Springingtiger's Blog


Cultural Vandalism

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Today I listened to Simon Schama’s excellent program ‘The Obliterators’ on Radio Four which looked at why Islamic Fundamentalists like Daesh and the Taliban are destroying ancient architecture. I don’t intend to repeat here everything the program said, but I do recommend you listen for yourselves.

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Taj Mahal

One of the most valuable things Schama did was to remind the audience that cultural vandalism is not a Muslim preserve. The very term ‘iconoclast’ refers to the period in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries when fundamentalist Christians empowered by the Emperor Leo III set about destroying all representations of Jesus, his Mother, and the saints, while at the same time persecuting all unorthodox believers. It was not the first, nor the last time Christians were to behave like Daesh, the post Reformation period being particularly bad. We should also bear in mind that were it not for Islamic scholars most of the literary heritage of Classical Europe would have been lost to us in the Dark Ages. We cannot adopt any moral high ground, the extremists of any religion, including atheism in the USSR and China, have a record of censorship and destruction of icons, as bad as the Muslims. In the West we are equally guilty of rewriting history to hide our crimes and encourage a belief in our racial superiority. We tend to overlook the Christian destruction of cultures in Latin America, Asia, and Africa while focusing on the depredations of the Wahabists.

None of us has a history of which we can be entirely proud. The Romans exterminated the Druids, the Catholic Church destroyed the rather more enlightened Celtic Church, as well as destroying temples, literature, art merely because it arose from paganism. The ancient city of Varanasi is a comparatively modern city because the Muslim invaders destroyed the ancient temples of Northern India. Not one of us can claim our history is exempt from the curse of cultural vandalism. However we all have a future as yet unwritten. It is not too late to stop this wave of cultural vandalism, we simply need to exterminate the blight of Wahabism…. and then whichever extremism next arose, perhaps American Evangelicalism, Dawkinist Atheism, English Nationalism. There are plenty of potential extremisms waiting for an opportunity to thrive, possibly in the aftermath of the destruction of the previous evil.

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Lodhi Tombs

In the meantime we can reflect on what Wahabism will remove from our world should it get the opportunity. It’s hatred of representations of living creatures and especially iconography would see the destruction of the statues in our cities, the frescoes of Giotto would be lost to us and so the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci. Their hatred of monuments to the dead would deprive us of the Taj Mahal as well as the Mughal tombs of India and the Saadian Tombs of Marrakesh. Their intent on destroying all cultures other than Wahabism would see the ancient monuments of North Africa, even the Pyramids reduced to rubble, churches, temples and Gurudwaras destroyed and even mosques. The places of worship of other Muslims, whether Shia or Ahmadiya would be destroyed, the beautiful white marble shrine of Saleem Chisti in Fatehpur Sikri, and the shrine of Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer would be threatened.

Our past is threatened by the intolerance and destructiveness of the present. The iconoclasts, but also those who fight them all destroy, and explosives tend not to be selective. Whatever the sins and guilt of the past we all have a future and it is a future enriched by understanding our collective past. Not necessarily embracing it, but learning from it. It is a future that is enriched by beauty, we can appreciate artistry without worshipping its product. It is a future we can rescue for our children. We will not rescue it by bombs and the victory of war which only stirs up resentment and further destruction, although some restriction of the liberty of extremists may be required. We will rescue it by the triumph of reason.

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Remains of vandalised statue of Siva

Not the sterile extremist atheism that parades as reason, but the reason of tolerance and forbearance. Reason listens, discusses, debates and accepts that we each have our own path to walk and in the end the best we can do is allow others to walk their way unimpeded and in turn they should allow us the same. Difference should not presuppose enmity, but amity and trust that we are each doing the best we can in our own way for the good of all. It is too easy to look at the world and despair at the intolerance and hatred we see. If we are to have a future worth leaving to our children we must infuse it with hope, with faith in the innate nobility of human beings, and with trust that we can build a better world. We only have to commit to it and never surrender to hatred, despair and intolerance.

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