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

 

The U.S. Must Maintain the Kurdish Enclave in Eastern Syria

Aug. 16 2018

Presently only two rebel enclaves remain in Syria, and both are dependent on outside powers: one in the northwest, under Turkish control, and an area in the east controlled by the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Only by continuing its support for the latter can America prevent Iranian domination of Syria, writes Jonathan Spyer. Officials in Washington have made various statements suggesting that the White House has no intention of ceding the country to Iran, but haven’t clarified what this means in practice:

Actions . . . are a better guide than sentiments. And it appears that the SDF leaders remain skeptical regarding America’s long-term plans. Last week, the first direct negotiations took place between their representatives and those of the Assad regime, in Damascus.

It is not quite clear where things are heading. But Israel’s interest in this is clear. Maintenance of the east Syrian enclave and the [U.S.] base in Tanf means keeping a substantial physical obstacle to the Iranian hope for a contiguous corridor [connecting it to Lebanon via Syria and Iraq]. It would also prevent an overall Iranian triumph in the war and give the West a place at the table in any substantive political negotiation over Syria’s future. . . .

Specifically, efforts should be made to ensure a formal U.S. declaration of a no-fly zone for regime and regime-allied aircraft east of the Euphrates. This move, reminiscent of the no-fly zone declared over Iraqi Kurdistan after the Gulf War of 1991, would with one stroke ensure the continued viability of the SDF-controlled area. There should also be a formal recognition of the SDF zone, or the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria,” as it is formally known. This entity is not seeking independence from Damascus, so Western concerns regarding the formal breakup of Syria need not be raised by such a move.

As the strategic contest between Iran and its allies and the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East moves into high gear, it is essential that the West maintain its alliances and investments and behaves, and is seen to behave, as a credible and loyal patron and ally.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Kurds, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy