New Model Armies

Recent attacks on Iraqi shrines and Danish cartoons do not herald a modern ‘clash of civilisations’, but reignite an ancient controversy: the unfinished business of the Reformation.

To many European commentators, last month’s violence in the Middle East was more disturbing than we’ve already come to expect. Two events in particular revealed how uncertain we remain in the territory of religious conflict. The first, when several cartoons of Mohammed were published under the banner of free speech, was met with a truly global surge of hostility. KFC outlets burned in Pakistan, embassies were stormed in Syria, and demonstrators were shot from Libya to Afghanistan. Three weeks later, the al-Askariyah shrine in Samarra was bombed by unknown assailants – signalling, for many, the definitive step towards an Iraqi civil war. Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, American troops, Danish cartoonists, and a liberal European media now find themselves in chaotically close proximity. Faced with this apparent collapse of order, a familiar mantra is repeated: ‘the clash of civilisations’.

Central to such a clash is an identification of the Western, post-enlightenment tenets of democracy. The cartoons controversy has been likened to similar issues: the ban on headscarves in French schools, the failed bill on Religious Hatred in England, and David Irving’s trial for holocaust denial in Vienna. In each case, the right to freedom of speech has been the central concern. To deny the freedom of our media, so they say, is to deny the basis of our very society. Following this line, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo has published a joint statement by Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, and other public figures who have had fatwahs issued against them: “we, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all.”

This focus on the freedom of speech as the European standard in a new clash of civilisations misses the point. To many Muslims, the question is not about the manner of democratic expression, but a matter of theological urgency: the depiction of God on earth. Instead of comparing the Jyllands-Posten controversy to that of Rushdie, therefore, we need to see it terms of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the two ancient idols blown to pieces by the Taliban in 2001. Last month’s attack on the golden shrine in Samarra served to illustrate this further. The struggle we now face is less part of the secular history of free-speech and instead vital to a far more ancient tradition: the war against icons, or iconoclasm.

Seen in these terms, February’s bloody events appear less chaotic, following a well-trodden path through the history of destroying shrines, mosques, and images of God. This does not, however, give Europeans any more distance in the matter, for iconoclasm has been a driving force in their own, Protestant, history. That fact alone makes the editorial decision to publish the cartoons all the more obtuse. The justification given by France Soir was that ‘we have the right to caricature god’. Certainly this right is one to be defended, but it misses the mark somewhat – before they reach the level of caricature, their Muslim readers challenge first the right to depict God at all. The editors of Jyllands-Posten should know this tradition well. Denmark was, after all, primarily a Lutheran society.

The history of iconoclasm stretches back to the law of Moses, and the second commandment: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’. From this law, given before the warnings against murder, adultery, and theft, and echoed in the Qur’an (Surah al-Baqarah), the three monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have generally forbidden the worship of images, idols, or icons. For each, the icon hinders the pure worship of God by earthly representation. To make an image of God, or His prophets, is to limit in every way the relationship of the divine with its creation. Exceptions exist, namely within Orthodox Christianity and Shi’a Islam. But severe interpretations of this law have forbidden even the depiction of living animals or human beings, and the richness of Islamic calligraphy is partly due to a principle of decoration rather than depiction.

The rule against idolatry shaped Christian and Islamic societies and helped fuel a series of bloody rebellions and reformations. From Calvinism in Switzerland and Northern Europe to Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, puritan movements have used iconoclasm as a tool of religious war against their idolatrous societies. Iconoclasm is intimately bound with religious warfare, both as its justification and as its political tool.

This theological basis for political conflict stretches back to the early Church. The history of Byzantium was defined, in part, by two iconoclastic periods. The first, instigated by Emperor Leo the Isaurian around 730AD, was as much a strategic move to test Rome and the fledgling threat of Islam as it was against the idolaters within his own monasteries. Byzantium’s position, codified at the Council of Hieria in 754, eventually lost out to orthodoxy. Denounced as uncanonical, the iconoclasts who defaced the image of Christ were deemed no better than those soldiers who mocked Him on the Cross. Nevertheless, they provided an early example for religious reformers ever since. For Islam, Surah al-Baqarah describes idolatry as more grievous even than bloodshed: the thousands of destroyed monasteries in Calvinist Europe and shrines in Wahhabi Arabia are the reminders of such a campaign.

