A blinkered response to idol threats

April 9, 2004

A year after Saddam's statue came down, we reflect on two acts of iconoclasm and ask Middle East experts for their views on the war and its effects

By ignoring Islam's differing strains, evident in the inconsistent attitudes to icons in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has chosen a dangerous route that may alienate all Muslims, says Andrew Petersen

Almost exactly a year ago, the Americans and their allies celebrated their first decisive victory in the "war on terror" when Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad's Firdaus Square was pulled to the ground and destroyed. That moment has become one of the images that have characterised the first years of the 21st century.

It is an event that calls to mind another destruction two years earlier in Afghanistan, before the war on terror had become part of our everyday vocabulary - the blasting of the Buddhas at Bamiyan by the Taliban in spring 2001. The events are linked, not only by the fact that they are both connected to the war on terror but also by the fact that they represent major acts of iconoclasm. According to the Oxford English Dictionary , iconoclasm is the breaking of images, specifically those associated with cherished beliefs.

The destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan is the most obvious example of iconoclasm in which religious images of one faith are destroyed by adherents of another. The toppling of Saddam's statue and its subsequent dismemberment was also an act of iconoclasm, representing the overthrow of dictatorial rule.

What both these events call into question is the status of figural images in Islamic society. On the one hand we see Iraq, an Arab Muslim state, erecting statues of its leader, and, on the other, we see Afghanistan, a Muslim regime intent on destroying all figural imagery and with a particular hatred of statues.

It should be pointed out that all three monotheistic religions have at various times and places banned the use of figural imagery. Within Judaism, the ban stems directly from the Second Commandment, and it is still rare to find figural images in Jewish religious art. In early Christian (Byzantine) art, there was a period of iconoclasm in the 8th century probably in response to Islam's ban on figural images. In Islamic culture, the prohibition on the use of figural images was probably a reaction to the veneration of icons by Orthodox Christians and to the carved stone heads representing pagan deities that had surrounded the Kaaba in Mecca in pre-Islamic times. The scriptural authority for the ban on figural images is derived from the Koran (Sura 7, 138-40), which itself refers back to Moses and the Ten Commandments. But there have been huge variations of interpretation from a simple prohibition of depictions of the deity to a blanket ban on all images.

In general, however, there has been a tolerance of figural images as long as they do not appear in mosques or other religious settings. For instance, the earliest examples of Islamic art include sculptures of semi-naked females and paintings from the desert palaces of the Umayyad rulers in Syria and Jordan. Where iconoclasm was practised, it was usually mild in its application - often no more than breaking a nose off a statue or drawing a line through the neck of a person depicted in a painting. It is also noticeable that Shia Muslims have a more accepting attitude to the depiction of figural images than Sunni and even use it in religious art - thus it is common to have depictions of the prophet Muhammad riding the winged horse Bulaq on the journey to Jerusalem.

In general, however, Islamic culture has discouraged figural representation in art and, in particular, statues that have the obvious potential of being used as idols. For example, in most Arab Islamic states, with the exceptions of Syria and Iraq, it is rare to find statues of prominent historical or national figures. Instead, where one would expect to find such sculptures, such as municipal buildings or public gardens, one finds non-figural sculptures such as coffee pots or depictions of the Koran or contemporary abstract sculptures. In this context, it is not surprising to find that Saudi Arabia has a rich collection of abstract art by famous sculptors such as Henry Moore.

Why are Iraq and Syria exceptions to this general rule? In both countries, statues are relatively common, depicting not only the leader but also important historical figures - examples include the famous statue of Saladin outside the citadel in Damascus or the winged figure of Abbas bin Furnas (a 9th-century Arab inventor) near Baghdad International Airport.

Indeed, the official 1982 tourist guide to Iraq has a chapter devoted to "Statues and monuments in Baghdad".

On a cultural level, both countries have a mixed population that includes a large proportion of Christians and non-Sunni Muslims, both of whom are more favourably disposed towards figural images than adherents of mainstream Sunni Islam. More importantly, both countries were ruled by the ideology of the Baath party, which looked to the Soviet Union for its ideology and emphasised national pan-Arab identity over religious and ethnic identity.

If we return to al-Qaida and the Taliban, the contrast could not be more acute. The destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan was only the most dramatic episode in a programme that had seen the destruction of countless museum objects, the burning of pictorial images in books and the smashing of television sets. The thoroughness of this iconoclastic programme is breathtaking. The Taliban made sure, for example, that when they blew up the Buddhas at Bamiyan they used enough explosives to ensure that the statues were literally turned to dust to prevent any attempts at reassembling them. To appreciate just how extreme this action was, remember that the Buddhas at Bamiyan had survived more than a thousand years of Muslim rule.

How then are we to interpret the destruction of Saddam's statue? Leaving aside the obvious political significance - the fall of the statue symbolising the fall of a little-mourned dictatorial regime - the pulling-down and dismemberment of Saddam's statue dramatically illustrates how far the war on terror had strayed from its stated aims of combating Islamic extremism.

Saddam's regime was extremely secular, as demonstrated by its sponsorship of art in general and statues in particular. The addition of the shahada (Muslim proclamation of faith) to the Iraqi flag was merely a political ploy to draw Muslim sympathy after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. By contrast, the Taliban regime saw itself as a theocracy and had an unprecedented distaste for figural imagery. The Taliban would have regarded Saddam's statue with even more distaste than the Americans, hating not only the leader it represented but also the fact that it was a likeness of a living person and, worse still, that it was meant to be revered by the Iraqi people.

The fact that the US used the war on terror as a reason to attack Iraq may have been politically expedient, but to many ordinary Muslims throughout the world it appears to have been a blanket excuse to occupy any Arab or Islamic country that opposed US policy in the region. Perhaps more important, it shows an inability to differentiate between different forms of Islamic culture that will, in the long run, only further alienate the opinions of mainstream and moderate Muslims in the region.

Andrew Petersen is a research fellow in the School of History and Archaeology at Cardiff University.

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