Imagining the Past as Present: The Islamic State and the Rhetoric of Authenticity

ISIS_mosques-blown-upby Tara Baldrick-Morrone

A few months ago, when I was preparing to write a blog detailing how early Christian groups used monuments to their martyrs as a way to imagine themselves as part of a Roman narrative, a New York Times op-ed caught my attention. In “Why Our Monuments Matter,” Nikos Konstandaras (a journalist from Greece) expresses his dismay at the destruction of several “ancient monuments and shrines” that the Islamic State perpetrated throughout the summer. One such example, although he does not mention it specifically, is the explosion at a site near Mosul that was known as the tomb of the prophet Jonah, a monument that was considered important to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Commenting on the general state of affairs in Syria and Iraq, Konstandaras writes,

Mesopotamia, a cradle of world civilization…is ravaged today by psychopaths with armored trucks, swords, and genocidal zeal. Living in an eternal present rooted in an imagined past, the militants are obsessed with destroying all that is unlike them.

Konstandaras is concerned for the monuments that they have destroyed not solely for their status as “treasures of the past,” but more so for their value in the present, as they are “our guide and our shield.” It is the very loss of these “treasures” that will make us “no better than ignorant armies riding pickup trucks through the endless dust” — in other words, we will be “no better” than the Islamic State.

A few different but not unrelated issues came to mind after reading this. One of the things that strikes me about this op-ed is Konstandaras’ obvious dismissal of the Islamic State as “psychopaths” whose brutality “defies not only modern civilization but also Islam itself.” The Islamic State represents “the mass delusion of people who have no frame of reference other than their self-justifying self-righteousness.” Such denigrating language, in addition to their “defiance” of Islam, is no doubt meant to discredit them and to render their ideology as an incorrect or misguided representation of “real” Islam.

Another statement that highlights this point is the way in which the militants are described as clinging to an “imagined past.” Here, I do not take him to be saying what scholars of religion like Jonathan Z. Smith mean when they talk about how groups (mainly scholars) “imagine” religion, or how Elizabeth Castelli describes early Christian communities “imagining” themselves as part of a cosmic struggle during times of persecution. Instead, Konstandaras’ use of “imagined” here seems to imply that this past purported by the Islamic State is made up of nothing but fantasy and falsehood. In contrast to this fabricated past, though, the monuments that they have destroyed are, in Konstandaras’ mind, bearers of the actual past, the one that is authentic. In thinking about this idea of what monuments signify, I was reminded of what the scholar James E. Young says in his writing about the relationship between monuments and memory: “Monuments create and reinforce [a] particular memory of the past.” For Konstandaras, then, these monuments that he sees as preserving the past (such as the tomb of Jonah, for example) can be understood as preserving only one kind, one particular imagining, of a past.

Indeed, the language used by Konstandaras of “imagined” points back to his description of the Islamic State as defying “Islam itself.” Although the issue of authenticity is implicit throughout the op-ed, he engages in a similar kind of delimiting that Aaron Hughes identifies as taking place in academic circles in the beginning of his book Theorizing Islam. He writes that “the academic study of Islam has migrated toward the more regnant ecumenical and phenomenological discourses within religious studies that are primarily interested in adjudicating truth, authenticity, experience, and meaning.” (2) Because it has cultivated these discourses instead of the kinds of critical discourses written about by scholars of religion such as Bruce Lincoln, the “study of Islam has become more…insular and apologetic.” (2) One example that Hughes uses to prove his point is the letter released by the AAR’s Section for the Study of Islam in the wake of September 11, 2001, which contained the following statements:

[As] scholars of religious traditions, we observe that religious symbols are used for political motives all over the world in Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. However, we must critically distinguish between politically motivated deployment of religious symbols and the highest ideals that these traditions embody. Just as most would regard bombers of abortion clinics to be outside the pale of Christianity, so the actions of these terrorists should not be accepted as representing Islam in any way. (qtd in Hughes, 4-5)

It should come as no surprise, then, that at the end of September 2014, over 120 scholars (and other advocates for the “correct” understanding of Islam) released a letter that addressed the Islamic State in much the same language. This most recent letter, which is written in Arabic (how’s that for authority!) and is addressed to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (the leader of the Islamic State), contains a lengthy point-by-point refutation of the group’s ideology. One of the signatories, Nihad Awad (the executive director of the Center for American-Islamic Relations), explains in an article from the Religion New Service that the letter uses “heavy classical religious texts and classical religious scholars that ISIS has used to mobilize young people to join its forces.” And although the letter avoids the kind of name-calling that Konstandaras’ op-ed resorts to, it equally attempts to discredit the group by referring to them as “the self-declared ‘Islamic State’” — scare quotes and all.

With all of this said, such rhetorical strategies, not to mention the very real (political, social, economic, etc.) concerns at stake, are most certainly not unique to the academic study of Islam. And although these types of claims to authenticity can be found in other fields, they should not, in the words of Bruce Lincoln, “be confused with scholarship.”

Tara Baldrick-Morrone is a doctoral student at Florida State University. Her research interests include rhetoric about the body and disease in late antiquity, ancient medicine, and issues of method and theory in the academic study of religion by way of critical pedagogy.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Imagining the Past as Present: The Islamic State and the Rhetoric of Authenticity

  1. Richard Amesbury says:

    Warnings against first-order claims about what constitutes true Islam and the like are sounded so regularly on this blog that, notwithstanding a certain sympathy, I feel provoked to question this orthodoxy. It is of course the case that such claims, when presented as neutral descriptions, can encode a “crypto-theology” or otherwise mask (and so leave undefended) a normative agenda. But denunciations of crypto-theology, however salutary, simply beg the question against *explicit* theology (or whatever one prefers to call it), and the letter referred to in the penultimate paragraph appears to fall more or less squarely within the latter category. One can, of course, stipulatively define “scholarship” so as to demote all theological claims to the level of “data,” but why assume that these signatories, who appear to be acting rather explicitly in the capacity of self-identified Muslim theologians, are engaged in a deficient version of what Bruce Lincoln does?

  2. Carl J. Stoneham says:

    Very well said!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *