The semiotics of swords

Look at this creepy scene of jihadi role playing. This Islamic obsession with all things martial is so alien to the Judeo-Christian tradition, don’t you think?

Christian Palestinian brandishing sword

Photograph by Ed Kashi, National Geographic

Which is why it’s so interesting that these are really Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem, caught while celebrating Easter.

When a Christian swings a sword at party, it’s just innocent fun, at most an assertion of healthy pride in tradition.  When a Muslim does it, to the contrary, it’s practice for killing infidels.

  • dawood

    The caption is even more interesting:
    “In high spirits, churchgoers rock the Christian Quarter at Easter.”
    High spirits…? The double standard is amazing! The pictures of Maronite militia forces etc. in Lebanon is also interesting in that it is glossed over too in a few words, especially when it also mentions war heroes etc.

  • svend

    Salaams, Dawood
    There certainly are double standards, though I don’t have a problem with the National Geographic piece or its captioning. I’m thinking here of the unconscious filters through which “we” look at those we perceive as other.

  • TM Lutas

    I understand the desire to escape the shame that chuckleheads like Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Queda, et al have brought down on Islam. I think that you’re stretching quite a bit to make your point here and ultimately it fails because of it. The guy with the swords is a fool, no doubt but other than the caption what makes the scene associated with christianity? What creeps out many is the juxtaposition of violence toward others with an extreme, uncompromising faith, of which there are images aplenty in looking at the loud portions of Islam.
    While I think ultimately your point fails anyway, you could have found more threatening images of christians. You want creepy christian images, try the flagellants or the filipino easter crucifixions. But that sort of violence is turned inward and while alarming isn’t threatening per se. The equivalent would be the Shia Ashura flagellants which are creepy too but people aren’t unhappy about them in the same way they are unhappy about dressing up kids as suicide bombers with fake bomb belts.
    The IRA and Orangemen of Northern Ireland probably are the closest you’re going to get in the modern era (the Orangemen especially love a hate filled parade during ‘marching season’) but even there, there is no universal threat, no feeling that the only thing separating you from being on today’s target list are all the other people more accessible to these maniacs. Depending on the inefficiency of evil is an unsettling thought.

  • svend

    Hi TM
    Ironically, it appears that I’m interpreting the picture less negatively than you, as I see it as simply a gesture of pride expressed in a traditional cultural idiom that is unfamiliar to to outsiders.
    I spent some time in Hawaii years ago and was struck by how some Hawaiian sovereignty literature and producst sometimes involved a hand holding a machete up. Finding it instinctively threatening(and this was before the horrors of Sierra Leone), I was surprised to see it described simply as a symbol of Hawaiian pride and roots. What to me is a weapon, to them is a farm implement and a reminder of a different age. I think swords function in this manner in many places where people haven’t yet been socialized to view them as relics of barbaric past.
    My post wasn’t intended as more than a reflection on how powerfully our unconscious sense of shared cultural identity (or lack thereof) informs our interpretations of images from other parts of the world. My main point was that the knowledge that these people were Christian would instantly transform this picture from sinister to touching in many people’s minds.

  • Manas Shaikh

    Aha, you are speaking of swords?

  • TM Lutas

    svend – If you’re waving swords about in a narrow zone that is that crowded and on such an unstable platform as sitting on somebody else’s shoulders, you’re irresponsible, irrespective of religion. If that guy he’s riding on slips, falls, or has a heart attack, people are going to get hurt from those swords. The potential for Darwin award status is what makes the scene creepy for me. Maybe I’m driven more about the physics of the scene than any sort of cultural analysis.
    As for weapons v farm implements, much cannon fodder in the medieval period fought with farm implement and many oriental martial arts weapons are modified farm implements. There’s nothing new about a tool that is both. The threat is based on the intent of the user.

  • svend

    In fairness to the gentleman, the things look pretty ceremonial. Probably couldn’t cut a banana.
    I am aware of the common functional overlap you mention, but that doesn’t affect how differently a given item operates in people’s minds depending on their background. I think most Americans would like me find the idea of a machete symbolizing simple ethnic pride highly counterintuitive, but it makes sense if your (now tourism-dependent) society’s premodern economy was sugarcane farming.

  • svend

    You’re right, Manas. “Touching” isn’t the right word. The word I was looking for was perhaps “quaint”.

  • Manas Shaikh

    It’s hard to argue people through feelings. That’s very very hard. Often it leads to entrenchment (is that a word?) of either opinion.
    If they are exposed to an alternative “environment” they adapt to it much quicker. For example if they are given cues as to the soft side of Muslims (since that’s the context we are talking in), they adapt that attitude.
    It’s interesting how our minds work. I have rarely seen arguments change the opinion of the participators. (They change opinion of the listeners though- perhaps because their ego is detached- they not being afraid of being “proven wrong.”)

  • Geoff

    Of course! Palestinian Christians must, in line with this reasoning, therefore be running muslim Palestinians out of their homes and lands! Their aggression must be evident!
    It isn’t? And they’re not?
    Well, never mind then.
    Prophet Geoff
    (And don’t you bother to investigate the origins of the event, or whether or not it was an indigenous meme long before islam came to the Middle East. Not necessary. After all, cultural transfer by definition must be from non-muslims to muslims…no?)