Professor of Islamic Art
Guest Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy: 8th to the 12th of December 2016
Lives in: Ann Arbor, USA / Turkey, Istanbul.
The year 2016 marked the 450th Anniversary of the Beeldenstorm ( 1566.) Art Historians from all over the world came to Amsterdam to attend “ Iconoclasm: Beeldenstorm and Beyond,” a symposium considering The Beeldenstorm in relation to iconoclasm as a global phenomenon.
The Lloyd Hotel was home to a number of art historians, reflecting on the topic through their own fields of specialty. I had the pleasure to chat with Prof. Christiane Gruber, who has been writing about Islamic Art for over twenty years. She presented her paper about ISIS and the destruction of art.
K: How did you become interested in Islamic Art? Where did this interest come from?
It was a series of coincidences in high school. I had a fellowship to go study in Tunisia when I was sixteen and that is when I started learning Arabic. I lived in Tunisia and became fascinated by something I was very unfamiliar with. I am from Switzerland so I had studied French, German and Italian. I was very comfortable with European history and art, so this was very different for me. I decided to study Arabic in college. Almost every summer I went abroad. I spent two summers in Cairo, a summer in Jordan, and then eventually spent considerable time in Iran and Turkey.
K: Why did you choose to do a PhD? What did you want to research?
C:. It was right after working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Islamic Art Department, that I decided to do a PHD. At that time I was an Arabist. When I arrived in the PHD program I discovered Iran, especially Persian Art. Most people who study Islamic Art should know about two Islamic languages, so my second language was Persian. I took a semester off and went to Teheran University in Iran, to improve my Persian. I travelled around the country and started focusing more on Persian material, which was to become my major specialty. I researched Islamic medieval illustrated manuscripts and then wrote my dissertation on the Prophet Muhammad and his ascension into the skies.
K: About your paper on ISIS and the destruction of art. As a scholar you tent to write without showing your opinion, you stick with the facts…?
CG: Yet, still there is a very strong opinion in there when you dig deeper. ISIS destroys cultural heritage, and the argument they use to legitimise the destruction of art is that Islam bans images. They want us to believe that there is a ban against figural imagery in Islam, but there is no ban on images. They are using art as weapons. The art that they are destroying, the gates of Nineveh, the Lamassus, etc. Those are all UNESCO sites. In warfare, ISIS militants use these artworks that represent the UN as a form of weaponry.
One of the grand gates which guarded the Ancient Assyirian City of Niniveh in the 7th century before Christ. A modern deconstruction was made in the 20th century. Destroyed by Isis in 2015.
A statue of a Lamassu, an Assyrian human-headed winged bull or lion, standing at the entrances of the city of Nimrud, Iraq, established by the Assyrian Empire 7th century before Christ. Several Lamassu statues were destroyed with sledgehammers, and most of the site was completely demolished by bulldozers by Isis in 2015.
K: Who issued a ban on images of Muhammad?
CG: It’s a Saudi, ultra-conservative reaction to cartoons of Muhammad. It’s a very recent phenomenon and we have to understand it as such.
K: You are referring to the Danish cartoons of 2006?
CG: Yes and the Saudi reaction was to prohibit satirical images of Muhammad. In response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015, another Saudi fatwa (opinion or decree) was issued again, this time stating ANY images of Muhammad is prohibited. The ban is being issued from just one country, Saudi Arabia. It’s not universally applicable or recognized across the Islamic world. Before the shooting in 2015 there was not a single, publicly articulated ban on images of the Prophet, so such proclamations must be considered a hypermodern phenomenon.
K: Back to ISIS: how must we understand and react to its iconoclasm?
CG: If we really think that there is a ban on images, we are actually buying their message and strengthening them. The more we click and share, the more we help them win the media war. We are complicit in spreading and sharing. That is exactly what ISIS lures us to do. If we did not share their videos, there would be no viral news, no vexation.
K: Unfortunately there is intelligence in what they are doing.
CG: That is the whole point. When they destroy images they want us to call them barbarians. They know if we call them “barbarians” we are going to underestimate them. They hope to draw more Europeans and Americans into Iraq by making them angry through the destruction of art. If they lure soldiers on the ground they can kill them in the flesh. This is essentially a military trap that ISIS calls a “vexation operation.”
K: They know where to hurt.
They know exactly where to hurt. They knew that for Europeans and Americans it does not matter if they kill thousands and thousands of Muslims. However, if they blow up one lion-bull statue, they know that we will be angered into reaction. For ISIS, this is what they call the great irony: that is, that we do not care about lives, but we do care about stones.
K: Is there a truth in it?
There is a small truth in it and I think the truth has gotten more truthful in the last few years when rhetorically in Europe and America there has been such a rise in Islamophobia. In America I have seen Muslims being de-humanised, over and over again.
K: If they would use the de-humanisation of “the Muslim” as an argument then they would actually have logical reasons.
CG: They use it as a recruiting tool. Certain Muslim groups who feel ghettoized, and not understood, especially young men who are angry and inclined toward violence, who do not know what their place is in the world, can become attracted to the ideology of ISIS.
