On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

ISIS, Jonah, and Symbolic Violence (July 25, 2014)


In the Middle English poem Patience, the prophet Jonah, who has just woken up from pleasant dreams in his desert bower to find the shelter destroyed, lashes out:

          I received some comfort that is now seized from me—

          my lovely, lovely woodbine bower that sheltered my head.

          But now I see that you are set upon destroying all my happiness… [“I keuered me a comfort þat now is ca3t fro me, / My wod-bynde so wlonk þat wered my heued; / Bot now I se þou art sette my solace to reue,” 485-87, ed. Anderson; my translation).

          Jonah, of course, had already been through a lot—a terrifying prophecy assignment, a violent storm, a few days inside a fish, and then his great disappointment at Nineveh not being destroyed as per his prophetic statement.

            In a clear effort to use shock tactics to keep itself in the news, ISIS has continued the symbolic indignities visited upon Jonah—by apparently blowing up his symbolic resting place. As these Huffington Post, Guardian and Al-Arabiya articles relate, Sunni militants rigged explosives to the Shiite mosque built upon the eight-century BCE site alleged to be the tomb of Jonah, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonah the prophet from the eponymous book of the Hebrew Bible, who is known as the prophet Yunus  in Islam (and this after having recently destroyed a shrine linked with the prophet Daniel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel). In its ongoing effort to sow terror throughout Syria and Iraq, threatening to undo recognized sovereign borders as it attempts to create a new Caliphate ruled by the fundamentalist extremism of Sharia Law, ISIS has consistently sought to use psychological warfare in its actions. Besides its chilling broadcasting of committing such war-crimes as torture and executing prisoners who surrender, discussed in these locations, ISIS has also revived pre-modern practices of insisting that non-Sunni residents, particularly Christians, either pay extra taxes or face summary execution, as related here.  ISIS is clearly quite savvy about being provocative, and its image-consciousness can even be seen in its effort to control its own name, though its efforts to re-brand itself as the more ambitious IS, as I discuss here, has not apparently taken root.

            Destroying a shrine related to an Islamic prophet is, of course, quite provocative indeed, though such actions are hardly surprising for hardline Sunni militants acting on Wahabi beliefs. ISIS, as this excellent Wikipedia article recounts, grew out of the group Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which regularly destroyed Shiite mosques and shrines, in an effort to destabilize Iraq. Fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, of course, often accuse Shiites of being idolaters, so there is a religious component to such an attack, as well. As this Transasia News article on the destruction of shrines relates, ISIS are Takfiri militants—meaning that they reserve the right to accuse other Muslims of apostasy, and hence to punish them on religious grounds. ISIS aims to be religious judge, jury, and executioner, it seems.

            Despite the manner in which religiously modulated violence can barely register for us when we are used to the mind-numbing violence of post-2003 Iraq, the destruction of such a famous shrine still has the power to shock. Indeed, anyone who would blow up a spiritual site clearly seeks to marshal intense shock, since such sites bear with them all the uncanniness and mystique of many individuals’ belief in the otherworldly. I still recall how shocked I was way back in March 2001, when the Taliban blew up the two sixth-century CE Buddhas of Bamiyan—two massive sandstone statues in Central Afghanistan. The destruction of the Buddhas was, many may recall, both deliberate and well-organized (one can find the demolition on youtube, but I simply cannot stomach linking to such shameless destructive action), with both idolatry and contempt for heritage preservation being cited in this interview.  Clearly, however, the Taliban’s actions were meant to unnerve any who would oppose them, showing not just religious single-mindedness, but utter contempt for all others.

            Symbolic violence often plays a role in warfare, especially when religious ideologies come into play. It is sad enough that so much of Iraq, a geographical location filled with a mind-boggling array of archaeological sites from so many eras and cultures of human history, has been ravaged by recent military activities, such as the horrific Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, or my own country’s deeply misguided 2003 invasion and disastrous occupation (and ensuing destabilization). With ISIS clearly so ambitious in its efforts to produce a large, intolerant, and expansive Caliphate, I quake to think what destruction will come next.


Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English currently at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Scottish poetry, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

5 thoughts on “ISIS, Jonah, and Symbolic Violence (July 25, 2014)

  1. Pingback: Symbolic Violence and Object Power: ISIS, Iconoclasm, and Museums (March 15, 2015) | Terri-Stories

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