Jihad (2006), by Iraqi conceptualist Adel Abidin, is as gloriously slight as a work of art can be. Taking aesthetic cues from jihadist video messages—the recordings in which groups claim responsibility for attacks or make demands and which have become part of global visual vocabulary—Abidin works lean and cheap in the name of faithfulness to the form. The set is a mere wall and the single shot is fixed, the sort of cinematography that needs no manning as the camera rolls. The final take, with small flubs intact, is casual—good enough. It is over in three and a half minutes. In terms of execution and prep, the artist could have knocked the piece together, beginning to end, in half an hour.
The work’s narrative is similarly familiar. Jihad opens to a man with a keffiyeh obscuring most of his face. He points his finger, with purpose, and reads in Arabic from a piece of paper. A US flag tacked to the wall, in the place where one might expect to find the banner of a fundamentalist group, is the only cue that this will be an atypical message. After a few seconds the man begins reciting the English lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s folk song This Land Is Your Land (1940). “This land is your land / This land is my land / From California / To the New York Island / From the Redwood Forest / To the Gulf Stream waters / This land was made for you and me.” He puts down the paper, picks up an acoustic guitar, starts strumming, and sings the song in a honey-rich, slightly burred tenor that is uncannily reminiscent of Pete Seeger, the singer most closely associated with the song after Guthrie. It is a fine, sensitive rendition of an American standard. One notices the particular quality of the performance, and one listens closely, mostly because the work’s only turn and punch line is delivered within five seconds of its start: a Muslim is singing a song about American freedom.
Jihad entered the world in the third year of what is known in the United States as Operation Iraqi Freedom, a grueling period when that war began to collapse under its dubious pretenses and exuberant rhetoric. Motives were getting muddled, and who was right, even who was who, became debatable. As the jihadist sings an American song of freedom, such ambiguity becomes the single overt premise of the work. The signature American cry of independence, the desire to discover, claim and exalt the beauty of the world, is rendered rapacious and madly greedy via its abstraction in the voice of one of the victims of its pioneering spirit. Who, one is supposed to ask, is the real terrorist? Whose “holy war” is the Jihad of the title?
These are fine questions, but they do not get answered. With minimal commitment, Abidin’s creative gesture in Jihad amounts to a shrug. The argument, and its resolution, is not important. Enlightenment occurs through the work’s tone.
Abidin’s offhanded production of an art video at the level of a YouTube clip functions as pure, inspiring resignation. “This land was made for you and me” is too confusing a concept to parse. How do we share that land? Where are we to draw borders? How are we to temper our enthusiasm for ownership with the needs and desires of others? The American song of self-determination is beautiful, but it lacks the sophistication to anticipate and counteract greed, aggression and zealotry. Abidin undercooks his Jihad because he knows it is not worth engaging with the issue of entitlement, of right and wrong. He is not interested in propagating the idea that it can be figured out.
Scripture, history and faith are ancient, tenacious forces in human evolution, but in them there remains no definitive explanation for entitlement. It is impossible to fully understand the impulse that drives a leader to crusade and conquer another people. It is difficult to pinpoint the moment at which a society decides to claim ownership and domination over another. Entitlement makes no sense, and this simple political work helps crystallize this fact by making no attempt to rationalize or clarify it. That is all Jihad does, in good humor, and that is all it needs to do. Entitlement makes no sense. In a time of war, with all of its attendant emotional trauma, you may carry this simple message with you wherever you go.