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Terrorism and the clash of Civilizations
by Jyoti Sahi
Art Ashram India, September 29, 2001.

(This essay is being published in a collection of essays in honour of Fr. Michael Amalados sj, to celebrate his 65th birthday)

~ A War between Civilizations.
~ The image of the Two Cities.
~ Seeds of Chaos.
~ Art and Violence.

A War between Civilizations.

(10/2001) The events of the last week have raised many questions which relate to the way in which we understand history, and the impact on its course of that psychic energy which we call Terror. Recently many leaders in the West, both in the United States of America, and also in Europe, have been talking in terms of a clash between cultures. What exactly do they mean by this idea of war that characterizes the differences between civilizations? The concept of Civilization has developed out of the Greek and Roman understanding of the City State, and the values which should uphold civil society. These values are essentially human, and so one would suppose that Civilizations cannot be opposed to each other : they can only enrich each other, because the human values which they represent are based on harmony and peace.

If civilizations are the natural expression of civil society, which is the condition under which human beings can inter act and grow without fear of injustice, then how do we understand the fact that there are different forms of civilization? Here we have to again refer back to the way in which civil society was understood by the great thinkers of the past. Here the binding factor is supposed to be "Religion" which itself is a term that indicates that which binds, or orders, by establishing mutual relationships of trust and cooperation. In the East this term "Religion" could be described in terms of "Dharma", meaning again that which is established, firm. Though Religion has come out of a basic aspiration in all human beings, it has been manifested in different ways, which we see in the many religions which Civilizations have given rise to. Here we come into an area which it is not easy to navigate, at least with the instruments which we traditionally have as far as dogmatic truth claims are concerned. For example, every Religion claims that it is The Truth, and that it has the key to Salvation. The differences between Religions have been explained in terms of a hierarchy of truths, or the fact that every Truth has different facets, which are understood by individual believers in different ways. We are confronted by the problem of religious language, the cultural nexus into which a religious tradition is embedded.

The problem of terrorism in the modern world is not just a question of aberrant social behavior, but rather of the relation of minorities, or marginalized groups, to dominant cultures. This has been aggravated by two features of the world today : firstly globalization, and secondly the power given to the individual through technology. In the past it would not have been possible for a few individuals to attack and harm a whole state in the way that is now possible with a sophisticated knowledge of technology, and the use of modern forms of communication. The increased importance of a global culture has tremendous power to influence not only the minds of individuals, but also the way in which economies function. This global culture, which we are all trying to understand, seems to be in conflict with local cultures, which it tends to destroy, or at least marginalize. Global culture has itself been made possible by new forms of communication technology. It is a very amorphous, faceless entity, which like terrorism, is like a monster coming out of that world wide phenomenon which we are calling "modern civilization". Globalization represents the aggregate, or conglomerate, of many different cultures which comprise the plurality of present day realities. It is featureless, because it is the melting pot of many features. It has come into existence because so many cultures have come to intermingle, and inter-act. Terrorism is a power which is used by individuals, often functioning in a very anarchist and even disconnected way, against the giant which we might call globalization. Terrorism is the way in which small, even dysfunctional elements within a civilized world react against the whole that is believed to dis-empower, dis-associate, or alienate certain individual sensibilities. It is a manifestation of a kind of disease within the body politic, but like any other disease must not be looked at as a thing in itself, but rather as a symptom of something much deeper, which is affecting the life and growth of the whole. Terror is diabolical, in that it throws something apart, destroying the whole through the very contradictions from which it has arisen. The opposite of the diabolic is the symbolic which tries to re-unite, to hold together.

As an artist trying to understand the way in which cultures and spiritualities inter act in our modern world, I have been committed to an understanding of the meeting, and coming together of civilizations both east and west. I have been actively involved in what might be called the cross-cultural. I have also been very deeply concerned with the whole debate on iconoclasm. At a meeting of the World Council of Churches held in Bossey in April,1999, on the theme "What Difference Does Religious Plurality make ?", I was very conscious of the fact that one of the basic cultural differences which exist between religious systems centres round the prophetic problem of "What is an Idol ?" When members of the Judeo-Christian branches of Religion came into contact with East-Asian religious systems (Vedic, Brahmanic, Buddhist, Jain and so forth), the immediate tendency, when rejecting these forms of "civilization" was to call them "idol worshippers". Even among the Judeo-Christian group of Religions, among which Islam is one, the iconoclastic controversy has been an important dividing factor. It certainly seems to be the case that those Central Asian cultures originally belonging to the eastern branches of the Catholic Church, that did not accept the use of Holy Images in the fourth and fifth centuries, later became Muslim. In fact some have suggested that Islam was at the beginning not clearly understood as another religion, but rather as a kind of reform within the Judeo-Christian family of faiths. The tension over the use of images has also given rise to the split between different denominations of Christians; for let us not forget that Calvin, a good Augustinian in many ways, was very opposed to the use of images.

I mention this interest in the iconoclastic controversy because that was what brought me to the Fathers of the Church, when I made a study of the "Defence of the Holy Images" by John of Damascus, when I was a student of art in London in 1963. It was this interest which brought me into contact with Dom Bede Griffiths in that year, and finally led to my joining him in his ashram in Kerala, which followed the East Syrian form of Christianity. Dom Bede Griffiths was very concerned with the meeting of different religions, and during the meditations that took place in his Ashram, we read from Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist texts, because he fervently believed that the mystical insights to be found in all religions, point to a common experience of Reality.

Earlier this year I was deeply shocked by the destruction of the great Bamiyan Buddha statues by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. I was concerned because once again this symbolic gesture of a Muslim fundamentalist group, expressed itself through an act of destruction, based on a belief that all Idols are wrong. As a believer, and an artist myself, I do not reject this criticism of images. I believe that some of the most important movements in culture, and in art too, have come out of iconoclasm. I have a deep respect for Islam, and am moved by their rich artistic traditions, that were inspired by Islamic principles of Unity and Simplicity. I have on several occasions dreamt of myself entering in a mosque in order to worship, and I feel very close to the Islamic form of spirituality. And yet I am not only a believer in images, but a maker of them. The great Buddha figure of Bamiyan was for me a manifestation of all that I affirm as a believer in the Cosmic Person, whose enlightened body is both the "Buddha Kshetra"(field of enlightenment) and also an image of the Cosmic Christ. In fact the Mahayana movement within Buddhism which gave rise to this giant figure of the Buddha Being, in the 5th century of our common era, was itself a manifestation of a movement that came out of a civilization which had begun to see the human person in a different way. Here the humanism of the Greeks mingled with the spiritual vision of the Far East. In this Himalayan melting pot of many cultures, on the ancient "silk route," linking East to West, a new kind of art, known as the art of Gandhara, came into existence, which represented the meeting of civilizations. The first attempt to destroy these images was made by the soldiers of Chenghis Khan, whose fighters slaughtered millions in Central Asia in the 13th Century. As iconoclasts they could not achieve what the militia of the Taliban could manage in Bamiyan, simply because they did not have the technology, or the weaponry. One might add here that the very destruction of this image of Cosmic Humanity, indicates a rejection of that understanding of Incarnation, or Divinized humanity, which is also the basis for believing in the presence of God in human beings. There lies at the heart of what one might call Terrorism, a disregard for human life as "made in the image of God".

As I see it, the destruction of the two towers of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan is another act of iconoclasm. It is a gesture similar in intent to what happened when earlier the Taliban destroyed images that represented one of the most important periods of the history of the civilization to which we all belong. But let us remember that these destroyers of images are not just anti-culture. Rather they are destroying a culture of which in a way they themselves are inheritors. I remember seeing the paintings of some of the refugees of Afghanistan in Delhi, in the 1980's, and being struck by their natural artistic sense, rather similar to what I had observed in Kashmir. The Taliban form of religious extremism is reacting to something that is inherent in their own cultural programming. Even St John Damascene remarks in his work on the Defense of the Holy Images, that God forbade the Jewish people from worshipping images, because they were so inclined to worship them. After all, even Abraham, the father of those Faiths, which believe that God is beyond images, came from a family of image makers.

As has often been pointed out, western culture has many of its roots in Islam. The flowering of Islamic culture which took place in science, philosophy, art and poetry, about a thousand years ago, came out of the iconoclasm which lies at the heart of the Koran, and which profoundly influenced the whole development of western medieval thought from Thomas Aquinas onwards. Cistercianism would not have been possible without this interaction with the culture of Islam. In fact we could say that the "Crusades" which were a terrible Christian attack on a culture which was, in many respects, superior to what existed at that time in Europe, had the strange effect of profoundly influencing European civilization. The Crusaders, by bringing back to their homelands insights into spirituality which they found in the East, inspired sensitive souls like Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi who recognized the essential Truth and Beauty to be found in the vision of Islam. The question which we continue to face concerns where to draw the dividing line between that iconoclasm which rejects those elements in a culture which are an enslaving force, and the violence which hurts human beings. Are all iconoclasts terrorists ? Those Muslims who invaded India destroying not only temples, but also communities that believed in these images, brought terror in their wake. Many in history have been willing to die, in order to defend their holy images. Now it is possible that the allied forces which want to rid the world of terrorism by attacking Afghanistan, and other Muslim states which have defended their right to reject idolatry, will also kill and injure many poor and innocent people in the process. When an image is attacked, it is not only the object which is being destroyed, but also a sense of identity. I suspect that the anger and pain which Americans are feeling just now, is a mixture not only of empathy for those who were killed in the terrorist attack, but also a rage that very important symbols of what they stood for have been destroyed.

What we are calling "Western Civilization" which is supposed to be in conflict with some other form of civilization to be found in the East, is really confronted today not by the belief systems of Islam or Judaism, but perhaps even more fundamentally by a "polytheism" which springs from the Far East. This belief in many gods challenges that kind of civilization which is intolerant of the beliefs of others, and insists that only its own understanding of Reality and Truth is valid. In a way, what we are seeing in American society today is a fundamentalism more chilling in its ruthlessness than anything coming out of Islam. Here, a particular model of society is being projected as the only true one, and in order to get everyone to follow this model, a nation is willing to launch an attack against other cultures on a massive scale, ultimately killing far more innocent people than were ever killed in America. In other words we have pitted against the terrorism of individual extremists, or small groups, the mighty terror of the most powerful state on earth. Why globalization is so resented in many parts of the world is because it is an attempt of one particular cultural tradition, to impose its will, and its thirst for power, on the whole world. What perhaps many wonder today is whether the real casualty coming out of recent events, will be a belief in free democracy. In order to defend western civilization from attacks by extremist terrorists, a whole system of intrusive surveillance, or intelligence, will have to be put in place, which will make sure, not only that violent acts are prevented, but even the criticisms that underlie these acts of violence, are also silenced. As the psychologist Rollo May pointed out in his work "Innocence and Violence", violent acts are often the last resort of those who are not heard, or even recognized.

The image of the Two Cities

History has its own symbolism; it is fond of significant dates. We are persuaded that for a long time to come the date September 11, 2001 will be remembered in this way. The events of that day were certainly startling enough, but we must remember that the terrorism, that was made so visible by the drama of that day, was by no means something new. Many have been the victims of terrorism, especially in Asia, and terrorist acts have previously taken place even in the United States, perpetrated by individuals who have nothing to do with Islam. What shocked the world into recognizing this force was the realization that the most powerful nation in the world today was not immune from such attacks. Perhaps, precisely because of its gigantic strength, the U.S.A. and American citizens, have become especially the targets of this hidden force, which springs from a resentment lying in the hearts of embittered individuals. The grief that this attack has caused in America is as much a result of realizing, and yet not being able to comprehend, this hatred in the hearts of some, for what Americans have believed is the ideal type of society. What has made this particular attack so memorable is not only its scale, or the spontaneous reaction it has evoked from all round the world, as its symbolic meaning, and also its timing. Certain events assume such a significance, that they almost step out of what we normally understand as "History", taking on the form of a "Kairos", or moment of Revelation, assuming thereby an almost mythical function.

