The Islamic State is now in retreat on all fronts. Under pressure from a variety of rebel groups, government forces and Kurdish militia, it has ceded several of the strategic capabilities it gained in its swift advances of 2013 and 2014. Aided by the perspective afforded by the passing of time, perhaps the true character of the group is now clear.
The Islamic State can plausibly be situated in any number of heuristic typologies. It is possible to write many parallel ‘histories’ of the Islamic State. It is possible to place it in the landscape of political economy, by demystifying its funding networks, or by placing it alongside other insurgent groups operating in the Middle East. Another area to explore might be its use of the language of statehood in a region in which the categories of nation and state have been subjected to tortuous application and argument. Islamic State can quite properly be considered an expression of local sectarian dynamics. A longer view might locate its genesis in the ‘hollowing out’ of Iraqi and Syrian civil society that has occurred over the preceding decades. The post-war settlement helped reinforce sectarian divides, further weakening power at the centre of Iraq, introducing a greater degree of regional instability. Still closer to the present, the group can be interpreted as a function, and active component, of the Syrian civil war.
These approaches are unified by their concern with the Islamic State’s local impact. But in a period in which the local and the global have become inextricably intertwined, the group’s local activities cannot be separated from its global significance. In this case, the question shifts on to what kind of global dynamics best explains the Islamic State. In sum, Islamic State is much more closely linked with the conditions of late modernity and globalisation than with the context of global political Islam or Islamism. Islamic State cannot simply be reduced to a set of socio-economic grievances or materialistic demands, but should instead be seen as a coherent interpretative frame with its own narrative continuity, a coherent link between the past, present and the future, and a well-worked relationship between praxis and meaning. A salient feature of late modernity is the development of technical systems with their own body of reference and momentum. In contrast to the neutral and purely instrumental term technology, technical systems or technics embrace all spheres of life including politics, art and society. Technical manifestations of transmission and reception have dramatically changed the essence of material creative products. In the pre-modern era, artistic creation was fully situated in its time and place. Music is always facilitated by technical means which are removed from the human subject. However, until certain technical advances, music, for example, could not be produced without both the subject and the instrument present at the same time, in the same place. The means and end of the particular action were simultaneous. After the invention of the printing press, a fundamental change took place: fundamental not in an instrumental sense but, more importantly, in an ontological sense.
This pervades all artistic spheres. The human individual has always been a technical being. Open and differentiated from the closed animal, the human subject gains a degree of mastery along with its technical status. Artistic creation once gained its authenticity from its situation in local pattern, with reference to a custom, tradition or reference, but it now takes its authenticity from new kinds of formation, from the demands of the technical system. The subject is reduced to a player in a much wider scheme over which it has no control. Reader and writer, musician and listener, artist and critic, have become totally alienated from each other’s location. They no longer participate. What we should properly treat as inter-subjective – located between two situated perspectives – is now played out between mere objects, on the terms of the technical system. It is not what we do that has changed most, but how we are. The aesthetic moment has become an occurrence within the trajectory of technical movement.
The Islamic State online magazine Dabiq is just one expression of this change. It is readily available to a global audience. It is up to date, designed to reflect new strategic victories and growing expansion. It is able to link events taking place in other parts of the world to the central group. No other militia force operating in the Syrian and Iraqi conflict produces this kind of publication on this scale. The magazine is catalogued according to date and issue number. The date is given from the Islamic calendar beginning in 622 AD. The succession moves from 1 to 15 and from 1435 to 1437. Throughout history, the Islamic calendar has never meant anything beyond its situation in a given territory or cultural system. Here, it is recombined with the neutral canonical progression of issue number. Specific dating systems can point towards an accompanying world view. The sense of temporal progression is related to the social world in which it gains traction. Time is disembedded from its locale and recombined alongside markers, immediately recognisable to global audiences. Dabiq is produced in the English language. This is highly significant in the context of local Islamic traditions. The oral Islamic traditions of the Hadith and the Sunna are only accessible through the Arabic language, crafted and learned within the Mosque or the Madrassa. Mastery of a body of knowledge is no longer necessary to become a member of an Islamic State. Mere participation in the global language of English is demanded of those targeted by the magazine. In form, the magazine recombines the local and the global in new ways, and then plays them back through the technical framework.
