Islamist Iconoclasm and Its Imperial Aims

April 8 2015

The recent destruction by Islamic State (IS) of ancient artworks and the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have led to sloppy-minded comparisons with the iconoclasm of 8th-century Byzantium and other similar movements. These comparisons, writes Edward Rothstein, are mere exercises in moral relativism, and overlook an important distinction:

Religiously based iconoclasm has largely been internal to a religion, reflecting a conflict about its core beliefs. It erupts within the eastern church or between versions of Christianity (or in confrontations between Shiites and Sunnis). But in contemporary Islamist iconoclasm, the attacks are primarily aimed externally. The shootings at Charlie Hebdo, for example, were actually motivated by iconoclasm: retribution for creating images deemed sacrilegious. But attacks were directed not at Muslim violators, but against secular society’s image-creators. The 2006 rioting by Muslims, also motivated by iconoclasm, was set off by Danish cartoons portraying Muhammad; calls were made to destroy the images and their creators. And now, IS is smashing images from other cultures and religions, just as the Taliban destroyed the monumental 6th-century Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.

None of these attacks are caused by disagreements over a faith’s doctrine; they do not reflect disputes within Islam. Instead, the assertion is that Islam should have authority over any religion’s or culture’s presentation of images. This has nothing to do with an offense supposedly caused by lack of “sensitivity,” as is so often suggested. The attacks are an assertion that a prohibition against representations of Muhammad—or of any figure deemed “idolatrous”—has to be accepted even by those outside Islam. And this demand is made even when it conflicts with a nation’s laws and customs. It is a religious demand. It is also imperial.

As for the current destruction of sacred sites, it resembles the frenzy of a conquering army. But who are the conquered? Churches of ancient Christian communities are not being desecrated because they represent the authority of a nation being invaded. They are attacked, like the Bamiyan Buddhas, because they exist.

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More about: Charlie Hebdo, History & Ideas, Idolatry, ISIS, Orthodox Christianity, Radical Islam

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East