Gains in Iraq, over the past several weeks, made by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have resulted in some news stories concerning their desecration and/or destruction of a variety of historic artifacts (click the above graphic for one example or here or even here and here for the latest). These stories bring to mind the outrage in the media in Europe and North America over the Taliban destroying the large statues of the Buddha carved into the mountains of the Bamiyan province of central Afghanistan, back in March of 2001 (see the below before/after photo, or click the image below for more information).
What I find particularly compelling here is the manner in which one view of how identity and the past are related (namely, our own, in which some parts of the past = heritage, to be preserved) is unable to entertain that others may (in fact, do) see things rather differently.
For whereas some ancient item may be of inestimable value for one person (say, someone protecting a redwood tree from loggers, or is that not the sort of heritage you had in mind…?), for another it is hardly of any worth — in fact, it could be just the opposite, in that it’s value may be linked to its complete elimination (think land developers here…, or, again, was this not the sort of desecration of heritage you had in mind…?).
Why I find this particular e.g. (destroying ancient shrines, statues, etc.) interesting is that so many scholars in the human sciences are now in support of empowering the Other to speak for him/herself, to reclaim their agency in the face of stifling, imperialist scholars who took it away from them, etc., but when these Others step up and claim the “wrong sort of agency” or take themselves a little too seriously — like destroying what we take to be important and priceless artifacts — well…, then they’ve gone just a little too far. For while we want to “take religion seriously,” as the old saying goes, we somehow also know that there’s a right and a wrong religion, and taking your own so seriously that you seek to eliminate all competitors is, well, just downright undemocratic and we won’t stand for it.
I hope my point is clear: cases such as those cited above, indicting ISIS, nicely press liberal scholars to come clean on their own interests, interests often undisclosed when it comes to studying the easy cases, i.e., people whom we find to be of no threat to that which we take as commonsense (like which old thing counts as a relic worth preserving). In such cases it is not difficult to call on scholars to empower the Other, respect the agency of the Other, and protect the Other’s own self-representations. But the world is filled with rather more complex examples too, of no less fascinating instances of human behavior, yet all too often scholars are not up to the task of studying these cases in the same manner as when they study things with which they either agree or to which they are attracted in some sort of modern-day Orientalist manner.
So the question is: How, as a scholar, do you study someone taking a sledgehammer to an ancient Babylonian statue — someone doing nothing more or less than taking their own agency seriously and consistently acting out the worldview we’ve ascribed to them?
Today, we ultimately perceive as a threat to culture those who live their culture immediately, those who lack a distance toward it. Recall our outrage when, two years ago, the Taliban forces in Afghanistan destroyed the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan: although none of us enlightened Westerners believe in the divinity of the Buddha, we were outraged because the Taliban Muslims did not show appropriate respect for the “cultural heritage” of their own country and the entire world. Instead of believing through the other, like all people of culture, they really believed in their own religion, and thus had no great sensitivity toward the cultural value of the monuments of other religions—to them, the Buddha statues were just fake idols, not “cultural treasures.” (The Puppet and the Dwarf , 7)
“Unfortunately,” I then concluded, “or so it is argued by members of luxurious groups, militant dissenters do not play by ‘civil,’ ‘rational,’ or ‘reasonable’ rules. (Religion and the Domestication of Dissent [Equinox/Routledge], 2005).
So whose rules prevail — and when? Whose local control of their own environments gets taken over by others by renaming it “world heritage”?