On Iconoclasm - Some thought about stuff I've recently read.

Remember, I mentioned that claims of alleged iconoclasm and the resulting absence of any ‘meaningful’ contemporary arts (or so the argument went) in (the region we, for the lack of a better term and in full awareness of all the ideological baggage attached to this name, agreed to continue calling) northern Nigeria as well as the unrest informed by the Danish cartoons a few years ago. Well, I’ve done some background reading during the last few days and just thought I share some thoughts with you.

Let’s start with iconoclasm. In the introduction to my PhD thesis (some of which will be moved into one of the chapters) I have written that

To my best knowledge no study of Islamic iconoclasm in Africa has been conducted. However, the history and character of African Islam in several locations has been discussed in a number of studies, some particularly concerned with present-day northern Nigeria. So has the relationship between African Islam and localised art traditions in different local contexts. With regard to the latter the works of Rene Bravmann are worth considering here. Although not concerned with northern Nigeria in particular, Bravmann’s research confirms with regard to material culture what historians of Islam in African have suggested elsewhere: With the exception of recurring but isolated attempts at religious revival and purification Islam and local traditions coexisted until the 19th century. (cf. here for more information on Bravmann)

Or, as John Picton put it in his review of Bravmann’s Islam and Tribal Art in West Africa:

Islam and 'pagan' traditions have indeed arrived at a variety of accommodations throughout West Africa but to regard this as compatibility is to ignore much of the evidence, such as the author himself provides to the contrary, for example the disapproval of the Imam of Bondoukou. 'Peaceful co-existence' might be a better term to employ! (2)

But it was not only with regard to Islamic iconoclasm in Africa that I originally did not encounter much anthropological or other documentation. In fact, only one article by Raymond Corbey (‘Destroying the Graven Image: Religious Iconoclasm on the Christian Frontier.’ published 2003 in Anthropology Today, Vol. 19.4).

However, I have finally managed to get hold of a book I have intended reading ever since I heard of its publication: Ramon Sarro’s Iconoclasm Done and Undone: The Politics of Religious Change on the Upper Guinea Coast. And, already in the first chapter he provides an important information regarding iconoclasm in Africa: it has most widely been discussed in terms of various anti-witchcraft (2) movements across the continent.

Many of the African religious movements appearing throughout colonial and post-colonial times were initiated by charismatic leaders who, in the name of a monotheistic creed, persuaded people to destroy objects attached to non-Christian or non-Muslim practices. The destruction of such objects became a symbolic and integral part of the cleansing of society and the creation of a new social, religious and political order. Unlike other forms of iconoclasm in which people destroyed images because they represented a spiritual reality that ought not to be represented at all, in most African iconoclastic movements images were destroyed because of what they made present: because they materialised invisible forces that maintained social control and oppressed people. (p. 2) … However, despite the material destruction they often entailed, African religious movements, far too often studies as 'anti-witchcraft' cults, have rarely been seen from the iconoclastic, heritage-destroying angle. (p. 5)

So, here already is an important guide post for further background reading to go into my introductory chapter. In addition and probably, of more important relevance to my discussion Sarro’s first chapter also makes for challenging reading, challenging as in confronting me with some assumptions I had internalised and, hence, never further considered. Before anything else:

Many of us naturally abhor iconoclasm because it entails the destruction of an embodied cultural 'heritage', but we must also try to understand the perceptions of those living with these objects. (p. 2)

It reminded me of discussions surrounding the destruction of representational roundabout figures in Maiduguri where some of my interviewees considered this a barbaric, even primitive reaction. Obviously, such opinions were informed by exactly the attitude Sarro identified in his first chapter and did not take in consideration, at least not as equally valid, the ‘perceptions’ of those involved in the iconoclastic acts.

Which directly takes us to the events surrounding the publication of the Danish Cartoons or rather their perception among Muslims worldwide: During the last two years several articles, in fact at least one book have been published on the subject. Here, Brain Goldstone’s article in the Anthropology Quarterly (the pdf of which can be found on the website of his university) questioned the very fundaments on which ‘our’ (i.e. the Western liberal) incomprehension of the offense the cartoons caused among sections of the global Muslim community are based. - I consciously chose the expression ‘our’ here, on the one hand to reflect the dichotomy in which much Western press discourse about the events was based (for David Brook’s decidedly dichotomous discussion cf. here) as well as the fact that I myself shared in the view that, despite the cartoons certainly being unsuccessful as caricatures and offensive, did not warrant the attention they received let alone the violence. In fact, I had an extensive discussion about the cartoons with a close Muslim friend in Nigeria during which I was stunned by our inability to comprehend each others views. My argument that the cartoons should rather have been ignored (Why lower oneself to the level of so obvious a provocation by a bunch of racist/Islamophob publishers and cartoonists, I asked.) was unacceptable to her while her very personal offense, despite the fact that she had never actually seen the images herself, was beyond my grasp. – And here, Goldstone’s argument comes in. He draws upon a variety of literature on secularism and political theory to

examine how the deployment of a certain kind of juxtaposition, or what I am here calling profanation, became a strategic device in the discursive spaces surrounding these events, with a number of writers incessantly contrasting “Islamism” (shorthand for “Islamic fundamentalism”) to what they saw as the defining characteristics of democracy, freedom, reason, and pluralism - in short, to civilization. (p. 208)

