ISIS, Iconoclasm and Islam

Right around Luxor the Nile seems to change its mind about flowing north and makes a dash east toward the Red Sea. After 30 miles or so it gets its nerves back and continues its northward journey to its destination with the Mediterranean.  The “knee” of the great river is home to many ancient Egyptian small temples. Few are as grand or iconic as Luxor or Aswan’s, but they give a sense of the deep religiosity that must have pervaded the land with multitude of temples. If you know where to look you will find evidence of crosses chiseled onto the faces of these temples. Early Egyptian Christians (and Christianity sprouted roots in Egypt very early and with little assistance from the original Jewish followers of Jesus) must have used these temples for worship. Strictly speaking the chiseling of Crosses is an act of vandalism, or more severely Iconoclasm of the ancient pagan temples. There is a certain irony, but no surprise, that the modern descendants of these Christians seem to include the ancient Egyptian key of life, the Ankh, frequently as part of cultural celebrations.

Iconoclasm is the act of destroying religious icons. The term derives from two periods of the Byzantine Empire that experienced a reversal of fortunes against the rising Arab (mostly Muslim) forces in the east and against the Slavs in the Balkans.  The destruction of religious icons was done ritualistically to denote rejection of their worth, and perhaps even theological deviancy.  Any attempt to relate iconoclasm to Christian theology is bound to fail. For example, Nestorians did not particularly venerate icons, nor did Egyptian Monophysites (as all Copts are), reject them. Equally problematic is the attempt to imply that the Byzantine Iconoclasts were influenced by Islamic thought or the opposite, that Islam’s iconoclasm is borrowed from Byzantine practices. Islam’s prohibition on images was never absolute, and was observed mostly in the Levant, Arabia and Egypt. Persia and India continued their rich tradition of colorful human imagery.

The colloquial interest in Iconoclasm is motivated by the horrific destruction of ancient heritage in the Levant by the loose bands of armed men on behalf of the so-called “Islamic State”. The frequent interpretation is that ISIS is being rigorously Islamic and the destruction follows Islam’s prohibition against images. Another more nuanced interpretation is that ISIS is acting from a more modern resistance to Western hegemony in taste, which dictates that respect and preservation of ancient artifacts is a sign of civilized behavior.  Neither is truly satisfactory, and there is a more ready explanation.

First, it is counter-empirical to insist that Islam is hell-bent on destroying ancient heritage. It has had 1400 years of near dominance in a broad region. Yet, there have been few recorded instances of systematic destruction of ancient heritage. Some Muslim thinkers even took the initiative to attempt to understand and admire the mute witnesses to ancient empires, or read in them historical lessons. The attitude of the average faithful Muslim for many centuries was to either ignore or profit from the heritage.

The attempt to interpret the destruction using the now canonical discourse of “Orientalism” and “post-colonial” discourse is also unsatisfactory. The ideas of preservation and conservation are now intrinsic to many indigenous efforts at social reform, including those most hostile to the Western cultural influences. It is not uncommon for the cultural elite (of all religions) to hector their fellow believers into conservation by shaming them though highlighting of similar Western efforts. The removal of the Genizah records from Jewish Cairo 100 years ago was occasioned by bitter arguments within the community there.

The most intelligent and scholarly example of the above argument was advanced by Elliot Colla in a blog posting. We can respect Colla’s scholarship and still disagree with three of his arguments. First, that there is “nothing uniquely ‘Islamic’ about the ISIS attacks”. While not unique to Islam, it is rooted in many orthodox views of it. Anti-Semitism is not uniquely Christian, but Christianity sometimes helped and even fueled it. Second, that we need to take “autocratic and colonial legacies” into account when discussing such destruction. Again, the evidence is against such a view. The most systematic “Salafi” destruction has been in Saudi Arabia, ironically against Muslim heritage. Mecca and Medina are rebuilt to resemble Las Vegas. This is in a region that experienced little or no colonialism and where such destruction is supported by religious authorities that cow the political autocrats. Third, that we must compare the destruction of ancient statues with the toppling of Saddam’s massive statue prompted by American troops. Are we to say that the toppling of the statue of Mussolini can shed light on a potential destruction of Coliseum?

The explanation of ISIS behavior is not to be found in complex and intricate scholarly arguments. These are simply attempts to assert dominance within the faith using particular concepts that are genuinely within it but not intrinsic to its continuation. A fair comparison would be the rise of virulently anti-Semitic group within the Christian community which revives the old charge of deicide against the Jews to gain dominance over other Christians, especially those in the mainstream of modern liberal societies. It would be a tough sell in today’s world, primarily because of the strength and legitimacy of many of these societies, and because most of the major Christian denominations have long rejected, or at least avoided, the ugly charge.  ISIS is attempting to tweak other Muslims into following it. By positing the challenge in stark and violent terms, which are bound to generate strong response, they are hoping that the Muslim community at large will be bitterly divided, with ISIS garnering the larger portion. The ISIS cycle of increasing violence and destruction is Salafism carried to its logical ends. The challenge is primarily not to the West, but to other Muslims.

 

— Maged Atiya


One Comment on “ISIS, Iconoclasm and Islam”

  1. zjb says:

    Reblogged this on jewish philosophy place and commented:
    A critical read: ISIS, Iconoclasm and “Orientalism”


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