Over at the Daily Grail website, British writer John Reppion, the son-in-law of graphic novel superstar Alan Moore, posted a strange and rambling meditation on ISIL and its destruction of ancient sites and artifacts that somehow folds The Exorcist and H. P. Lovecraft into his reaction to the Islamic State destroying pre-Islamic cultural heritage. I’d like to talk about this a little bit and explain some of the reasons that I think Reppion’s meditation says more about him and modern Western pop culture than it does about ISIL.
Reppion, following Arabic and French practice, refers to the Islamic State as “Daesh,” a pejorative partial abbreviation of the group’s Arabic name.
Instead of looking for the reasons that the Islamic State militants destroyed statues, Reppion turns instead within himself to think about how the images he sees affect him and other Westerners, and in that mirror he can see only pop culture: “Few people can have seen the images of Deash destruction of historic archaeology amid the desert sands and not made a connection with the Northern Iraq dig scenes of William Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist.” To be entirely honest, The Exorcist never crossed my mind, but it is striking that Reppion turns to the Exorcist, where the idol really does possess evil powers, as an answer to ISIL’s claim that they must destroy such images for representing such evil.
The movie’s archaeological scenes involving the demon Pazuzu were shot at Hatra, an Iraqi site that Islamic State militants destroyed in 2015. While the ISIL terrorists explicitly said they were combatting polytheism (of gods no one worshiped, no less), Reppion instead chose to read the destruction in terms of The Exorcist, Catholicism, and Pazuzu: “Despite the fact that Pazuzu had little or nothing to do with Hatra prior to the release of The Exorcist, it could be argued that in the 42 years since the film came out the two have become inextricably linked.” I can’t image that is true; indeed, I doubt any but the most dedicated fans of the movie would even be aware that Hatra was an ancient city, much less a shooting location for the film.
It is through Pazuzu that Reppion ropes H. P. Lovecraft and the Old Ones into his discussion of Islamic State’s iconoclasm. He notes that the hoax Simon Necronomicon of 1977 includes Pazuzu alongside made-up Sumerian versions of Lovecraftian gods like Cthulhu. But he doesn’t stop to ask why, and the author of the fictitious “Simon’s” introduction makes plain that the demon was chosen to play off the success of The Exorcist:
Side by side with the worship of the Moon, NANNA, there was fear of the Demon, PAZUZU, a genie so amply recreated in the book and the movie by Blatty, The Exorcist, and similarly recognised as the Devil Himself by the Church. PAZUZU, the Beast, was brought to life by Aleister Crowley, and the Demon walked the Earth once more.
With publicity provided by H.P. Lovecraft.
But that doesn’t stop Reppion, who speculates that Lovecraft based the Necronomicon’s fictitious author, Abdul Alhazred, on the Iranian-Egyptian polymath Alhazen, despite the fact that Lovecraft himself said that the name wasn’t his own invention but one given to him as a child by a family friend when he wanted to play Arabian Nights. At other times he suggested he invented it himself; in any case, the name was in place by the time he was five and had nothing to do with Alhazen.
Anyway, this leads Reppion to unintentionally give Islamic State’s perspective credence by imagining the dead gods rising up to defend their statues as the climax to his unwritten story:
Does a pantheon of desecrated Old Gods and monsters descend from on high? The Assyrian winged bull-men, the Lamassu, whose likeness Daesh destroyed at Nergal Gate with a jackhammer, and at the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II with a bulldozer. The Canaanite sky deity Ba’al Šamem, whose 1st century temple was dynamited in August 2015. The Arabian goddess trinity Al-lāt, Manāt and al-‘Uzzá. The Mesopotamian god trinity Bel, Aglibol, and Yarhibol. Isis herself. Every near forgotten deity Daesh tried to defame, disgrace and erase assembled in an Almighty army for the final battle in Dabiq.
This is not to say that anyone should bend to the will of the Islamic State; indeed, we would be in error if we were to stop anyone from actually worshiping these forgotten gods if that were their choice. But it seems counterproductive if one is not actually a worshiper of the pagan deities to start from the position that ISIL is right about the supernatural power of ancient idols, particularly if one is presenting this as a wish-fulfillment pseudo-historical piece of non-fiction.
Reppion concludes his article by imagining ISIL as new Nazis in a remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, burned to death by the Ark of the Covenant. “Maybe they think themselves righteous and worthy, destined to wield some power and entitled to call upon it,” he said. But it is just the opposite: They pretend to the world that they think of themselves as God’s sword and shield, defending Allah against pretenders to the throne.
It might have helped Reppion had he looked into the reasons that ISIL is engaging in the wanton destruction we see today. As I discussed last March, the tradition of iconoclasm has deep roots not only in Islam but in Western culture as well. ISIL follows the model of Abraham, who in Qur’an 21:51-71 smashes the idols or Ur to show the folly of worshiping any god but Allah. But that Qur’anic story is closely parallel to a traditional Jewish story of Abraham and the idols found in Jubilees 12 and Genesis Rabbah 38, itself reflective of the idol smashing found throughout the Bible. Indeed, it was on such models that the Byzantine Christians engaged in the great idol smashing of the Iconoclastic period in the eighth and ninth centuries. The Catholic Church was still closer to ISIL when its missionaries smashed the idols of the New World and ground them into dust, following the example of Moses and the Golden Calf. Such actions continued down to the present, such as the ongoing desecration of communist idols to Lenin and Stalin and other politically motivated alterations to architecture and monuments. I described more incidents along these lines in my earlier post, but the point is that ISIL isn’t strikingly anomalous in their idol-smashing actions, only in the value of their targets and the scale of their destruction.
What struck me about Reppion’s article is that it had virtually nothing to say about ISIL, and indeed it seems to actively avoid understanding the background and motivation for these acts. Instead, it turned reflexively back on the author, exploring his own interests, however vaguely connected, and crafting a revenge fantasy that would satisfy his own sense of aesthetics and history, but which provides no new insight into ISIL or how to deal with the persistent problem found worldwide of those in power trying to destroy the past in order to control the present.