Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

Not so long ago Buddhists and art lovers of the world were aghast when the Afghan Taliban destroyed the famous Buddhist statues in Bamiyan. I thought of this tragedy when I learned that  Salafist gangs known as the Ansar Dine (Defenders of Islam) connected with Al Qaeda in Northen Mali are destroying Sufi shrines and have smashed in the main door of the world-famous 15th mosque in Timbuktu. You might say that this strain of Islam produces equal opportunity iconoclasts.

The Golden Calf Precedent

The prohibition of idol worship has a long history among the so-called Abrahamic religions.  One has only to read what the Christians call the Old Testament and the Jews call Torah to find the story of how the Israelites went astray and began worshiping a golden calf and how the idol was destroyed and the wrong-doers castigated when Abraham found out. Is this so different from what’s happening in Mali today? 

Protestant extremists during the Reformation were equally stringent about rejecting what they called saint worship among Catholics.  They destroyed monasteries and cleansed their own places of worship of all imagery.  The grounds were the same as those cited by today’s Salafists: the Catholics/Sufis were inserting saints between believers and God.  As a result, the Puritan churches in Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, were beautiful, but austere in the extreme. There is a strong strain of equally stringent Calvinistic puritanism in some branches of contemporary  Presbyterianism.  Christmas trees and Santa Claus are rejected as unwelcome pagan traditions. No organs or pianos either.  Only the human voice during worship. 

Missionaries Singing the Same Song

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Christian and Muslim missionaries made identical demands of the Batak tribes of North Sumatra: smash your idols; destroy your ritual objects; eradicate your pagan past.  Most converts, some out of fear, some out of zeal, acquiesced in the wholesale destruction of their material culture.

Some people, fortunately, resisted.  They hid their religio/cultural treasures away, some for centuries, some for decades, and many, though made of wood, survived into the 1980s when I was sent by  USIA to be Branch Public Affairs Officer in Medan, Indonesia. My philosophy being that you can’t influence people unless you understand them, I tried to find out as much as I could about the Batak culture that was so haughtily despised by the Javanese I’d known in Jakarta. And so I met people who, though Muslim or Christian by confession, were proud of their Batak roots.  They proudly showed me their treasures, especially a physician who had been a life-long collector of these materials.  This doctor’s home was like a museum, and together we conceived the idea of an exhibit at the American Center.  It would combine his collection with contributions which I subsequently sought from every corner of the Batak world.

The exhibit, the first of its kind, was a smashing success. The governor of West Sumatra, not only a general but himself a Batak, opened it, and it was reviewed enthusiastically by the premier national news magazine, thus putting the American Center in a very favorable light in the cultural capital of the country.  As far as I’m concerned, it was the best thing I did during my two years in Medan. (And for you bean counters, note that it cost us less than $500, including gas for those collecting trips, refreshments for the reception, a little staff overtime and a slightly higher electricity bill.)

The Power of Icons

Interestingly enough, the Doctor’s wife did not share her husband’s enthusiasm for the objects in his collection.  (She collected antique Chinese pottery and porcelain.) Some of the figures had stains which were, she was sure, evidence of having been anointed with sacred oils and powders.  That being the case, they might still have power, and so they frightened her. 

Perhaps my Batak friends should once again think of hiding their treasures.  Indonesian Islam is now finding room for proponants of violent intolerance of the sort we used to think was incompatible with Indonesia's supposedly well-ingrained syncretism.

Meanwhile, I think of the Doctor’s highly-educated wife when I consider the vehemence of Wahabis, who eradicated most (or all) evidence of pre-Muslim culture in Saudi Arabia.  I thought of her when the Ansar Dine, the Wahabi-related Salafists,  pushing their Tuareg nationalist allies aside,  set about smashing the frighteningly-powerful mausoleums that are precious to the local people who consider themselves to be perfectly good Muslims.  The so-called “saint-worshippers” had to flee, of course. The alternative would be life under an alien Taliban-like regime.

No to Imported Islam

On July 5, non-Salafist  Muslims converged on Mali’s capital Bamako to protest the defamations in Timbuktu.  Thousands of ordinary people gathered and many religious leaders spoke out strongly against the shrine-smashing. This is the sort of thing that was said:   “All of us are joining hands to protest against the profanation of the mausoleums of Timbuktu.”  “Those who carried out these acts…have no notion of Islam.” “No to imported Islam [which is to say, from Wahabi Arabia], yes to the Islam of our [African] parents.”  The sense of possible loss in Bamako was strong. “Timbuktu was founded on a pure Islam, respectful of men, of all men.” 

The non-Muslim world is strongly sympathetic to proponents of tolerant Islam and to the need for the protection of world heritage sites derived from all religious and spiritual  traditions.    Consider the following statement by Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO'S Assistant Director-General for Culture, when he asked if the destruction of shrines and artifacts in Timbuktu can be seen as an “act of war”:

It is, and it has been declared so by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. In effect there is an article called Article 8 of the Rome Treaty, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court. It talks specifically about destruction of heritage. So we are in a zone of international criminal law which is clearly determined; they are violating this law and they are subject to prosecution. Mali is a signatory of this treaty, they will be prosecuted.

Unfortunately such sentiments will have no impact on those who have now wrested control of Timbuktu.  As a media man for the Ansar Dine put it, “There is no world heritage.  It doesn’t exist. The infidels must not get involved in our business.”

Wars of Religion

And so, pious statements from a powerless UNESCO notwithstanding,  the iconoclasm will continue, until tolerant Islam is able or willing to protect itself from well-armed zealous puritans.  The West had its brutal wars of religion, of which remnants survive even in the U.S. today.  Islam is now caught up  in a perhaps more complex network of wars of religion into which the West, especially the U.S.,  has allowed itself to become entangled (though most Americans don't see it that way).  The  perfectly predictable sort of blowback is what we call Islamic terrorist extremism.  Perhaps the ultimate trajectory for Islam will resemble that of Christianity.  Sects will discover it's better to agree to disagree and work by persuasion alone.  In the meantime, the single-minded  iconoclasts, though apparently in the minority, seem to have the zeal that will always intimidate the lukewarm.  To say nothing of the weapons, of course.