On Iconoclasm (yes, still thinking about it)

One of Morgan's discussions in The Sacred Gaze of particular importance to my own argument deals with the dichotomic pair of iconoclasm and idolatry. However, before I get into the discussion of these concepts let me introduce you to one of the most irritating statements in the book – really, I would be grateful for any guidance on how to understand it:

Something of what religious believers see when they look at the world around them, at themselves, and at images is not goodness and light, not heady aesthetic contemplation, but the occasion for violence and scorn. (p. 116)

Anyway, let’s get back to iconoclasm and idolatry, or rather idolatry: Here, Morgan convincingly argues that

Iconoclasm presupposes idolatry. By definition, iconoclasm cannot be conceived or practices without the requisite “other” it seeks to rout out of human behaviour. But this does not mean that iconoclasts are reacting to anything real. In fact, they often imagine the offense they seek to reprove. They need the other to destroy in order to construct a new tradition in which to exist. (p. 117)

‘[A]s a polemical tactic in monotheistic discourse’ idolatry has of course a long history Morgan argues, always (also) constitutes an Other vis-à-vis which one religious group distinguishes itself – ‘it dialectically affirms a community of faith that is distinct and superior to those it classifies as idolators.’ (p. 126) Islam, e.g., defines itself (among other things) in clear distinction from earlier, allegedly idolatrous jahiliyya religion and a proclaimed return to the ancient monotheism of Abraham symbolised in Muhammad’s destruction of idols in the Ka’ba. The ideological dimension of accusations of idolatry and their manipulation for the sake of religious (and political) hegemony the author discusses extensively drawing upon Kenneth Mills’ research into the material culture and practices of Andean religion in the face of Spanish rule and inquisition. Of particular interest here is ‘what examiners, bishops, and archbishops meant by “idolatry”.’ (p. 122) He finds that ‘it could mean virtually anything that did not fit the inquisitor’s notion of Christian orthodoxy’ and ‘[t]he more it appeared that the church was failing to inculcate its beliefs in a lasting and significant way, the more inclusive the meaning of idolatry became.’ (p. 122-23) Mills argues that campaigns to locate and root out ‘idolatrous practices’ served several ends: Significantly, it provided an opportunity for ‘a spectacle, a theatrical staging of violence that would enact an ideological transfiguration of the past. As a decisive display of power, public punishment or the forceful upending of a huaca and its removal or defacement publicly established and enforced the church’s authority and that of the Spanish state that stood beside it. Violence was the theatrical performance of change …’ (p. 123-24) This suggests that probably not only in the particular context examined by Mills but more commonly accusations of idolatry served as much as legitimation for highly symbolic acts of violence as they referred to actual religious practices.

One more aspect to be mentioned regarding idolatry as a ‘polemical tactical’ discursive tool concerns the re-classification (or, after James Clifford ‘taxonomic shift’) of former idols into ‘cultural curiosities’ in the course of the development of the anthropology as a discipline and the anthropological museum and, later, into ‘Art.’ (p. 128) Not inappropriately Morgan associates this process with, what he calls, ‘soft iconoclasm’: While images (two- as well as three-dimensional) were not physically destroyed they were nevertheless removed from their original context. Within the context of Christian missionary efforts, they ‘were testaments of success and were therefore of greater value intact, undamaged, as indices of evangelical efficacy.’ (p. 128) In the context of the Western anthropological and art museum, one might add, their redefinition as Art as well as efforts at their preservation served as symbols of the West’s intellectual and civilising superiority: Here, for example take, William Fagg’s simultaneous claim that, on the one hand, ‘every [African] tribe is, from the point of view of art, a universe to itself.’ These tribal universes,’ he asserted, ‘were mutually exclusive with artistic horizons limited to the frontier of each universe,’ their artworks comprehensible and meaningful only to members of the group. (Fagg 1966: 5). On the other hand, the white British ‘ethnologist and historian of tribal art,’ to quote The Independent (14. July 1992), claimed the competence (and entitlement) to translate and negotiate their meaning and significance across the very same cultural divides. Morgan’s own discussion, here drawing upon the work of David Freedberg and Dario Gamboni, suggests that the redefinition of idols into anthropological artifacts and works of art involved a simultaneous reassessment of iconoclasm, now increasingly identified as vandalism:

The Enlightment shares the exclusivist claims of radical monotheism: all other gods are false. The motive for idolatry is simply ignorance. (p. 139)

Here, only consider the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha’s by the Taliban in 2001 or Western press discourse about the violent reaction of sections of the global Muslim community to the Danish cartoons (let’s not go there again, we’ve touched upon it in a former blog post). The former is discussed by Morgan in some detail and as I consider his analysis quite telling, especially bearing in mind the above mentioned contemporary association of iconoclasm with (uncivilised?) vandalism, let me discuss his argument. – But before presenting the arguments, in the course of which I will draw upon internet sources some of which might reflect/express pro-Taliban views, let me clarify: Here, I am interested in problematising the notion of iconoclasm and its use in (Western) press and popular discourse in order to clarify my own assessment of aniconic or indeed iconoclastic views I encountered during fieldwork. I do not wish to advance any apologetic or pro-Taliban argument myself and, on the contrary, explicitly distance myself from any such views expressed on the web resources I draw upon. I will provide the relevant links and trust you to further (critically) evaluate the sources and the (ideological) position from which they are written! - But, moving on the actual argument I’m hoping to make:

In his discussion, Morgan considers the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha’s as a primarily secular ‘calculated political gesture’ (p. 136) to ‘offend the West and to strengthen the otherwise largely impotent Taliban.’ (p. 138): Speaking on invitation of the Muslim Student Association and the Muslim Student Union of the University of South California the Taliban’s envoy Syed Rahmatullah Hashemi is reported to have argued:

Several hundred children died a month ago … Nobody even talked about that. Everybody knows about the statues. … They are destroying the future of our children with economic sanctions, how are they going to justify talking about our past? I know it’s not rational and logical to blow the statues for retaliation of economic sanctions. But this is how it is. … I talked to the head of the council of scholars of people, who had actually decided this, he told me that UNESCO and [a] NGO from … one of these Scandinavian countries … had come with a project of rebuilding the face of these statues … So the council of people had told them to spend that money in saving the lives of these children … And these guys said that, No, the money is only for the statues. … They said that, if you don’t care about our children, we are going to blow those statues. (for the transcript of the speech including some audience reactions cf. here.)

Here then, a representative of the Taliban regime portrayed the destruction of the sculptures as a political act, indeed a spectacle of resistance against and abashment of the West and its morally questionable priorities, its secular ‘sacralisation’ of artworks, rather than an act of religiously motivated iconoclasm. In fact, he continued:

And we are not against Buddhists; absolutely wrong. We are not against any religion. There are Hindus living in Afghanistan; there are different religions. There is one man who is a Jew living in Afghanistan. So we are not against any religion. And there is no Buddhist in Afghanistan, this I can say. In our religion, if anything, you can leave anything until it is not harmful to you. These Buddhas were not harmful to us, so far. But now when the money is going to Buddhas reconstruction, and the children are dying next door, we think it’s harmful now.

(This is not the space nor am I competent to comment on the treatment of religious minority under the Afghan Taliban regime, cf. for a discussion of the situation of Hindus in Afghanistan cf. Tunku Varadarajan of the Wall Street Journal, himself a Hindu. A decidedly pro-Taliban reaction to the article has been published by Khalid Baig.)

In fact, in July 1999 Mullah Mohammed Omar had issued a decree expressing the Taliban’s intention to protect the Buddhas. (Guardian, 3 March 2001) Having said this, the transcript of the speech suggests that nevertheless the destruction of the Buddhas’ was perceived by (a) member(s) of the audience in terms of religious iconoclasm:

A questioner asked, As Salaamu `Alaykum wa Rahmatullaahi wa Barakaatuh. Brother, Afghanistan is now supposed to be a Muslim country, Insha Allah. And these statues are just like the statues in Makkah, when Rasoolillah (saws) came to Makkah, and it was the very first thing that he did was to destroy the statues. What is taking us so long? Why aren’t they destroyed already?

In his response the Hashemi tactically avoided to address the possible religious dimension of the act instead referring to ‘Muslim minorities in some countries’ for which the Taliban did not want to create problems: ‘… that is why we are still waiting, and we hope that we will resolve this problem.’ In his stead this Mullah Omar clearly established this link in his fatwa:

In view of the fatwa (religious edict) of prominent Afghan scholars and the verdict of the Afghan Supreme Court it has been decided to break down all statues/idols present in different parts of the country. This is because these idols have been gods of the infidels, and these are respected even now and perhaps maybe turned into gods again. The real God is only Allah, and all other false gods should be removed. (quoted by Francesco Francioni and Frederico Lenzerini in: Barbara T. Hoffman, ed. 2006: Art and Cultural Heritage. p. 32)

In any case, this was how the destruction of the sculptures was perceived in (not only) Western press discourse: Start considering even the headline of Tunku Varadarajan’s article discussing the Buddha’s destruction in the context of a wider consideration of the Aghan Taliban regime’s treatment of Hindus: Patches of Evil: The Taliban’s Latest Atrocity (25 May 2001) He describes the iconoclasm as ‘an act of mindless barbarity, of wanton destruction – the actions, arguably, of a primitive, backward and ignorant rabble’ denouncing Hashemi’s argumentation as ‘plainly spurious:’ (my emphasis)

Mr. Hashimi’s version highlights the intellectual and philosophical backwardness of the Taliban. Were we supposed to feel guilty for having made them knock down Afghanistan’s most ancient artifacts? (my emphasis)

Afghanistan ‘is becoming an island of madness’ a ‘western cultural expert’ is reported saying by Luke Harding of the Guardian (3 March 2001), such once again establishing a relationship between iconoclasm and barbarism. In fact, foregrounding the religious argument Hardin himself establishes a link between religious fundamentalism (describing the Taliban as ‘the world’s most extreme brand of Islam’), artistic censorship (the prohibition of the ‘portrayal of the human image’) and destructive iconoclasm against Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

Cutting a long story short: Writing with a distance of 5 years, Francioni and Lenzerini summarised Western contemporary opinion:

There was great concern for the moral degradation shown by the authors of such acts, and a certain anxiety regarding the role of international law in preventing and suppressing such form of cultural vandalism, which, in the words of the UNESCO Director General, can constitute a "crime against culture" […]... people all over the world have called for international mobilisation against such acts of barbarity and religious intolerance such as the bombing of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. (In: Barbara T. Hoffman, ed. 2006: Art and Cultural Heritage. p. 29&39, my emphasis)

Hence, despite the Talibans’ attempt to frame the events in terms of a political discourse of failed, indeed refused humanitarian assistance they were primarily perceived in terms of ‘barbaric’ iconoclasm and vandalism – a discourse reflecting the ‘taxonomic shift’ that realigned civilisation from its association with the rejection and, indeed, iconoclastic destruction of idols towards their protection as (secularised) cultural artifacts and art works.

Nevertheless, Morgan argues the ‘Western outrage overlooks the degree to which the West was complicit in contributing to Afghanistan’s plight.’ In this context, ‘[t]he power of images in this instance of iconoclasm conist[ed] of the power the destructive act to offend the West and to strengthen the otherwise largely impotent Taliban.’ (p. 138) Acknowledging this political dimension and the complicity of Western politics in Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis is not to deny the reprehensible character of the iconoclastic act but to put it into perspective; it is not to deny the religious dimension Mullah Omar invoked himself but to reduce the events to an at of ‘mindless’ or, indeed, uncivilised ‘religious fear.’ (p. 138)

And, yes, I do believe there is an undeniable element of hypocracy in the Western discourse associating iconoclasm with vandalism and, indeed a lack of civilisation that is reflected in Western press coverage of the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha’s. It is reflected in the rather cheerful reaction of to the toppling and subsequent destruction of ‘a host of bronze statuary depicting Saddam Hussein and members of his party following the American invasion.’ Unlike the case of the Afghan buddhas that provided a welcome occasion to further discredit the Taliban’s regime as ‘barbaric’ and ‘uncivilised’, their demolition was considered ‘emblematic of the removal of a dictatorial regime to make way for a pre-Western, democratic government in the country.’ (p. 136) Or, as a German who spent the first eleven years of her live in East Germany I have to think of the iconoclastic acts of obscuring the former GDR’s communist past by renaming streets called after personalities of the country’s factual and ideological past as well as the de-contextualisation, toppling and, indeed, destruction of statuary primarily depicting pioneers of communist thought. (cf. Gamboni 1997: esp. p. 79ff)

Indeed, Morgan insists – here primarily drawing upon the work of Dario Gamboni – we need to ask ‘under what circumstances an [iconoclastic] act is labelled vandalism.’ (p. 138):

… vandalism is the recurrent explanation given to the destruction of works of art by governments, courts, police departments, and such institutions as the church, since each of these strongly prefers civil order to violent acts … Vandalism as an explanation does not admit political protest [which would risk] extending legitimacy to a marginalised and heterogeneous group that may have targeted the very values of the establishment. Yet what is vandalism to one observer who repudiates the desecration of the national flag, for instance, will be potent political protest to the person or group destroying the flag. (p. 139)

This further emphasises the need to consider in any discussion of iconoclasm and explicit pronouncement of aniconism the socio-political and ideological context in which it is enacted as well as judged. This brings us straight back to the (rhetoric) question I raised in an earlier blog entry: To which extent and how do I need to consider Nigerian socio- and religious politics in my writing about contemporary arts in northern Nigeria? – For example, might the explicitly aniconic views (“This is an Islamic university [BUK], an art course would contravene the university’s founding principles!”) expressed by some Nigerian Muslims I spoke to not also be a means of distancing themselves from the (perceived and/or actual) devotional use of images by Christians and/or the visual piety (to use Morgan’s term) of Sufis in a contemporary climate of politicised religion/religionised politics?


  1. Just came across this and thought it fits ... or rather adds to the above discussion:

    'We become aware of the violent practices of the Taliban on television, in print, and on the Internet, where images of the statues appear in their former condition, prior to the attacks. It is not difficult to feel outrage about the reduction of these magnificent works to rubble and to feel superior to those who are carrying out the process of annihilation. It is equally easy to forget that western Europe has seen its own share of iconoclasm and that attempts to defend the Buddhas on the grounds that they are works of art relies on a concept of art that was invented only in the eighteenth century ...' (Shapiro 2003: Archaeologies of Vision, p. 3)

  2. I enjoyed this piece, thanks.
    (Separately, I had the opportunity, recently, to revisit the subject of Rahmatullah Hashmi:


  3. on the detachment of art from religion, well Christianity, in the European context and art and the museum as a new, quasi-religious entity:

    "So a Rabbi and a Pope had a quick quarrel about the Ten Commandments in front of the first public art museum in the world. Where they disagreed most sharply was over the status of the second commandment. In the late 18th century, Art was being subtly detached from Religion, the Christian religion that is, as a separate source of public/private epiphanies.

    Art was the new religion, and museums were their new temples. This profound cultural movement has not come to rest in our own time."



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