Monday night at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society in an event entitled “Idols of ISIS,” University of Chicago assistant professor Aaron Tugendhaft presented his paper on a video released by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh).
Assistant professor Lawrence Rothfield opened the presentation by introducing the program and giving a brief description of the Islamic State’s looting and destruction of sculptures and other artifacts, before handing the presentation over to Tugendhaft. Tugendhaft began by showing a clip from the video, posted on February 26 of last year, which begins with a statement by an Islamic State spokesman standing in front of various reliefs from the Mosul Museum. The clip then moves to footage, shown partly in slow motion, of Islamic State members destroying artifacts from the museum’s collection with sledgehammers, jackhammers, and other power tools.
Tugendhaft briefly explained the reasoning presented in the video and in other Islamic State media, which calls for the destruction of such pre-Islamic artifacts based on Muhammad’s destruction of idols in the Ka’ba and Qur’an passage in which the prophet Ibrahim is said to have destroyed various non-Islamic statues in his hometown. Tugendhaft questioned the Islamic State’s interpretation of this passage, suggesting that the destruction was a tool for converting and educating the people present.
Arguing that destroying the statues and reliefs constituted a war crime, Tugendhaft dismissed the widespread reaction on social media that the artifacts in the video were “innocent bystanders” of the conflict. He noted that the Islamic State would have no reason to destroy the works if they were of no modern significance. Tugendhaft highlighted the history of images from ancient Mesopotamia being used as modern propaganda by Western imperial powers and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government. In particular, Tugendhaft highlighted American media coverage of the toppling of a statue of Hussein in 2003 Baghdad as using imagery of the destruction for political ends.
After the presentation, Tugendhaft took questions from members of the audience. Responding to a question about the distinction between “images” and “idols,” Tugendhaft focused on the role ancient and modern media play in societal organization. “I’m interested in how those [images] that are humanly constructed can be used to organize a community, and that that’s [even] necessary for the organization of a community,” Tugendhaft said.
Tugendhaft’s event was part of the Neubauer Collegium’s ongoing research series “The Past for Sale: New Approaches to the Study of Archaeological Looting.”