Fallen Idols

Fallen Idols

In many instances, those who fetishize holy objects or sacred places are the very ones who exhibit the most depraved indifference to human life.


When Rudyard Kipling’s British soldier caught his first glimpse of Burmese beauty, on the road to Mandalay, "I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,/An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:/Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud–/Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd–/Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!"

The lines came back to me when I read the recent statement from the architectural and cultural spokesman of the Taliban, who dismissed all the fuss about the destruction of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage by saying that images made of mud were a blasphemous insult to the one true faith. He probably doesn’t care much for reading (and the Bamiyan sculptures were cut from the standing rock, not fashioned from terra cotta, like some of the exhibits in the despoiled national museum), but he would undoubtedly have been surprised to know that he was quoting Kipling, who also had some harsh words to say about the cruelty of Afghan women in wartime. An Afghan woman today, mind you, would not need to be caught kissing a whiskery British conscript in order to be publicly flogged, or stoned to death. Leaving her home unaccompanied would be enough, or failing to adjust her shroud so that it covered every part of her face and hair.

And it is true that there has been less emotion about this than about the desecration of the ancient statues of the Buddha. On the face of it, such pseudo-aestheticism is grotesque. However, I freely admit to feeling worse–more desolated and more drained–at the destruction of the Old Bridge at Mostar, and of the National Library of Sarajevo, than by any other events in the Bosnian war. A number of Bosnians felt even more intensely, and risked or gave their lives in an attempt to prevent those cultural obliterations. During the Greek war of independence, Turkish troops occupying the Parthenon were surrounded, and began to break open the walls to get hold of the lead shielding and melt it down into bullets. The appalled Greek besiegers offered to send a supply of ammunition if the Turks would refrain from damaging the temple.

In these cases, as with Afghanistan, there is no real contradiction between asserting the value of artifacts and the value of people, because the desecrators of the first are the murderers or the oppressors of the second. But the question is not always as seamless as that. The vile dictatorship that now rules Burma is never happier than when opening another vast Buddhist temple, testimony to its own piety and nationalism. Saddam Hussein, when he is not sponsoring giant new mosques, is engaged in reconstructing the ruins of Babylon nearer to his own heart’s desire. In the underdeveloped interior of the Ivory Coast, at Yamoussoukro, I once saw the monstrous basilica, modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome but slightly larger, that President Houphouët-Boigny raised as an exorbitant monument to his own sanctity. There seemed nothing wrong with it that a few tons of dynamite would not have put right.

Iconoclasm, which in Greek means no more or less than idol-smashing, is not an insult in our vernacular, if only because it honors the early Christian militants who would break the polytheistic statuary of pagan Rome. Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell pulled the roofs off the monasteries, shattered the stained glass and splintered the graven images, and, though their motives were not entirely pure, they did help safeguard the Reformation. (There has hardly been a sighting of a weeping or bleeding Virgin in England since.) When the Spanish Civil War began, the peasantry made the first order of business the pillaging and burning of the churches–though sparing Gaudi’s work in Catalonia–and it is a fact that Spain has never again succumbed to the same degree of sheer clerical tyranny as existed before 1936.

In many instances, those who fetishize holy objects or sacred places are the very ones who exhibit the most depraved indifference to human life. The Serbian claim to Kosovo, even if it was prosecuted most recently by secular materialist barbarians, rested quite largely on the veneration of shrines and stones and on the assertion that this was Serbia’s "Jerusalem." (Actually, it was more like Serbia’s West Bank, where the occupiers wanted the land without the people. Archeology became a warrant for ethnic cleansing.) And just take a steady look at the present insanity in Jerusalem. Three faiths–each of them equal glimpses of the same essential untruth–are quite prepared for slaughter in order to assert authority over ephemeral, man-made structures. This is highly amusing, of course, because it shows that the Believers regard their god as a moral cretin, unable to distinguish his vast and magnificent Creation from a few shoddy altars and artifacts put together by clumsy mammals. But it’s distinctly less amusing to reflect that people would gladly take the life of another in order to advance the claim that, say, Mohammed’s horse left a hoofprint in the rock on its way up to paradise.

The Crimean War was initiated by the imperial Russian insistence on arbitrating an "interfaith" dispute between Christian factions over the key to a door in Jerusalem; it dragged in half of Europe before it was over and did almost as much damage as the Crusades. Judaism–which maintains that Jehovah was too stupid to know his own unless tipped off by a smear of blood–permits state-sponsored Israeli rabbis to argue in public that the Palestinians ought to go the way of the Amalekites. Many credulous and sentimental Westerners, I suspect, were upset by the destruction of the Afghan Buddha figures because they believe that so-called Eastern religion is more tender-hearted and less dogmatic; to them I would recommend a reading of Brian Victoria’s superb book Zen at War, which shows how Buddhist discipline and obedience became the semi-official ideology of Japanese imperialism in its most vicious stage. So–is nothing sacred? Only respect for human life and culture, which requires no divine sanction, and no priesthood to inculcate it. The foolish veneration of holy places and holy texts remains a principal obstacle to that simple realization.

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