Pornographic Iconoclasm in Terrorist Propaganda: Islamic State Cinema and Audience Reactions
by Dr. Samuel Andrew Hardy, Honorary Research Associate, University College of London Institute of Archaeology
Although it may appear tacky and repulsive to viewers outside its Islamist audience, the Islamic State’s propaganda is extremely sophisticated, and is unparalleled by counter-extremist propaganda. Indeed, one measure of the propaganda’s sophistication is the reaction of its global audience, who have responded far more forcefully to the Islamic State’s wilfully visualised butchery than the Assad regime’s far more numerous but unadvertised atrocities.
Frames from the Islamic State’s murder videos echo iconic moments from popular culture. For example, its long-distance execution by bazooka recalls a scene from Grand Theft Auto IV, which itself encapsulates a standard showpiece in action movies. GTA IV exploded into gaming culture in 2008, when IS’s potential recruits would have been GTA’s target market.
The Islamic State’s execution of a jointly tethered group by exploding necklace recalls both historic images of enslaved subjects and a totemic punishment for resistance and escape in horror film Battle Royale, which has remained an outstanding depiction of totalitarian power since its release in 2000.
And one of the Islamic State’s most recent murders uses a forced confession of the war crime of mutilating dead bodies to excuse the commission of a mirror execution of an Assadist regime soldier. In a scene that resembles a morbid wish fulfilment of the Tank Man’s protest against the Communist regime in China in 1989, the Islamic State crushes its victim alive.
IS’s pornographic iconoclasm likewise borrows the techniques of action movie cinematography. When IS attacked the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud, the resultant video showed the fighters entering the palace by drilling through its walls. It is a technique of urban warfare, deployed to minimise combatants’ exposure to snipers and other enemy fire. But the palace was undefended, deserted. The interior of a room was shown before the fighters had entered and, breaking through the “fourth wall” of television, when the fighters opened up their supposed access point, their second team of cameramen was visible on the other side. They had obviously walked in and set up their shot, then doubled back to perform the stunt.
Then, inside, they took sledgehammers to the palace’s iconic walls; and, outside, they used a rubble-and-earth-moving vehicle to dispose of entire panels. “Ramping” alternation between slow motion and fast footage built tension, then provided relief to jihadist fanboys. Even these seemingly superfluous scenes of cultural overkill – iconoclasm by hand preceding iconoclasm by improvised explosive device (IED) – were calculated to embody the Islamic State’s claim in Nineveh that ‘if God has ordered [their] removal, they [become] worthless to us even if they are worth billions of dollars [to the antiquities market]’. The enormous explosion and videoed wreckage lent credibility to that absolutist rhetoric.
Nonetheless, the video also revealed that part of the palace remained standing, practically untouched. Moreover, the panels that were so pointedly prised out, carried away and piled up were actually preserved by being removed from the blast zone. This hints at a hypocritical practice that has been documented elsewhere – plunder under cover of iconoclasm. The Islamic State does destroy some objects that it could sell. But it also preserves some objects that it “should” destroy. When U.S. forces raided Islamic State resource manager Abu Sayyaf’s base in Syria, they recovered an iconic figurine and an iconic ivory furniture plaque, which had been secretly looted from Mosul Museum before other pieces were vandalised in a publicised performance of iconoclasm.
Propaganda about iconoclasm by the Islamic State has withered in the face of propaganda by the Islamic State about iconoclasm, which is too professional for provocateurs to imitate and based on violence too massive in scale for provocateurs to claim with credibility. Still, it should be acknowledged, because it exists, because it harms civilian communities and because the contrast highlights details of the Islamic State’s interdependent but distinct campaigns of iconoclasm and propaganda.
As the Islamic State gained ground in 2014, unevidenced reports of destruction spread, then apparently documented reports appeared. Yet the images tended to show destruction during previous episodes of violence in Iraq, such as the bombing of a church in Kirkuk in 2011, the bombing of a church in Mosul in 2009 or the bombing of a church in Mosul in 2004. And they were all knowingly and demonstrably misrepresented images from social media.
One powerful scene, images of which were repeatedly misrepresented as those of churches in Iraq, was the burning of the Coptic Church of Saint Tadros in Egypt in 2013. Activists, ranging from Kurds in Iraq to Christians in the diaspora, used the images to try to raise international awareness or provoke (further) international intervention.
Long preceding the Islamic State’s destruction of Jonah’s attributed grave in Mosul, the Shia Post had associated a video of the sledgehammering of tombs with Iraqi state reports of the grave’s destruction. Yet Alghadeer, the television channel of the Badr Organisation paramilitary wing of the Shia Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, had earlier presented the video as evidence of the Islamic State’s destruction of the tombs of the companions of Mohammed in Raqqa, Syria. And Iranian state-aligned Press TV had even earlier presented the video as evidence of anti-Assad rebels’ destruction of Jewish graves in Tadouf, Syria.
As Yassin Musharbash has argued, the Islamic State is dependent upon credibility for fundraising and recruitment, so it tends not to lie about its attacks and tends not to leave any serious doubt about its responsibility for those attacks. As Fakir Bey observes, ‘if ISIL destroyed it, there would be video. If they go to the toilet, they video it.’
Nevertheless, the Islamic State does lie and obscure when convenient. It did not claim responsibility for the bombing of the Armenian Genocide Martyrs’ Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor. Since it bombed the building on the 23rd anniversary of the independence of Armenia and near the anniversary and centennial of the genocide, it seemingly sought to worsen tension within Turkey by implicating Turkish nationalists in the attack. Meanwhile, activists for the Islamic State, as well as for Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and other jihadist groups, attributed the destruction to U.S. air strikes.
Furthermore, IS forgoes opportunities for iconoclasm, propaganda and profit when beneficial. For example, Turkey had warned of retaliation for any violation of the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. So, having surrounded the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, and having outnumbered and outgunned the Turkish exclave’s soldiers, IS held back.
After months of trepidation and negotiation, Turkey invaded Syria through the western Kurdistani territory of Rojava, exhumed Suleyman Shah’s remains, destroyed the mausoleum to prevent its exploitation by IS and removed the remains to safety. Immediately after the conclusion of that deal, the Islamic State released the video of its iconoclasm (but not its plunder) at Mosul Museum and the Nergal Gate Museum in Nineveh.
The Islamic State is genuinely committed to genocidal and urbicidal violence, to the systematic eradication of ideologically unacceptable materials as embodiments of non-conformist communities and alternative possibilities. Graves, tombs, shrines and mausoleums; temples; chapels, churches, monasteries and nunneries; masjids and mosques; if it finds an opportunity, synagogues; symbolic artefacts... Property of Muslim Kaka’is, Shabaks, Shias, Sufis, Sunnis and Turkmens; Baha’is; Kaka’is; Yezidis; Mandaeans; Christians, such as Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans; Jews... Anything that is supposedly idolatrous, polytheistic, innovative or otherwise deviant is at risk.
At the same time, the Islamic State is sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate the strategic benefits of iconoclasm – displacement, terror and torment. Some of its targets flee, which makes territories easier to conquer, and which drains the resources and divides the communities of its enemies. Some of its remaining subjects fall silent, which makes its territories easier to rule. And some of its enemies are provoked into reactions that propel its global recruitment drive.
Ömür Harmanşah has explained to Bible History Daily that the Islamic State’s pornographic iconoclasm is ‘like a reality show, where the show is the primary goal for the production, and the depicted events are the consequence of it’. After all, if the destruction itself had been the primary goal, Mosul Museum would have been attacked immediately, not months after its conquest.
Yet, as IS seeks to incite donations and service from Islamists around the world, it focuses its advertising campaign on spectacular obliteration of cultural heritage sites and comparatively functional demolition of Shia religious sites – with sledgehammers and bulldozers as well as bombs – which manifest its impunity. More quietly, it maintains its less profitable campaigns against the smaller communities with whom its sponsors and fighters are less familiar – notably the Yezidi community, whose religion reconciles Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other traditions.
While the international community has recognised minorities’ persecution, it has not reacted to genocidal destruction of living religions’ cultural property in the same way that it has reacted to iconoclastic demolition of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The demolition of archaeological sites has invited appeals to the United Nations Security Council and the International Criminal Court and plans for peacekeepers at historic sites but not, apparently, civilian centres. Such precisely provoked responses fuel the Islamic State propaganda machine by providing evidence of negligence of communities and fetishisation of stones.
The international community has not even reacted to stage-managed massacres in historic places in the same way. In 2014, the Islamic State murdered at least fifteen civilians by entombing them in the Yezidi Mausoleum of Sheikh Mend in Jadala, Iraq, then blowing them up. In 2015, IS murdered three civilians by binding them to Roman columns in Palmyra, Syria, then blowing them up. Only one of those was headline news. And one of the responses that it prompted was ‘ISIS blows up more Palmyra antiquities, with civilians attached’.