Some of the world’s grimmest headlines these days are coming out of North Africa, and particularly the vast country of Mali, which few Westerners would be able to locate on a map. As I described in a recent column on RealClearReligion, the country has become a happy hunting ground for brutal Islamist militias, many claiming a connection to the al-Qaeda franchise.
Apart from its assaults on local communities, the extremists have launched a hideous campaign to destroy the region’s cultural treasures, the libraries and shrines associated with local forms of Sufi Islam. As I wrote, “For centuries, Islam across Africa has been founded on Sufi brotherhoods that draw heavily on local spiritual traditions, with their veneration of holy leaders and saints, their tombs and healing shrines.” All those sites and shrines are now under deadly threat from groups like Ansar Dine, Defenders of the Faith, in a systematic crime against religion, against Africa, and against human civilization. It recalls the Taliban’s earlier destruction of the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues, in Afghanistan. In both cases, religious zealots seek to annihilate anything they believe to be superstitious accretions to what should be a pure faith in the form handed down by God, no matter how highly they are valued by a corrupt secular world. Or, to recall Yeats:
Civilization is hooped together, brought
Under a rule, under the semblance of peace
By manifold illusion; but man’s life is thought,
And he, despite his terror, cannot cease
Ravening through century after century,
Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come
Into the desolation of reality.
It’s a dreadful story, but there’s a certain irony in the horrified Western response to the iconoclasm, and the assumption that it reflects Muslim primitivism. In a couple of years, Americans and Europeans will be celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which they recall as an explosion of human liberty and religious self-expression. Over the following century or so after 1517, though, Protestant authorities treated many of their antiquities and cultural treasures very much like the modern-day Taliban or Ansar Dine, and for much the same reasons.
In some cases, Protestant rulers seized church treasures and left old monasteries and cathedrals to fall into ruin, but often they undertook deliberate campaigns of iconoclasm, destroying the cherished holy sites of popular faith. James Simpson has a fine description of this tradition in his 2010 book Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition. He records such monsters as William Dowsing, who systematically wandered across seventeenth century England, trashing churches and shrines, vandalizing tombs, and smashing statues he deemed superstitious. This organized sacrilege was not incidental vandalism, this was a core component of the Protestant agenda in that era, especially as Calvinist theology gained influence from the 1560s onwards.
Iconoclasts found easy justification for their activism in Josiah’s campaigns against the pagan priests and idols in 2 Kings 23. Like him, they wanted to be recalled with the stirring obituary, “And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him.” Nobody did it better.
So no, iconoclasm is in no sense a stranger to the Western tradition, whether Jewish or Christian.
In recent years, I have despaired at journalistic declarations that what Islam needs is a Reformation, by which they mean a rejection of clerical tyranny. Arguably, a Reformation is exactly what the Muslim world is enduring right now, and it’s not a pretty sight.