Images of iconoclasm have come to define the Islamic State as backward, barbaric and premodern. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, discussion of the iconoclasm carried out by the Islamic State must properly be distanced from internal debates within Islam on the function of iconoclasm. There is a general opposition to figuration shared by all the monotheisms. Within pre-medieval and medieval traditions, across various cultures influenced by Islam, there is a general tendency directed in favour of the destruction of ‘graven images’ rather than their preservation. In the Hadith traditions, there are two main theological sources of opposition to figuration, structured by fear of attempts to match the singular creativity of God and an aversion of association with other religious groups. These had social and political consequences.
Noyes, in ‘The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence, and the Culture of Image – Breaking in Christianity and Islam’, comments that “The English word iconoclast, recorded in 1595, was taken from the Greek eikon and klastes via the French iconoclaste” which means to be a “breaker or destroyer of images”. Within the monotheistic traditions, idol can mean “the image, statue, or symbol of a false god”. It can also describe “an attack against and often the destruction of a physical object, be it a statue, a painting, a tomb, a building, or a natural object like a tree that is believed to have some kind of … sacred significance”. This qualification shows the word’s flexibility in application. It can be aimed at idols themselves or even at any object believed to be imbued with power. The Arabic word Shirk itself conceals a double meaning: It means both idolatry and the crime of association with members of other faiths. The story of the ‘Golden Calf’, in which the image of the animal is rejected as a sign of unbelief, is important to both Jews and Muslims. The story’s social and political significance differs. For Jews, it marks out a potential pollution of the inheritance of the Promised Land. It therefore holds several dimensions. We should be wary of applying too liberally twentieth century political categories, such as a rational-legal framework, over varied pre-modern formations. However, it is clear that iconoclasm is used to set out the limits of the group in question. Figuration shows the creation of social worlds, but so too does opposition to figuration. This marks out the limits of the group’s membership. In Islamic Tradition, the ‘Golden Calf’ appears again, but this time “with different tribal consequences”. The rejection of idolatry is associated with the rejection of the monotheistic inheritance of Judaism and Christianity. In destroying the calf, Muslims reject both association with the members of other religions and the symbolic markers of different faiths. Idol destruction is intimately linked with group construction reflective of the bounded social context of its time. Iconoclasm was both reflective and constitutive of pre-modern group formation.
Beyond the textual evidence for debates on the function of iconoclasm, iconoclastic acts appear throughout pre-medieval and medieval Islam in a variety of contexts. Elias, in his article ‘(Un)Making Idolatry: From Mecca to Bamiyan’, further contextualises pre-modern Islamic iconoclasm and gives two examples from various Islamic contexts, thereby displaying the ambiguity of approaches to iconoclasm in different times and geographies, one “from the South Asian context and one from the formative period of Islam”. “In September 1528, Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire in India, came to the town of Urwahi in Gwalior” and, in his memoirs, he recorded an account of his visit:
“The solid rock outcroppings around Urwahi have been hewn into idols, large and small. … On the southern side is a large idol, approximately twenty yards tall. They are shown stark naked with all their private parts exposed. … Around the two large reservoirs inside Urwahi have been dug twenty to twenty-five wells, from which water is drawn to irrigate the vegetation, flowers, and trees planted there. … Urwahi is not a bad place. In fact, it is rather nice. Its one drawback was the idols, so I ordered them destroyed.”
Clearly, the opposition to figuration is unequivocal. The beauty of the natural surroundings is juxtaposed against the nefarious influence of figuration.
An example from the early period of Islam is taken “from a description of the Indus valley (Al-Sind) by the renowned tenth-century Arab Muslim geographer al-Muqaddasi”. He writes that, “As for the idols of this region, there are two in Harawa made of stone: no one approaches them. … They have a power such that should a man try to lay his hand on one, it will be held back and will not reach the idol.” The stones are imbued with a kind of sacred power, making their possible destruction an obvious example of iconoclasm rather than merely the destruction of an object. He goes on to comment that “they both appear as though made of gold and silver. It is said that if one expresses a wish in their presence, the request will be granted. … The two statues are quite enchanting”. Significantly, he even portrays the interaction of believers with the statues: “I saw a Muslim man who said he had forsaken Islam to return to the worship of the idols, having been captivated by them; when he returned to Naysabur [in Iran] he became Muslim again. The two idols really are miraculous.” Worship of a particular idol is seen in context along with membership of a group. The man leaves Islam to worship them and then returns. There is, however, no censure then attached to the man simply for having worshipped them for a while. In fact, the author notes how beautiful and precious they are. These contrasting attitudes towards idols indicate that attitudes towards iconoclasm were constantly in dispute, a matter of internal debate taking place in different locales. The act of iconoclasm in the era of Late Modernity most closely associated with the Islamic world is the Taleban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Throughout the month-long series of destructions, Mullah Omar remained responsive to international pressure, and policy was subject to a great deal of change. In short, the statues were destroyed within a recognisable local context. In the same way as debates within pre-modern Islam were situated in recognisable locales, the iconoclasm of the Taleban reflects that ambiguity to a degree.
