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 Struggle for Iraq, and What It Means for Israel

Oct. 17 2018

Almost immediately after the 2003 invasion, Iraq became a battleground between the U.S. and Iran, as the latter sent troops, money, and arms to foment and support an insurgency. The war on Islamic State, along with the Obama administration’s effort to align itself with the Islamic Republic, led to a temporary truce, but also gave Tehran-backed militias a great deal of power. Iran has also established a major conduit of supplies through Iraq to support its efforts in Syria. Meanwhile, it is hard to say if the recent elections have brought a government to Baghdad that will be pro-American or pro-Iranian. Eldad Shavit and Raz Zimmt comment how these developments might affect Israel:

Although statements by the U.S. administration have addressed Iran’s overall activity in the region, they appear to emphasize the potential for confrontation in Iraq. First and foremost, this [emphasis] stems from the U.S. perception of this arena as posing the greatest danger, in light of the extensive presence of U.S. military and civilian personnel operating throughout the country, and in light of past experience, which saw many American soldiers attacked by Shiite militias under Iranian supervision. The American media have reported that U.S. intelligence possesses information indicating that the Shiite militias and other elements under Iranian auspices intend to carry out attacks against American targets and interests. . . .

In light of Iran’s intensifying confrontation with the United States and its mounting economic crisis, Tehran finds it essential to maintain its influence in Iraq, particularly in the event of a future clash with the United States. The Iranian leadership has striven to send a message of deterrence to the United States regarding the implications of a military clash. . . .

A recently published report also indicates that Iran transferred ballistic missiles to the Shiite militias it supports in Iraq. Although Iran has denied this report, it might indeed attempt to transfer advanced military equipment to the Shiite militias in order to improve their capabilities in the event of a military confrontation between Iran and the United States and/or Israel, or a confrontation between [the militias] and the central government in Baghdad.

From Israel’s perspective, after years when the Iraqi arena received little attention from Israeli decision makers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have mentioned the possibility of Israel’s taking action against Iranian targets in Iraq. In this context, and particularly in light of the possibility that Iraq could become an arena of greater conflict between the United States and Iran, it is critical that there be full coordination between Israel and the United States. This is of particular importance due to [the American estimation of] stability in Iraq as a major element of the the campaign against Islamic State, which, though declared a success, is not yet complete.

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More about: Barack Obama, Iran, Iraq, ISIS, Israel & Zionism, U.S. Foreign policy