He argues, that ‘the rhetorical opposition to religious violence and its accompanying concepts (such as sacrifice, cruelty, and suffering) has from the very beginning, served as an organizing impetus and legitimizing logic for secular liberalism.’ (p. 208) Of course, and that is the argument I actually advanced in defence of the secular state several times, secularism was born out of the experience of suffering brought about by religiously motivated (or at least legitimised) civil wars in Europe. – Or so I thought. Goldstone here points out that, whatever the historical truth of the argument, it also forms part of the meta-narrative that legitimises the (Western) nation state’s claim to its citizens’ loyalty over religious (and other sectional) loyalties and its monopoly on legitimate use of violence. ‘And it is in order to maintain the legitimacy of this proposition that the advocates of secularism perpetually foreground what Žižek calls religion’s “murderous violence,” thereby justifying the ostensibly more “humane” endeavors conducted under signs of pacification, enlightenment, and, more contemporarily, freedom, democratization, and liberation.’ (p. 209)

Now, what is the relevance of this with regard to any analysis of the events surrounding the Danish Cartoons or, indeed, iconoclasm in northern Nigeria or a more general sense? Well, on the one hand, Goldstone suggests, that this is the background against which the reaction of many in the West and indeed my own reaction to the Danish Cartoon controversy needs to be understood:

From the perspective of many in the West who have internalized such conditions, the cartoon incident … [was] nothing if not evidence of an undisciplined (and therefore highly dangerous) refusal of what have become normative standards of thought and behavior. (p. 209)

Or, in other words: As ‘we’ assume our secular/liberal values – among others freedom of expression including the right to ridicule religious personalities – to be universal or at least superior (though ‘we’ would probably prefer to call it ‘enlightened’) this prevents us from considering as equally valid sensibilities based in values different or even contradictory to ours. Even worse, as ‘we’ have internalised or, as I’d prefer to call it, naturalised, these values ‘we’ are also unable to acknowledge them for what they are: one of many possible sets of values rooted in one of many possible ideologies. Why is this important? Well, once I acknowledge them as what they are, I should be able to take a step back and (at the very least for the purpose of intellectual exchange and academic analysis) take into serious consideration the motivations and responses (intellectual as well as emotional) of those either offended by the Danish cartoons or those involved in iconoclastic acts (whether or not in the name of religion). Of course, this alone will not enable me (or anybody else whose been deeply socialised into a secular ideology?) to fully comprehend the feelings of, say, my Nigerian friend about these cartoons. Of course, this alone will not enable me (or anybody else whose been socialised into a secular ideology?) to fully comprehend the feelings of, say, my Nigerian friend about these cartoons. In fact, I believe that neither my academic writing nor my friendship require me to do so. Rather, my PhD thesis requires me to seriously consider the intellectual reasoning and sentiments involved while my friendship requires me to sufficiently respect my friend’s feelings for what they are. (If they somewhat contradict my secular values, so it be, after all ‘our’ theory and practice of secularism itself is by no means free of contradictions)

But getting back to my academic writing. Here, Goldstone’s observation that secular/liberal Western societies (or rather those officially legitimised by reference to this ideology and set of values) have their own sanctities and taboos appears to be stating the obvious. With regard to the Cartoon crisis as well as the events surrounding the disclosure of the Afghan Abdul Rahman’s conversion to Christianity and subsequent threat of execution on the hands of the Afghan state in 2006 he analyses contemporary Western discourses:

More often than not, the debates surrounding the cartoons hinged on the degree to which a free press should be expected to respect “Islamic taboos” in public, while the Abdul Rahman [case] seemed to expose an intrinsic tension between the “sacredness” of universal human rights and the “sacredness” of Islamic codes of conduct. (p. 218)

While this is important to keep in mind it does not provide a model of analysis. In this regard, I have recently been pointed towards the works of David Morgan of Valparaiso University, Indiana, US. He has introduced concepts such as the ‘sacred gaze’ and ‘visual piety’ to academic discourse about religion and visual culture. I have only started reading his 2005 publication The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture and cannot yet say a lot about it. But I already suspect that both concepts might provide useful models especially where discussions of religious imagery, i.e. the already mentioned posters depicting scenes from the Quranic narrative and historic personalities are concerned. Whether or not they provide a useful analytical tool to discuss iconoclastic acts or aniconic attitudes, the latter of which have been repeatedly voiced in northern Nigeria, still needs to be seen.

As I find this a useful exercise to organise my thoughts, I guess I keep you informed …


  1. another opinion from 2006:



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