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.