Aaron Tugendhaft discusses ISIS’ destruction of idols

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Grayson Ruhl

Executive Staff

On December 1 in Gailor Auditorium, Aaron Tugendhaft from the University of Chicago delivered a talk entitled, “The Idols of ISIS.” Tugendhaft aimed to analyze how art intersects with politics and religion through an intense study of the Islamic State’s video in which members of ISIS destroyed ancient sculptures in the Mosul Museum. On February 26, 2015, ISIS destroyed these artifacts, claiming that Muhammad demanded their destruction, as they were false idols. Tugendhaft addressed this video on three separate but related levels of his lecture: Idols, Museums, and Videos.

First of all, Tugendhaft aimed to assess the nature of idols and how ISIS interprets them. ISIS’ official magazine, Dabiq, exclaimed that their actions, while they angered ISIS’ enemies, were intended to honor Ibrahim’s goal to cleanse the world of idols—even if it required violence. Tugendhaft noted that Ibrahim, although radical in nature, strived to “free the minds” of those who worshiped idols other than Allah. However, this raises a frustrating question: why smash idols that are no longer even worshipped today? This action suggests that ISIS’ actions are perhaps as politically charged as they are religiously influenced.

Tugendhaft then discussed the role of museums. Indeed, he acknowledged that most museums are active crime scenes in which art is being appropriated; however, the crimes that occurred in the Mosul Museum are certainly more explicit. Tugendhaft addressed artwork created during Saddam Hussein’s regime to explain how images can be transformed to take on new meanings. Many ancient images, including paintings of Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal, were recreated to feature Hussein as the protagonist. So altered were such ancient images to glorify Hussein that, when asked about ISIS’ attack in February, one person shrugged the horrors of the video off because he felt the artifacts represented Hussein’s regime.

Tugendhaft then analyzed videos and how they play a part in image destruction and recreation. He noted that, although ISIS was destroying these ancient artifacts, they replaced these artifacts with new images—an entire video of their dastardly efforts. Surprisingly, images depicting image destruction exist throughout ancient artwork as well. In this modern case, however, ISIS’ intentions were largely fueled by a desire to define and broadcast their radical agenda. Tugendhaft noted the role that social media has in this: this art was no longer on a museum wall, but now on a Facebook wall.

This lecture, while it was difficult to view the atrocities of ISIS, was beneficial in understanding how idols, museums, and videos affect image production on religious and political scopes. Moreover, it raised questions as to who holds the power to display such images of destruction—perhaps the media is itself delivering such horrific images to ISIS’ intended audience by showing it to the public.