K: If you compare ISIS’s destruction of art with other iconoclasms in history, there is usually one leading person of a group responsible, whereas with ISIS they seem to operate in a group. Is there one leader?
CG: There are several different leaders of different parts of ISIS. You have the ex-military machine of Sadam Hussein and the Jihadists; they were held in the same American jail in Iraq. That is how they connected. Had there not been an American military prison system in Iraq, the Islamists and the ex-military of Sadam Hussein would never have met and connected. That is why some scholars call those American prisons in Iraq “ terror academies” or “terror universities”.
K: How is ISIS is being financed?
They are selling archaeological material to Europeans and Americans, largely on the black market. So there too, Westerns are complicit. To a certain degree, they would not be doing these unsecured archaeological digs if there were no buyers eagerly waiting to snap up some antiques.
K: The two groups met in prison, the ex-military of Sadam Hussein and the Islamists, the Jihadists. There must be a way to identify them, they have their names?
CG: The Americans know exactly who is who, that is why they target very specific people in structure. Isis is being fought by so many different groups though and that is what worries them for the future. You have got the Kurds, who have been denied a nation state for a very long time, the Americans also support the Kurds, ISIS is fighting on their own, Iran is fighting ISIS through its own militants via Iraq, Saudi Arabia is supporting ISIS because it is Sunni entity. When you look at ISIS, it’s actually a small micro reflection of all of the different nation states that are fighting for power in the Middle East. It’s the same with what is happening in Syria: it is not a national conflict. It is actually a huge international power play between all of these state actors, including, most especially these days, the United States and Russia.
K: Back to iconoclasm. What are your insights if you compare ISIS’s demolition of art with other historical forms of iconoclasm?
CG: Even though these are all very different moments, with their own specificities, I think in the end what connects all of those cases, if you look carefully, it is about internal conflict. So in our case here, the Beeldenstorm, it is a schism within Christianity where you have Protestants who are fighting Catholics. They are fighting each other in the flesh, but they are also killing each other’s symbols. That is what images are so powerful at doing: they represent who we are and what we want. In today’s Iraq and Syria, objects of the perceived enemy act as scapegoats and surrogate bodies as well as material artefacts in a larger ideological warfare. ISIS is using the objects of the perceived enemy to attack and symbolically kill its perceived opponents’ particular ideology, worldview, or religion.
K: If you compare ISIS’s iconoclasm with other iconoclasms, then what is ISIS’s larger message?
CG: ISIS sends multiple messages. There is a message against America: they destroy statues because these statues, for them, function as symbols of America’s neo-imperialism through military invasion and economic sanctions. ISIS also sends a message against Europe, because European archaeologists are the ones who dug up and discovered the artworks (like the Lamassus). For ISIS, such artefacts in essence function as the material symbols of European colonialism. Last but not least, ISIS targets other Muslims, warning them that preserving such statues is tantamount to disbelief and polytheism. In sum, ISIS has developed a triple messaging system, pivoting out from Iraq and Syria, onward to Europe, and reaching America.
K: What were some of your thoughts and reactions when you wrote this paper?
CG: For me, the eureka moment was when I discovered my own complicity. I realized that in writing and speaking about ISIS, I inadvertently might be spreading the group’s messages. When I came to that realisation, then I had to develop strategies in order to not increase their charisma and multiply their audiences. So the process of writing made me acutely aware of how I practise my own craft and how I react emotionally and intellectually to violence as a human being.
K: Can we talk about one statue or image you love destroyed by ISIS?
CG: The one that people know the best are the Lamassus, those big mythical lion-bull creatures that they destroyed. The Lamassus are interesting hybrid creatures that combine both our human and animal characteristics. They are enormous: they are three meters in height. The videos and the images of ISIS destroying those stone sculptures show that ISIS faced significant trouble destroying the Lamassus. The militants look really small in comparison to these large muscular stone sculptures. They had so much trouble destroying them that they needed sledgehammers and even bulldozers. The fascinating thing here is that these statues were made in the 9th century before Christ, and here we are in the 21st century, and they had to be destroyed by machines. It actually speaks volumes about the power of the past and our own human weakness in the face of these monumental objects.
K: How important was it that art historians came together for this symposium? Is it an example of how important history is?
CG: I think it’s important to be your own scholar and to dig deep historically not just in the past but really understand your own moment. You must try to extract yourself from the situation at hand and to analyse it in a much longer historical arc. Nowadays, some politicians don’t think it’s necessarily worthwhile to put money in universities for humanities or art history. Oftentimes art history is considered quaint, even a boutique, subject. However, the field—and the coming together of experts worldwide—can do a lot to help us understand how we function as human beings, in particular as we attempt to grasp how art is used in conflict situations. In the end, awareness is raised and we realize our interconnected existence. We also come to understand that we exist as images of ourselves and through our imagistic projection of others.
Prof. Gruber’s paper on ISIS is now an article going into print. It is entitled:
“The Visual Culture of ISIS: Truculent Iconophilia as Antagonistic Co-Evolution.” It is included in the volume Nähe auf Distanz: Eigendynamik und mobilisierende Kraft politischer Bilder im Internet edited by Isabelle Busch, Uwe Fleckner, and Judith Walmann. It’s due to come out in print later this year (fall 2017).