There is a great piece in the New Inquiry by Teju Cole on the recent destruction of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu. I was already drawn to this story for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because Timbuktu, well, the environs of Timbuktu, are on my travel list--I want to go to the Festival of the Desert some time (i.e. when I have the cash!), and Timbuktu is the jumping off point to reach it, I love Malian music, and I have a general fascination with all things African. The second reason I was drawn to the story, was because when I came across it in the Guardian the other day, it mirrored, in my mind, a similarly tragic event in Afghanistan when the Taliban destroyed centuries-old Buddhist statues. What struck me about this story, and this is something Cole hints at in his telling, is that this time the destruction was not of artifacts and symbols of another faith, but of another way of practicing the same faith--it's a Muslim shrine, but not a form of Islam acceptable to this particular group of Islamists. In this regard, the story parallels the Catholic/Protestant conflicts that marked and marred the Reformation.
On one level I think what we find, what I find, most disturbing, is that it is as much the loss of the history associated with these shrines that we mourn as much as the present--I admit that I don't particularly need a shrine or site of remembrance, but the beauty of them, their distinct character, the artistry and what they mean to the local community, and perhaps what they mean to the world in terms of human self-understanding, that's another matter.
Of course, what this raises once again is violence done in the name of god--any god. You can understand the resistance of so many to ideas about the sacred, when there seems to be so much associated violence and aggression. Religion is not the only ideological position that can be accompanied by aggression, but in our minds, it seems incongruous for those two to travel hand in hand, and yet, human history seems to underscore the fairly easy way that these two elements find each other. One group calls another's form of worship 'idolatry' and away we go--'our way' is the right way and all that. It's tragic.
We just finshed Simon Critchley's book, The Faith of the Faithless, which explores, just that, whether or not it is possible to identify and embrace a 'faithless faith'--one of our questions at the end of our book group discussion was whether or not, such a faithless faith could inform the faithful--a question Critchley doesn't address but one I wish he would.
After describing the present acts of destruction Cole turns our attention to Europe in the 16th century and to similar acts of destruction as angry Calvinists attack a church in Steenvoorde, in what is now Belgium, and how this violence spread to other towns--Ghent, Antwerp--essentially the same mentality at work.
I have a book, 'Religion' and the Religions in the English Enlightenment by Peter Harrison, a fascinating exploration of the way in which the world of comparative religion came to be. He explores how concepts of 'religion' and 'the religions' emerged out of a very specific set of questions that were prompted by the times--by exploration, by science, by 'new' knowledge, and how these things essentially led to our modern understanding of religion. It occurs to me that we are witnessing another moment, one in which perhaps, our understanding of religion is once again being redefined. "In the projection of the West's religious fragmentation onto the whole world was created the intellectual problem of global religious pluralism." Harrison argues that the Reformation transcended the theological and opened up new ways of thinking, ways that reverberate to this day. I think, as I said, that we are in one of these moments. it seems to be particularly true for Islam. I am no scholar of Islam, but it would seem that it is experiencing twists and turns not previously experienced within the horizons of that religion, at least not to this degree. On a similar plain, Christianity seems to be undergoing another shift, which has momentous implications for it, but I might want to argue that the Reformation initiated a view of faith and religion that has 'change' inscribed into it, even though for many, change is the devil, whereas Islam has yet to experience this dynamic and consequently it is in the first wave of global change?
Fear lies at the heart of all this as far as I am concerned--we destroy, because we are afraid it is the only way to justify our beliefs about ourselves--if we are not right, then what? They believe in the idols they destroy as much as those who claim to believe in them--we want to destroy them, because we believe they actualy have the power to destroy us. Cole writes much more eloquently of iconoclasm that I can so read him on this.
There is another option to destruction--let these silent witnesses speak, let them do their work. Let them destroy our faith, our beliefs, our fears, because, as I read Christianity at least, in the collapse of all of that we don't lose God, that's where we discover (Jesus).