Nor are these questions merely academic or historical. Our world today is shaped by the children of these puritans – from an America led by the reformed Church to a Saudi Arabia married still to its Wahhabi clerics. These two sides, both vital players in the ‘war on terror’, share more than oil in common – their religious heritage stems from strikingly similar scriptural interpretations, and for both societies the war against images has been central to their history. In February’s attacks on religious icons and imagery, therefore, we are experiencing not the chaos of a clash of civilisations but a pattern familiar to us already: the unfinished business of the Reformation.

These religious factions are the new model armies of our age. Among them, the Taliban of Afghanistan remain infamous. In March 2001, they made good a promise and detonated with explosives, artillery, and tank fire the ancient Buddhas at Bamiyan, spray-painting the wreckage with an inscription – The Just Replaces the Unjust. Months of diplomatic entreaties and negotiations had preceded this event: between appeals to Islamic law and threats of sanctions, the UN and India offered even to ship the statues abroad if necessary. Initially, statements made by the Taliban denied any plans to destroy the Buddhas, so long as they weren’t used as objects of worship. Mullah Omar, their leader, decreed that the site should be protected. On this basis, UNESCO held out in hope that Bamiyan could be designated an internationally protected zone.

About this article

This article was posted with the kind permission of the author, JRA Noyes, PhD student in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. It was first published in Fulcrum

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When the first reports of the destruction filtered through, accompanied by grainy camcorder footage, the justifications given by the Taliban often conflicted. The UN sanctions imposed in December 2000 had isolated Afghanistan and threatened widespread famine. According to one report, the Buddhas were destroyed in response to a European offer to protect the nation’s cultural heritage while neglecting to address the starvation of its people. Another justification, given by the Taliban envoy Sayed Rahmatullah Hashmi as he toured America prior to the event, was that the Buddhas were being destroyed in retaliation for the attack by Hindu extremists on the Ayodhya mosque. Among these various reasons, one detail remains clear: the destruction of the Buddhas involved deep-rooted social factors, coupled with a religious abhorrence to their existence.

As early as the mid-1990s, international concern had grown at the state of the Bamiyan site. Refugees from years of civil war had settled in the area and set up home among the many caves that perforate the mountainside, fixing makeshift walls and doors. At the feet of the larger Buddha, which stood at 53 metres high, trucks were parked and manoeuvred, and munitions were stored. Industrial activities like these clearly threatened the fabric of the stone and its many frescoes. Petty theft was rife. Over a hundred miles to the east, the museum at Kabul – where a banner later hung declaring that ‘a nation stays alive when its culture stays alive’ – was regularly looted. This museum, having already suffered through years of civil war, had its priceless pre-Islamic artefacts attacked by the Taliban in 2001, coinciding with the explosions at Bamiyan.

The loss of these cultural monuments has proved difficult to estimate, but since 2003 UNESCO have begun the process of coordinating their restoration in Afghanistan. This scheme, funded primarily by the Japanese government and costing over 3 million US dollars, hopes to salvage the remains at Bamiyan, strengthen the niches in the mountainside, and protect the remaining frescoes. It also seeks to create the ‘basis for the inception of cultural tourism to Bamiyan’, encouraging Afghans to reassess their Buddhist heritage. This aim, promoting international and interfaith dialogue – both indicators of the post-Enlightenment, rationalist, and often secular society – is clearly at odds with the intentions of the region’s Puritan reformers.

The war against images instigated by the Protestants of the 16th century and the Wahhabis of the 18th century remains unfinished. Our icons and sites of worship, whether Islamic or Christian, still provide the symbolic target for attack in this present ‘war on terror’. The most devastating of these acts of iconoclasm occurred six months after the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed, when a group of predominantly Wahhabi militants attacked a key symbol of the American Protestant ethic and its spirit of capitalism: the World Trade Center. Last month’s bombing of the shrine in Samarra and the fury unleashed over the Danish cartoons tell us that the struggle is not over. This struggle involves not a clash of civilisations, but rather a religious discourse involving historically complex terms and similar scriptural interpretations. Our secular European commentators are yet fully to understand the implications of the Reformation’s heritage. But unless they seek to understand such a religious discourse, they will continue to fail in their aim of reconciliation between religious groups.


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Fulcrum, UK
Mar. 2003
JRA Noyes
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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday March 25, 2006.
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