Iconoclash: It’s The Clash, Stupid

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Iconoclash: It’s The Clash, Stupid
by Ben O'Loughlin, Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London

From 9/11 to the most treasured temple in Palmyra, Islamist destruction reminds us that we have objects and values we hold as untouchable and inviolable. It also makes us question whether we have a strategy to save them. This iconoclash has cycled through the angry pointing cleric clip, the beheading video, the burning man in a cage gif, the vandalism montage, the full-on terrorist attack. It is a clash through the exchange of icons and images, and each ‘side’ in the war on terror has shown trophies of valuable dead people, objects, targets destroyed or being destroyed, a tit-for-tat of shock and awe. We will match your orange Guantanamo jumpsuit with our orange hostage jumpsuit. Yet if we are to properly respond to this iconoclasm, we must understand why it is happening. It is happening in part because of Islamists’ drive to restore pride and dignity and avenge historical humiliation by creating a game of equals. However, this iconoclash is ultimately driven by geopolitical strategy. For Islamic State, the clash is about winning that game on Islamic State’s terms.

At first glance, the ongoing iconoclash illustrates Islamists’ efforts to show our cultural interpenetration and equivalence with them. It is about showing we share the same visual regime and thus the same space, now. It is not a clash of spaces but a clash within a single global media ecology. It is about changing how we think of the terrain within which the clash plays out. 

In establishing that sense of co-existence, the production and destruction of imagery by Islamic extremists proceeds through an ever-escalating series of transactions. Islamists use their knowledge of what we say we find valuable in order to lure us into feeling, lure us into acting, and even lure us into believing: believing in their belief, their steadfast belief that gives them eternal fortitude and indefatigable resolve. They remind us we are entangled with them: their objects are our objects, their media circulations are enmeshed with ours, and we are chained together, in struggle, as equals. Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have forced us to restore our faith in our own faith in visual totems: we value the Twin Towers and the Temple of Bel in Palmyra because they signify what we hold dear, in this case, respectively, nationalism and the freedom to shop, and global culture and heritage.

They use images to speak to us in a way that changes how we think of ourselves and them – to make ourselves presences in each other's lives such that we must find a way to accommodate one another on new terms. They are reaching out to people in the region, people who may feel Islamic State is about to conquer their territory, or people who may wish to join and support them. They may be showing fellow Sunnis that only they, Islamic State, are the true Muslims; showing Shia that they have backed the wrong interpretation and should recant or die. But whether the audience is near or far, they are establishing that they are what is happening to us.

What new terms are Islamic State offering, through the iconoclash? They seek to replace the state system and imperialism with a caliphate. Anyone outside the caliphate is welcome to join and live on those terms or live on their own terms and die violently. It is not about whose projected afterlife is better. It is about using imagery to change feelings and behaviour in the present. It is about a new political arrangement now. The truth of any image is secondary to this strategy. Icons are a means to make and win the clash.  

This clash of icons is a means to winning the strategic endgame. Islamic State play on our belief that they really believe that certain statues really come from the divine. We are all too ready to credit a naive religiosity to them. Their rhetoric plays up to this. We must understand that while Islamic State wish to create and maintain a certain religious community – a caliphate – they can use non-religious means to get there. Their strategic documents draw on non-Islamic thinkers like Sun Tsu, Clausewitz and Paul Kennedy because this strategic game is a means to an end.

That the truth of any image is secondary to strategy for Islamic State can be seen in their pragmatic approach to both politics and iconography. Their selective destruction of idols shows they don't truly, madly believe. In February 2015, Islamic State allowed Turkish troops to come and pick up an Ottoman shrine, the tomb of Suleyman Shah, from an area Islamic State had taken. Why did they not destroy this idolatrous object? Were the monotheists succumbing to polytheism, jihadist rivals asked? The reason was realpolitik: at the time, it suited the leaders of Turkey and Islamic State to ensure the two sides avoided any violent conflict. Thus, Islamic State can swap the chains of obligation to a deity to chains of obligation to a nation-state like Turkey as it suits. In oscillating between rhetorics of modernity and barbarism, Islamic State exasperate Sunni extremist rivals who find it hypocritical to do deals with devilish state-system leaders. They also confound their modern enemies who expect Islamic State to stay true to their divine chains. How can Islamic State talk of the eternal and transcendent, of the caliphate as the realization of prophecy, and then muddy themselves in the profanity of statecraft?

They present themselves as true believers, and they show themselves destroying things to prove it. Seeing is believing: we see them believing and we believe they believe. However, while Islamic State captured the Syrian city of Palmyra in May 2015, rather than destroy the iconic temple and artifacts, they used them as a stage setting for beheading videos. The temple became a globally-witnessed backdrop for us to see them perform their belief. But if these icons were so idolatrous, why not destroy them? Why give them further attention by putting them in digital clips with an infinite afterlife? Again, Islamic State put religiosity beneath political interests. Recruit, intimidate, now. As we hear the journalist’s solemn voiceover as the murders are reported, we are told that authorities were powerless to prevent this; that Islamic State have total control. Icons are a means to project the appearance of power. It was only at the end of August that demolition began. 

The priority of political strategy is also evident in Islamic State’s approach to iconography. It is reasonable to ask, why do those opposed to icons seem so eager to make them? Islamic extremists make images to circulate in multiple formats and domains. They are crafted to produce an inner feeling of the soul for the individual in front of their private screen, an awakening of piety and anger that triggers an outward debate about justice and belonging for the family around the TV screen. These images don't “send a message” to anyone except those looking for messages - the UFOologists of our foreign ministries and security think tanks who fret about Islamic State’s powerful brand. The images produce a feeling, a rhythm, a ritual of attraction or repulsion, of social affirmation or consternation that ripples through our social networks. No single image has effects here. No icon changes the meaning of everything. Rather, the tactic is to build chains of amplification and immersion that make us feel that we are in this crisis together and only they have the strength to win out. 

And yet still: how dare they produce images? The answer is pragmatism, interests, and strategy. These images are tokens in a global exchange economy; in no way sacred, their value is immediate and imminent, in the action they can provoke now. Islamic State show other Muslims, visually, just how Islamic they are, chopping off hands and heads as they enact Sharia law more strictly than anyone else dare. When they suffer a military defeat, a quick, shocking video of an atrocity elsewhere can distract attention. And, in the final analysis, images are not even needed. Rumour and reputation can stir the blood. Audiences can react to the very idea that Islamic State might be destroying something, just as some Muslims have rioted after hearing stories of US soldiers flushing a Koran down a toilet. Now that each ‘side’ has expectations of the other and is ready to hear the worst, this cycle of hostility can operate as an iconoclash without icons.

We need to stop believing that while they believe, we are more enlightened, distanced and reasonable. They don't all believe, particularly those at the top, hence they don't destroy idols and idolators immediately or consistently, but only when it suits. Their rhetoric can be deflated. Despite their pre-modern rituals and post-modern embrace of simulation, they desire the modern goals of authority within territory: an Islamic state. To win the iconoclash, we must show they are as grounded in the politics of interests as anyone else. 

Acknowledgements: I am indebted to Mina Al-Lami for sharing her thoughts on this topic, and to the writing of Faisal Devji, Bruno Latour and Will McCants.