Understanding ISIS and Iconoclasm [vlog]

When the news broke that ISIS had bulldozed the Assyrian capital of Nimrud,  my Facebook feed transformed into a running eulogy. Dozens of archaeologist friends, many of them Near Eastern specialists themselves, took to social media to express their frustration at what we saw playing out thousands of miles away.

As heinous as the beheadings, city sieges, and bombings had been, this crime struck a personal chord, and without downplaying the loss of human life in this conflict, we collectively mourned the loss both to our discipline and humanity as a whole.

Amidst the reports, a common question kept popping up: Why are they doing this?

My latest video tries to answer that, offering a different take than what you see on the news. Conversations on terrorism and Islamic extremism have been dominated by pundits who rarely understand the root cause of these actions. And although a few classes on religion or Modern Islam would probably fix their perspective, I’m not so blindly optimistic that they would actually do this.

Take the debate between Ben Affleck and Bill Maher as an example. First of all, you can guess the state of rational religious discourse in America if these two men represent the most popular example, but that’s beside the point. The discussion devolved into Maher belaboring how Islam is inherently violent while Affleck loudly repeated that the vast majority of Muslims not only live peacefully but denounce extremism entirely. Of course Affleck is correct, but his rebuttal to Maher’s uninformed (and sadly popular) opinion lacked nuance.

Islam, as with all religions, has components within its theology that people can leverage for violence or peace. As I stress in the video, Christians, Hindus, and Shintos all share episodes in their histories where their adherents justified systemic violence with their respective belief systems. The real trick to revealing the underlying cause of religious violence, then, is to identify the other factors that contribute to the violence and not simply blame the religion as a whole.

As scholars such as David Cook have argued, we are witnessing a uniquely modern phenomenon in this iconoclasm and violence. Factors as complex as the rise of mass media, the success of globalized markets, and novel re-interpretations of the Quran may have all have contributed to its existence. So to take Maher’s stance and say that Islam is inherently violent is not simply ignorant but does actual harm to society. Effective religious discourse requires trying to understand the other side’s position, even if that position is contemptible.


Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.


  1. Jake Aikens says:

    Thank you for a well thought out perspective. ISIS seems very sophisticated in getting the most bang for their terroristic buck. It makes sense they would paint themselves as being the victims of the world’s powers and themselves as the only salvation.
    Thanks again

    • Andrew Henry says:

      Yes, much more sophisticated than we give them credit. We’re too quick to assume this violence stems from insanity, stupidity, or anger.

  2. I hadn’t previously considered some of these interesting points on the destruction of artifacts. Thank you. I once heard fighting fundies demand that people get rid of their Christmas trees because of the command in Deuteronomy 12 to cut down the idolatrous green tree.

    St. Patrick adopted pagan symbols and gave them a redemptive theme. I wonder if the fundies of his day laid the verbal axe to the root of his teachings? Which prompts a further question; is it possible to adopt popular iconography and give it a redemptive theme? How would one thoughtfully do so?

    • Andrew Henry says:

      Very interesting questions. The cross wasn’t exactly a popular icon, but Christians certainly reclaimed that image for themselves. Some wealthy Christians presumably were more than happy to have Greek and Roman statues in their estates…but i wouldn’t say they were trying to make any sort of ideological statement.

      Though the modern Evangelical Christian sub-culture mimics a lot of mainstream culture in music, art, movies, etc…and it sometimes comes across as a parody. Not sure if we can consider that “thoughtful appropriation” of icons?

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