In Dabiq, iconoclasm is described simply as an ever-present “obligation”. The destruction of physical objects is portrayed in the second edition. Entitled “the destruction of Shirk”, pictured are various Islamic religious sites devoted to local customs. One is entitled the “Grave of the Girl” which sits in the centre of the city. It was an artefact venerated by local tradition and folk culture of Islam. Later on in the corpus, in the same style, the destruction of the temple of Bel is portrayed. Before the occupation of the Islamic State, the Temple of Bel was surrounded by a village. Significantly, it was in the site of these ruins that villagers would give birth to their children. The passage from life to death was marked out within the locale. Location in time was coherent with its location in place and the symbolic landscape. Whereas the iconoclastic moment for the Taleban gained its coherence from its position in a particular time and space, the destruction of the Islamic State directed against art, as portrayed in Dabiq, remains static. There are no descriptive markers indicating why they should be destroyed, and no sense that some artefacts should be seen in a more ambiguous light; they should be destroyed simply because they are. And yet, another contradiction reveals itself through the network of images. The arrangement and the sequence in which the images are ordered are placed in harmony. The destructive moment becomes captured as a creative occurrence, set within a whole iconoclastic trajectory. This trajectory is purely destructive of the landscape of worship against which it is aimed. The patinas of custom, tradition and veneration are replaced by a new kind of transmission and reception, totally removed from context and from inter-subjective meeting points. Objects situated in local significance are replaced by new objects, framed in new ways. These pictures function as visual metaphor. The images are arranged to be transmitted to a global audience. A sense of coherence is gained by the arrangement and subject matter. Beyond these consistencies, the contradiction emerges again. Obliteration in the locale is transformed into creation at a global level. The creation is emptied of reference points except those provided by the media form in which it is presented. In marked contrast to the treatment of iconoclasm by the Taleban, where there is a large degree of tension, obvious internal difference of opinion, and arguments based in context, the Islamic State displays a different kind of internal contradiction, one grounded in its technical situation.
The Islamic State draws all previously recognisable markers of identity into itself (nation, ethnicity, language, etc.) and then reconstitutes them into a different kind of community, void of the stabilising markers that made community meaningful in all other times. It is at once total being and total nothingness, total community and total individual, at once means and end. The Islamic State returns an answer to the dilemmas of Late Modernity, which exerts itself in total force upon the human subject. That is why it has proved so attractive to Western youth. It promises to replace this world, which moves into the void, with a more total and terrifying emptiness. If there is an overriding process to explain the events of our time, moved by new and strange ideas, by people who do not seem any longer to resemble the more comprehensible figures of the twentieth century, then perhaps that process could be technics. Technics exposes the neutrality that can colour popular perceptions of technology. Technology is an instrument for mastering the world, placing the subject as master over the world of objects. Technics reveals that, at the moment of mastery, the subject is placed in a perilous position, both master and slave, pushing at limits even as new limits come to restrain it. To place technology into a technical system is to emphasise that changes in technology do not merely alter what we do: they change what we are.
Time, place and space become distanced apart, removing subject from object, and subject from subject, but also creating new opportunities to form inter-subjective relations mediated through technics. The nation state fulfilled this gulf initially, drawing on the discourse of the pre-modern era and transposing it into new contexts. Felt only in the West, the growth of these forms of consciousness, the products of the first wave of technics, exerted themselves. As the technical process becomes more radicalised, however, they are falling away, to be replaced by consciousness that is further removed in empty space and time from the symbolic worlds and markers once recognisable to man. The technical world system now orders man. And as it orders all, it also replicates everywhere its own disorder, its perversity and its incoherence, spinning out new and strange ways of being. Its creation of the Islamic State may become only a footnote to still stranger horrors.