “the different shades of shirk they’ve fallen into,” ISIS sees itself as the all-encompassing educator about, eradicator of and enforcer against shirk. Indeed, its members even critique the Taliban and others who did not totally erase shirk in their wake and left some centers of reverence, ritual prayer and devotion, or amulet production behind.

The solution for ISIS? A stronger sense of takfir—the excommunication, and declaration, of another Muslim as apostate—and a harder line concerning shirk.

All of this emphasizes that for ISIS, shirk is a central aspect of the heterodoxy and faithlessness they seek to combat and destroy. The very public displays (online and in print) of shirk destruction in the form of destroyed shrines and museum artifacts are grandiose and definitive gestures of supposed IS orthodoxy and a validation of strength.

Yet, pursuing such a hard line against shirk ISIS may be, instead, revealing an underlying secular modernism, or even iconoclastic atheism, that lies at the heart of their ideology. Indeed, do their hard-line actions reveal a potentially deep unease or even doubt among what appear to be devout religious fanatics?

The meaning of simulacra and salafism

To answer the question, we must draw on the question of how we create our own realities. In his work “Simulacra et Simulation,” French sociologist Jean Baudrillard contends that we no longer are able to distinguish between reality and constructed representations of reality—what he calls “simulacra.” Today, simulations are not even reflections of reality, nor even points of reference, but constructions of a new real; what he calls the “hyperreal,” in which the difference between map and territory disappears.

Baudrillard writes: “The Byzantine Iconoclasts wanted to destroy images in order to abolish meaning and the representation of God.” However, in Baudrillard’s opinion, the Byzantine Iconoclasts were aware of how retaining and revering icons was the best way of letting God disappear and destroying the images was a means of contesting unbelief—not that of others, but their own.

Likewise, ISIS militants exhibit the same metaphysical anxiety. They are caught between identities, territories, spaces and places both physical and philosophical; they are told that they cannot blur the boundaries constructed between Islam and “the West” or “religion” and “modernity” or “faith” and “secularism.” In an effort to combat the furious war inside themselves, they lash out in violent and visceral expressions of radical belief that serve simultaneously as articulations of a blistering deep-seated skepticism.

Living in a globalized world and actively encountering the West and other cultures, many Muslims undergo a destabilizing process that isolates the individual from former identity markers.

In contact with global currents, everything that used to define them—their family, culture, dress, class, political affiliation—is awash in a sea of competing claims and they choose Islam as the strongest source from which to rebuild themselves. In this process is offered what social sciences professor Olivier Roy calls, “the realization of the self.” Islam becomes the way that the marginalized and lonely Muslim in the West attempts to reconstruct his identity.

Of course, this self cannot be rebuilt alone. A community is needed within which the self can be resurrected. Enter ISIS, which offers answers to what ails secluded Muslims across the globe.

Finding release through destruction of icons

One of the ways ISIS does this is through its brutal and iconoclastic campaigns of destruction. As these men struggle with what it is to be Muslim in a global age and wrestle with the secular identities, they find release and a salve for their tormented souls in destroying the images and icons in which God hides in a modern world where all images are, in effect, simulacra.

With this frame it is possible to posit that some ISIS members are not driven by a heightened sense of religiosity, but instead by the fear that their religion is just as relative as so many other variables in their life.

ISIS militants and leaders are not thoughtless iconoclasts; they possess an internally sound reasoning for destroying shrines and images that is set within a wider nexus of Salafi thought. But it must be realized that in their efforts to destroy shrines, statues and heritage sites, ISIS is attempting to defeat the tumultuous flood of secular skepticism in their own souls.

This means we should consider ISIS within a wider context of discussions of modernity and religion. To understand ISIS, we cannot cast them out to the periphery as solely the product of bombastic Islamic rhetoric. Instead, as iconoclasts, ISIS—along with other jihadi Salafi groups such as Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and the Taliban—should be considered as representing inherently modern philosophies, just as the West produces and consumes modern philosophies.

This perspective does not deny the Islamic elements of ISIS thought. But it also connects modernist, even postmodern, sensibilities to interpretations of ISIS actions and illustrates that ISIS is wrestling with questions of self and identity that we all struggle with—whether we admit it or not.

Ken Chitwood is a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant fellow at University of Florida studying religion in the Americas. He is affiliated with the Religion Newswriters Association as a Board Member and is an ordained Lutheran pastor in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

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