Since the beginning of time, images have shaped our thoughts. Before being made of letters and signs, words were images.
As Victor Hugo wrote in his travel journal ‘Alps and Pyrenees’ : « Two rivers that run down each side of a mountain and join at its foot to form a single river make the letter Y. Two synergies giving birth to a superior force, the letter Y, that could also be the silhouette of a praying man, raising his hands to the sky. »
The fact that thought will always be fond of semiological reflexes illustrates through the fascinating history of letters how much we believe above all in images…
Over the past decades, our relationship to image has gone through an unprecedented evolution. The technological ease of video production and reproductability has considerably amplified the illusion of how we perceive our world through space and time. This mutation hasn’t stopped accelerating since September 11th 2001, thanks to the improvement of two growing technologies: the global digitalization of network communication and the nomadisation of communication tools. At any given moment and almost everywhere, we either have access to images as a source of information, or are in contact with images that were filmed on the other side of the world and this no matter how tragic they might be. The spontaneity with which violence is retransmitted on personal screens has become part of mass culture. Escalating dramas determine the power games that will in turn be instrumentalized through politics of fear. When George W. Bush used the pretext of « War on Terror » right after the September 11th attacks, he was setting the conceptual foundation of « the axis of evil ». It gave purpose to the fear that would allow him to govern and be re-elected.
Similar to Western political power, radical Islam takes part in the new geopolitics of fear through images. Martyr operations – brought to its paroxysm with the 9/11 attacks – are nothing more than a military strategy befitting unbalanced power relations.
The images of hostages being executed while facing the camera, the macabre setups and cold indifference of terrorists who are both authors and performers acting in God’s name, now characterize our perception of a world being sucked into the spiral of a new form of violence.
But, beyond and beneath these setups, the main issue isn’t religious although it might seem like the contrary. It is the result of a human tendency to become the machine that produces thoughts on the basis of images. Because we believe in images above anything else…
To understand this, we need to fix the disasters these images create every day within our psyche by unfolding the archeology of their meaning, the history of their existence and their reason for being broadcasted, their construct, and their setup. In other words, to decode them as Erwin Panofsky would have done.
In the West’s relations with the Muslim world today, political powers (of any type) reactivate daily through the media a secular fear that was initiated during the Crusades. Its iconography and western hegemonic iconology, both Christian and Modern, hasn’t ceased to permeate the psyche of the people for centuries.
What the media and political powers are trying to raise on the altar of fear as a form of new violence which has never before been reached and that doesn’t cease to escalate, is in fact prolonging centuries of a Manichaen construction of the Other. One where alterity is inevitably harmful. The invention of evil – as for example the Axis of Evil and its repercussions that were dear to George W. Bush – is a determinant factor of the politics of fear that was slowly constructed over centuries. Today, it has finally been reclaimed by the people who were targeted – the others – and now, it goes around in a circle like a boomerang thrown into perpertual movement.
Why does this fear persist and what threat originally provoked it?
The History of the Crusades includes East and West over an ambivalent period: the most groundbreaking Muslim civilization, where Sciences, Arts and beliefs enriched each other, while in parallel the Western Christian civilization, still deep in the Middle Ages, is going to separate Sciences from philosophical thought and the Arts.
European thought, which was alienated from the Church, will progressively be freed by Muslim philosophers who revalorized Greek thinkers, as did Ibn Rushd (Averoes) in his famousCommentary on Aristotles or Ibn Khaldoun, who set the foundations of Social Sciences and Modern History, in his emblematic Book of Examples. In Mathematics, In Al Khawazimi was the father of algorithms and also gave his name to a fundamental concept of modern Mathematics. He was also a Muslim and contemporary to the Golden Age of Islam that then faced a piously blind West.
But what about today ? Have the tendancies been reversed?
The 21st Century is in this regard an era of fundamental change. One of the two civilizations is fighting against the other to not fall back into the Dark Ages, while the other seeks its Golden Age and most of all, to take part in Modernity. The promised modernity – from the fall of communism overthrown by consumerist capitalism assimilated to freedom until the Promethean myth of technological power, conveyed by the hegemony of colonization. Since the end of the ideological model of communism, that most of the independent Muslim states had adopted, Capitalism has become an unavoidable road towards Modernity.
