ISIL's icons

by Phyllis Zagano

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The hooligans of ISIL, the so-called Islamic State group, are what they complain about. Even as they say iconography is evil, they create new gods to worship: themselves. Their newest selfies show them pulverizing ancient art and artifacts.

As they break the world's heart, their videos and photos carry their conflicting message about idol worship.

In a carnival of malicious vandalism, matched perhaps only by the Afghan Taliban's 2001 dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas, ISIL thugs seem bent on removing all evidence of the evolution of humanity.

They take axes and pneumatic drills to whatever they cannot steal and sell on the black market. Iraq's ancient treasures at the Mosul Museum and the Nergal Gate Museum in Nineveh suffered their lunacy. Now they've taken to bulldozing world heritage sites, such as Hatra, a second- or third-century city near Mosul. They'd already leveled the Assyrian city of Nimrud.

Their electronic data streams replace marble and stone, moving ISIL screed throughout the universe in perhaps as many as 67,000 tweets per week. The maddening attempts to shut down ISIL access to Twitter and YouTube belie the media's complicity in their campaign.

Because the media broadcast ISIL photos, they are important. Because they are important, they are a power. Because they are a power, they are attractive to any unemployed loser who needs to create his identity with the business end of a machete.

The world knows "Jihadi John," the black-clad beheader of U.S., British and Japanese citizens. He made himself famous with YouTube and Twitter and was worshiped by all who espouse the ISIL's crazed intentions. So with so many of the newer class of jihadists, who look to social media for meaning and a cause, for whom publicity is the deepest ratification of worth.

What cause -- beyond self-aggrandizement -- does ISIL serve when it is constantly presenting videos of itself? How does ISIL expect to argue that iconography is evil when it makes icons of its own evil? It states it is waging a "holy war," an oxymoronic impossibility, and its efforts are fueled not by religion but by fanatical narcissism.

Nineveh, across the river from Mosul, was once the largest city in the world. Just about everybody sacked it -- the Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Chaldeans, Scythians and Cimmerians. Somehow, many of its treasures survived -- or were stolen and transported to museums in other parts of the world. Nineveh's gateway, mostly restored, kept its stone sculptures and winged bull-men, or Imassu. It is -- or at least was -- the only known gate with such sculptures. Now, ISIL has ruined its own heritage.

Why? The question civilized humanity asks repeatedly is: Why? Why is ISIL so intent on smashing Iraq's cultural heritage to powder while simultaneously making itself an icon of hate?

In their self-promoting video of their wanton destruction, an ISIL spokesman says: "The prophet ordered us to get rid of statues and relics, and his companions did the same when they conquered countries after him."

Speaking, one assumes, to moderate Muslims, the narrator continues: "Muslims, these relics you see behind me are idols that were worshiped other than God in the past centuries."

The speaker clearly knows his history -- perhaps he toured these places as a schoolboy. Now grown -- or at least older -- he proudly claims his sledgehammer will create something better? He says: "What is known as Assyrians, Akkadians and others used to worship gods of rain, farming and war other than God and pay all sorts of tributes to them."

Now the tributes are made to ISIL. Now the electronic statues they worship are images of themselves. Now the world knows how false is their logic and how serious their stupidity.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. She will speak April 16 at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland, and April 18 at the Cork Theology Forum in Ireland. Her newest books are Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Sacred Silence: Daily Meditations for Lent.]

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