When Aaron Tugendhaft first saw the infamous 2015 YouTube video featuring members of ISIS smashing sculptures in the Mosul museum in northern Iraq, he was profoundly upset. For two-and-a-half minutes, images of destruction play before the camera. Men topple priceless historical artifacts, smash them with sledgehammers, and mutilate them with drills, often in slow motion. In the background, voices chant Qur’anic verse and sing in Arabic. Any scholar of history and religion would have reacted with similar outrage. But as the grandson of an Iraqi Jew forced to flee Baghdad as pluralism unraveled there in 1941, Tugendhaft’s emotions were also intensely personal.
Later, Tugendhaft realized his initial reaction was exactly what the iconoclasts wanted: “Their tyrannical theatrics were intended not to make me reevaluate my opinions but to entrench me in my prejudices. I was being provoked to smash back—the more outraged, the less free to exercise judgment.” The ISIS video, then, wasn’t just about destroying ancient statues. It was an attempt to destroy the possibility of democratic politics itself.
That troubling experience led Tugendhaft to write The Idols of ISIS, a book with a much broader import than its title might suggest. His analysis, divided into three chapters, stretches beyond the Mosul museum to examine the long history of iconoclasm in human civilization—from image smashing in the Assyrian Empire, to medieval political philosophy, to the ways images are modified and circulated on the Internet today. As an admirer of German political philosopher Hannah Arendt, Tugendhaft has a particular interest in preserving and promoting what Arendt called the “middle space” of politics: the realm of discussion, reflection, and compromise that makes genuine political life possible. How, he wonders, can we make room for a true plurality of voices and opinions? What types of images will enable pluralism to flourish?
Tugendhaft begins by examining the ways in which images are put to political ends, finding that religion often serves as a pretext for authoritarian politics. For members of ISIS, the destruction of visual “idols” is primarily a public rejection of heresy, and an act of reverence towards God. But Tugendhaft also detects a deeper dynamic at work: the abdication of political responsibility in the guise of submission to something unifying and transcendent. Cloaked as it is in religious language, ISIS’s iconoclasm relies not on a reasoned discussion of ideas followed by free choice, but rather thoughtless homogeneity followed by obedience. A person is either in or out, marked for glory or opprobrium based on their unquestioning fidelity to a religious paradigm.
Pushing further, Tugendhaft argues that religion itself is inherently political—and that it is the realm of politics, not religion, that ultimately defines us as human beings. Drawing on the thought of Islamic political philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi (ca. 870–950), Tugendhaft suggests that no religion is purely concerned with God or the “sacred”—that which is set apart from other spheres of human activity. Instead, religion derives from a political body, which in turn has the power to define the sacred. Ultimately, Tugendhaft argues, a society is held together by its set of communal images, which shape its perception of the world and determine its shared values and ideals.