With frustration on one side and fear on the other, the Golden Age of Muslim civilization infiltrated differently the psyches of its people and those of the West. Whether it is the battles won against the Sarasin close to Poitiers in 732 or the occupation of Southern Europe during many centuries, or again, later on and more towards the East, the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire, Europe has been profoundly, materially and immaterially, marked by the power of Islam.
But are the wounds of Muslim World History only linked to the loss of their past scientific, artistic and military splendor?
On one side, the immaterial wounds of Muslim civilization are rooted in the progressive rise of the European Enlightenment: the West progressively changed its perspective on the world as well as the thoughts it produced. Its regimes of distancing transcended the daily alienation of the religious proximity of the Middle Ages. On the other side, the wounds are also rooted in the rise of the Age of Reason.
We go looking far into our past, towards Classical Antiquity, and rediscover the greatness of Imperialism and its taste for reason. We push the Muslims far away towards remote eastern areas, while speculating on a new world even further away: after being present for seven centuries in Spain, the fall of Grenada – the last Muslim European city – coincides with the discovery by this same country of the New World, both events taking place in 1492.
The other change that will mark a rupture with the classical Muslim psyche occurs with a radically new way of thinking the production of images which begins to appear in Tuscany: the world is transposed from a point situated on the horizon line. Here, the origin of forms is kept at a distance where the axonometric perspective of the High Middle Ages wasn’t able to ‘go deeper.’ In 1425, Filippo Brunelleschi leads an experiment for the first time on the square of the Baptistery in Florence, which will sign the transition between Middle Ages and Renaissance representation.
All vanishing lines are drawn from a single point and distance is represented by the shortening of measures the further away an object is from the observer.
Even though Persian miniature is often used to oppose the dogma of non-representation in Islam, it remains an exception that is specific to the history of the Shiite people before the European Enlightenment. We will get back to the reason of this exception that the Sunnis and iconoclast Islam – from whom abstraction is the ruling dogma – have always refused.
Transposing reality from a virtual vanishing point onto the horizon line will reactivate for centuries the mimetic relationship with the world that Classical Antiquity had placed at the heart of the Arts.
Christian religious power quickly took hold of what was then perceived as a revolution in representation. In fact it was only a pale echo of Greek thinking, which the Church had demonized for centuries even though the revolution had broken the visual dogma of the past.
And then heaven became secular…
Prior to this, the background was not a sky but was often a gold monochrome applied vertically. The technique of perspective wasn’t necessarily used for this surface. It represented a sacred, holy space. The characters were mostly Saints, God or the King by divine right. During the Enlightenment, the heavens became blue, with or without atmospheric shades, with or without clouds, vertical, similar to the backdrop in a theater or horizontal like a high ceiling. The space is real, human, rediscovered by humanity, secular at the very least.
Altarpieces and other frescos – including the ones from the Sistine Chapel commissioned to Michelangelo by Pope Julius II and Pope Paul III – are undoubtedly the most brilliant examples of the Church’s appropriation of the revolution in representation.
If Enlightenment tolled the death bell of Islam’s Golden Age, the coming of Descartes and Kant’s fundamental questions regarding reason were the final blow.
The Age of Reason didn’t only harm Islam, it also threatened the other major monotheistic power of that time. But, as opposed to Islam, although Modern thinking was a threat to the Church, it was also able to evolve jointly with the modernization of economy, politics, sciences and the Arts.
From the Enlightenment until the Industrial Revolution the expansion of European colonies will give the possibility to the Church to catch up with Modern thinking. The dogma of progress will become the main pretext for the development of the Colonial Empires.
« We will need to build a new world, and to do so, the old world must be destroyed ». Taken from a speech given by Lenin, this sentence illustrates perfectly Modernity’s dogma. Omnubilated by the conviction of technological superiority over tradition, 19th Century Vatican colonial enterprise will also function as a relay of Modernity in remote regions of Africa.
The partaking of the Church in the colonizing of cults, knowledge and spaces occurred in Africa in a unilateral manner. In accordance with Modern eurocentrism, dogmas of the Church were founded on progress. On one hand, the missionaries devalued, confiscated or destroyed traditional ritual objects: nkisi, masks, sacred figures, divinatory baskets etc.… While in the other hand, they used the indigenous people – children and elders alike – to build churches, missions and farms to occupy and transform physically, for ever and to the furthest extent possible, the mind and spaces of these other people. Occupation of the land, of beliefs but also the dispossession of cult objects that ended up either being publicly burned or exposed in Wunderkammern, and later on, in Western museums. The Museum of the Vatican owns today more than 90’000 objects and no one has ever dared question their ownership.
Just as most great empires, and in the same manner as the Islamic civilization at its peak was trapped by the certainty of its own power, the Modern political project slowly began to trap the West in its opposition to the Muslim world with its own drive: progress.
Indeed, the Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne explains that the modernization of public transportation in West Africa also contributed to the penetration of Islam into very remote places that couldn’t have been accessed before then. Isolated societies that had remained animist despite the Islamisation of Sub-Saharan Africa during previous centuries were converted to Islam by travelers originating from the bigger cities, thanks to the development of western railway lines.
During the second half of the 19th century, the Western and Christian colonial expansion will paradoxically carry Islamic proselytism to remote African regions. Islam’s resistance towards the Christian conquest will become one of the major issues in the common fight for colonial politics and Christianization. The multiplication of visual and written forms of propaganda, which will be relayed by the newspapers of that time, will not cease to ramify this conflict.
The awareness of the fact that Islam during the second half of the 19th Century continued its expansion and resistance will reactivate the daemons of past western Christian crusades.
The Christian West is walking along two paralleled yet separate paths: religion and Modernity, or one should say ‘modernities’. Every European nation pursues its Modern political project: France by universalizing Reason and the Church; the English crown by capitalizing goods, human beings, services and local elites in the administration of almost every one of its colonies.
Even if each European country is pursuing its specific concept, a common denominator appears in the European psyche: the invention and control of the image of the Other and its representation. History has brought this together under different terminologies, one of which is inherited from the Crusades and functions both as a bond and a separation with Islam: « Orientalism ».
Contemporary to the era that followed Romanticism, the second half of the 19th Century conveyed in the Arts and in the press an image of the other as a foreigner. An exoticism that embodies fears as much as fantasies of distant places to be conquered, but haunted by the ghost of Islam. The Arts depict scenes of non-western landscapes where people with neither faith nor compassion execute women and children with blades. In « The Death of Sardanapalus » as for instance in « The Massacre of Scio » the Oriental is portrayed as a murderer, a cold-hearted persecutor, described with the esthetic traits that identify him with Christianity’s ancient enemy: the Mahommedan…. Even with scenes of soft eroticism, such as the ones representing a woman at the hamam, beauty is always underlined by violence: she appears in contrast to the presence of a close-by companion, a eunuch or a black slave, giving the languished white feminine figure by the water a more prisoner-like dimension.
In what way are these purely mythological conceptions of History a construct for the actual world? What ramifications are still at work in the convoluted politics of our contemporaneity?
The world as it was known during the 19th Century, and more particularly during its second half, underwent a revolution in the way information was treated and perceived through images. The Industrial Revolution and its numerous technological developments intensified the ever-increasing circulation of information. That which at first was found in poems, stories and paintings rapidly found itself on the cover of daily newspapers. During the Industrial Revolution, the acceleration of the distribution of the press had an impact by far superior to the acceleration of a broader diffusion of the Bible and New Testament, in which Gutenberg’s press played a key role.
This influence on populations, educated or not, is also comparable to the much more recent revolution in virtual social medias. In all three of the following cases, the invention of printing, the explosion of the written press and the Internet revolution, religion – the perfect example of hegemonic political power – made use of the evolution in communication tools to increase its power on the people’s psyche. In the same way as religion, pornography, that also grows on people’s psychological deficiencies as for instance frustration, has for many centuries taken advantage of all three stages of the evolution of the reproduction of representation enabled by modernity’s technical developments. Connections between pornography and religion can be noticed in many aspects, since frustration is in both cases fundamental to the belief in a better life. It is indeed not surprising that the jihadi martyr’s most bizarre myth – the 72 virgins they will be given in paradise – coincides with the development and accessibility of pornography on the internet these past 15 years.
The representation of the world has always been a major issue in the conflicts between religious and political powers, and even more so after the first shifts that western modernity produced.
Within the continuum of the West’s representation of the other, what iconographic and iconological connections subsist today?
Many contemporary images show us jihadists of radical Islam, as for example Daesh, whose dress and violent behaviors seem to have gone through time. From a distant past, reminders of the Mahommedian fighting the West and the Christian faith still function as a reference for our modern psyche’s wounds.
How and why do these images scare us?
Because they stigmatize the stereotypes of the Modern Western psyche that were reactivated during the 19th Century by the explosion of mass communication during the Industrial Revolution. Hence, this concerns almost every country in Western Europe that took either directly or indirectly part in the Crusades.
This popular iconography that was founded in fear is a central issue in the invention of Evil: Politics of Fear. The installation is a compilation of Western newspapers from this era, which are put in relation to their contemporary alter egos. The loose clothing, the turbans, the sabers, the long beards have all been crystallized in our psyche: they can be found in images from the 19th Century as well as the 20th Century. On either side of this conflict, the same misunderstanding is present.
Whereas members of Daesh pretend to dress, look and even execute as they did at the time of Prophet Mohamed and his contemporaries, they are in fact honoring the reproduction of orientalist characters from paintings by Gleyre, Géricault, Gérôme, Vernet or Delacroix. These works that depict massacres, slave traders and ruthless sultans are at the origin of what Western media used during the second half of the 20th Century to support their propaganda for colonial expansion.
Members of Daesh have developed a politic of terror through images that originally come from colonial West. It was in fact developed and applied to their ancestry with Orientalism. « The West has Orientalized the Orient to better control it » as Edward Saïd had explained. But Daesh, who pretends to mimic the dress codes of an original Islam, has also been trapped by its own ignorance of the esthetic canons of the time, since it has indeed founded its iconography on Orientalism.
Furthermore, similarly to Daesh but indirectly, the West is now again caught up in its own trap.
Daesh’s filmed executions of western hostages re-enact once again all the criteria’s of orientalist paintings from the 19th Century. In front of desert landscapes or biblical reliefs with Greco-Roman ruins, Daesh is as technically savvy – from the point of view of image and sound quality – as a Hollywood production.
The technical means they deploy, affirm clearly a desire to compete with the use of imagery in western communication skills. Nonetheless, the re-appropriation of the ultimate propaganda weapon – i.e. image as communication means by Dash – is clearly a sign of their Promethean desire for modernity. While believing to be true to the past, to the Prophet’s tradition and archaic values, it is in fact a perfect illustration of Daesh’s misunderstanding, since they are resolutely Modern.
This radical Islamism caught up with the considerable delay it had with visual communication. In comparison, films from other similar militant movements such as the Hezbollah from the 1980’s, had a much more amateur touch. Their ordinary settings ended up limiting the psychological and geographical impact of their operations.
But the question of this movement’s modernity doesn’t only reside in their reclaiming of the power of control that images have thanks to western visual communication technics. Above all, at the base of their movement lies the concept of a Caliphate planned by Mahomed.
The main reason for Daesh’s expansion is to extend the project of a Caliphate beyond the boarders of Iraq and Syria, further East, and in accordance with the Prophet Mohamed intentions to establish the foundations of Islam beyond boarders on the basis of a universal project.
This universalist aspect of Islam is resolutely Modern since anyone from any race can be converted, become a Muslim and lead the prayers in any Mosqu. There is no hierarchy. This is one of the reason’s why many self-proclaimed Imams present themselves as members of Daesh, or of any other radical movement. Alike democracy that was erected as a dogma for freedom by the Enlightenment long after Mohamed, the project of Jihad (sacred war) to establish an Islamic and universal caliphate, reclaimed by Daesh, is founded on a political basis that anyone who converts to Islam can be integrated, no matter their class.
If Daesh was born from its own paradoxes, the West has also done the same. Because, if Daesh has done nothing else than reclaim images of a violent Islam, constantly reactivated by the West since the Crusades and disseminated to Westerners and non-Westerners alike, the West, completely absorbed by its technological progress, has entirely ignored the new generation’s capabilities to adapt and learn very quickly everything that daily technological developments have to offer. Ever since the multiplication of information highways has destroyed distances and spaces, the amazing accessibility to communication – that the digitalization of the world is giving us a glimpse at alongside its manipulative terror – has become the backbone of Jihadism for whom cyberspace and reality go hand-in-hand.
If there is one territorial battle that the West has already lost against Daesh then it must be the regimes of alienation that it imposed on Eastern and other cultures alike since the Enlightenment. For centuries, the West and its project of Modernity focused on what stood at a distance: first the conquest of the New World, followed by slavery and then colonialism which reactivated in the Western Christian psyche of the 19th Century an ancestral fear of the Other.
Yet, regimes of alienation have broken down today and Daesh along with other radical movements make use of this very skillfully. From now on, technological progress allows us to be informed through images, and almost simultaneously, of events that took place in locations that used to be far beyond our sphere of interference or of direct influence on our daily lives. They now appear spontaneously on the screens right next to us. This abolition of spaces has condemned us to unsustainable proximity with images of crude violence that are permanently feeding into the politics of fear which governs both worlds, both gravitating around the question of Modernity.
The emotions that Daesh’s destructions awaken are inherent to the speed at which the act is broadcasted. Technology is its fundamental vector.
Without technology, images couldn’t be rapidly sent and then no one would be aware of the events. Just like Islam in the past fighting against the colonial expansion yet taking advantage of the technological development in transportation, Daesh has reclaimed control over its own image and has turned it into a weapon.
While recruiting ever-increasing numbers of candidates for the Jihad, Daesh has produced with elaborate means extremely violent images mainly to terrorize the West. Images that the abolition of spaces has disseminated globally and simultaneously.
But this group does nothing more than respond to the violent and systematic images that exploded since the 1970 in mass media, and that are produced and distributed by the Western world either to denounce Muslim political movements, or to terrorize the minds of their opponents. A process that Georges W. Bush’s politics of fear after September 11th did nothing but accelerate.
The appearance and the violence of the extremist Other was immortalized by the clichés of Orientalist painting and the spectacularisation of our society shows us every day that radical islamists such as Al-Qaida, Daesh or Boko Haram are proving Guy Debord’s theory right.
The spectacle of clichés that reassures and confirms the Western way of things in eurocentrist modernity: the black anthropophagous savage, the sly and bloodthirsty Arabe, the cold, torturing and sadistic Asian…
By reenacting what our psyche expects of them, the ultraviolent strategy of terrorist groups such as Deash are opening the Pandora trap of the politics of fear, doing nothing but nourish the escalation of cruelty on either side.
How does one resist the accelerating global politics of fear when the abolition of spaces and the digitalization of information call for more and more proximity with the reality of death, as witnessed with the multiplication of suicide attacks in public spaces from Bagdad to Paris and Beirut? The suicide attacks that are so regularly part of the news since 9/11 ended up becoming something abstract to indifferent viewers, one macabre story following the next, because of the sensibility of the viewers. The new turn that radical Islamism seems to have taken with the attacks in Paris on November 13th 2015 is to materialize the ghost of Death.
Victims of suicide attacks scattered in the news for the past 15 years in a burning and bleeding Middle East finally became an abstraction. To fight against this, the strategy to export death in Western reality through the most radical Islamism has become just as important as the visual communication it also generates. The strategy of reclaiming the representation of death in the media, which became abstract with the daily increase of news that no longer surprises or touches anyone (because surreal, when in reality we only die once) is actually the major issue for terrorism. It is advocating martyrs as their ultimate weapon in an asymmetric war against the West.
But the particularity of this contemporary self-destructive tactical attack is that martyrdom wasn’t born from the Crusades. It comes from a conflict opposing Muslims, the Shiites and the Sunnis, on the basis of a struggle for power, and more importantly, in the asymmetrical power struggle between two sultans. One of them, Imam Hussein, the great grandson of the Prophet, faced an army and decided to sacrifice himself and his men. Imam Hussein’s martyr ended with his beheading and the presentation of his head to the sultan of Damask. This event is the foundation of Shiism, and it is celebrated with much violence every year during the Achoura festivities. But Ayatollah Khomeiny’s Islamic revolution reclaimed martyrdom as a contemporary political act and founded a new type of armed conflict. The Pasdarans – young Iranian soldiers during the war between Iraq and Iran – sacrificed themselves at the front carrying a small key around their neck. This key is supposed to symbolize the key to Paradise. They died while crossing the minefields set by Sadam Hussein’s army, opening strategic passageways for the Iranian tanks, which in the end allowed Iran to take over.
The little keys that decorated these young adult or adolescent necks very rapidly ran out of stock. Iran imported from China thousands of little plastic keys ‘ made in china’ and every new martyr-to-be would hang one around his neck before being blown up on Iraqi minefields, their great Sunni enemy who at that time was supported by the Americans and Saudi Arabians. The celebration of martyrdom reactivated by the Islamic Revolution was born. Lebanon’s Shiite party, the Hezbollah, reclaimed suicide attacks as the ultimate act of martyrdom during the occupation of Lebanon by the Israeli army in 1982.
The impact of the Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah in the Arab world transformed this act into a political one throughout the Arab world. It finally made its way into Sunni communities where for the longest time suicide had been considered as an unforgivable sin against Islam.
The massacres of Sabra and Shatila, the asymmetrical war fought by the Palestinians against Israel and the American strike force in the East will all give to the Sunni communities the justification to use suicide attacks as « the atomic bomb of the poor ». Like the nuclear weapon, the suicide attack is first and foremost a deterrent weapon: it generates fear since it can strike anywhere and at any time. From self-sacrifice to universal martyrdom, the pursuit of the Jihad is founded on the uncontrollability of the martyr-to-be. As the leaders of Hezbollah say « the enemy’s only weapon is to put lives in danger. It is only effective against those who seek to live », adding « martyrdom is victory ». (Gilles Kepel, Beyond Terror and Martyrdom, p.98)
Suicide attacks terrorize the obsession that Modernity was founded upon: measure and the categorization and control of individuals, groups and universe.
Abstraction is still celebrated by Sunnis as a representation of death and life alike. If suicide attacks were adopted with difficulty as contemporary warfare by Sunni terrorists of Al-Qaida or Daesh – when the Shiites invented it – it is because the political forces of Muslim civilization are undergoing a radical transformation, just like the rest of the world. This transformation is interdependent of another phenomenon: the great digitalization of the world. This is where difficulty lies for the modern western Christian civilization that seeks to reinvent its future.
If we consider that there is a specific aspect of modern western thinking with regards to images that brings suffering and restrictions, then it would be causal reasoning. It governs not only the signifier and signified, but the understanding of the world through images. Even though we believe above all in images, we are incapable to consider them in an endless and continuous flow.
Great civilizations that were founded on the written word, be it Islam, Judaism, Christianity or Asian civilizations, have formatted people’s psyche into a dialog that is framed by the object (the book) and what it refers to (divinity). It is almost impossible to imagine within Christianity, Judaism or Islam continuity between book and Divinity. Whereas in animist African, American Indian or Asian civilizations, the mask, the statue, the fetish are what it represents: one and same thing.
The signifier/signified dialectics, thanks to which Modern western monotheistic thought has convinced itself of being far superior to animist tradition from the perspective of Reason, is in fact due to its blindness to other possible worlds. Beyond and beneath this restriction in Modern thinking, that has unconsciously imprisoned and alienated us today into a Manichean manner of understanding the world, there must be something else. Something that would link animist cultures and cults of the most distant past to the most distant future of a world whose algorithms, while digitalizing the universe, would meet ancestral beliefs…