The twin towers of the World Trade Centre, together with the Pentagon, which is the seat of military command, touch the imagination of a whole people for whom these buildings carry the power of icons. The destruction of these structures, has a kind of iconoclastic force, which shocks in the same way that the destruction of something held to be particularly sacred would do. The fact that this act was done by some individuals fired by a messianic zeal, in the face of a nation which has itself assumed a messianic role, as a savior of the civilized world, has made this daring gesture even more poignant. The reaction was immediate. This criminal act, it is now being claimed, is not only an injury to one nation, but is directed against the whole civilized world. Precisely because this drama has been projected through the all-seeing eye of modern media, on such a panoramic screen, like something out of a Hollywood film, that the reaction seems to have lost a sense of scale, or proportion. It is as though History is now being compelled to imitate art. The "virtual" and the "actual" seem to have got confused. To punish the perpetrators of this crime, a whole people are being targeted, and so in the end many more innocent lives will be destroyed as an act of retribution. History is being used to create a mythic scenario. Something portentous and apocalyptic is being invoked.

As these events unfold, my mind goes back to a book that has fascinated me as an artist: "The City of God" by St. Augustine. When Augustine, as the Bishop of Hippo was already 59 years old, news reached him in his north African diocese, about cataclysmic events which had taken place in far away Italy. On August 24, 410, the city of Rome had been sacked and pillaged by uncivilized tribesmen for three days. When the Barbarians led by Alaric, the war lord of the Goths, finally retreated on the fourth day, leaving many massacred, and the city in ruins, it was felt that this was the end of a whole world order. Many feared that this was the beginning of the end of a civilization, centred on the city of Rome. Augustine had studied in Italy, and loved its culture. For him this civilization meant all that he had acquired in the way of knowledge, and the admiration of higher values. The fall of Rome was being attributed to a kind of weakness, which was related to the spread of a new Religion---Christianity itself. And so Augustine felt called upon to write a monumental apology for his own Faith, while affirming at the same time, his deep admiration for all that Rome had stood for. This took him more or less the rest of his creative life, so that the book was only completed after fifteen years. Of course, it would be dangerous to draw too many parallels between what happened in Rome more than fifteen centuries ago, and what we are witnessing today. But there are some important similarities. The shock that the event caused then, was not unlike the present feeling of absolute disbelief. The sense that a whole civilization was under assault, and a feeling that barbaric forces were at play, and that chaos was immanent---all have played an important part in the reactions which we have witnessed over the last week.

It is not only the actual suffering, the destruction of life and property, which is the concern. It is more fundamentally a problem of meaning. "What does all this mean for the future?" is the question that comes to the mind of everyone. Is this just the beginning of processes, half recognized, but perhaps never properly confronted, which are now made more explicit, pointing to effects which seem hard to avoid. It is interesting to note the kind of language which is being used, the continual problem of parents who say that they are struggling to answer questions which their children are asking---"what is this all about ?" Many seem to answer that it is about the struggle of good against evil. But it does not seem to be quite so easy as that, as though reality could be reduced to such black and white alternatives. Is this conflict just between the good guys, and the "baddies," where the bad people are always the outsiders, those who belong to another strange culture, and who speak another language, and think in a different way. Augustine himself, though he renounced the tenants of the Manichaean Faith which had been so important to him before his conversion, often returned to the kind of symbolic language of clear opposites which is so characteristic of the mythic world of the Manichaeans. The stark opposition of two creative forces, one supposedly light, and the other dark and destructive, can be discerned in the very rhetoric underlying the concept of the "Two Cities". By extension, the "Two Civilizations" which these cities represent, are also being set one against the other, as though the one is ideal, and the other, only an earthly and imperfect reflection of it. It is this language of good against evil, order against chaos, which has once again surfaced in the outpourings of a Mr. Bush or a Mr. Tony Blair.

I think it is necessary to revert again to the essential issues that are being addressed by St. Augustine in his work on the "City of God". After all, he is the thinker whose ideas about a "Just War", not to mention "Original Sin" have often been misused over the centuries to justify a very dark and judgmental view of human nature. But still, reading again his affirmation of all that is good and noble in the civilization that he so admired, one cannot help but respond to the idealism of a man who could have written his famous chapter on Peace (Book XIX, 13) as the very basis for a just society, and a true civilization. What he saw as the beginning of the ruin of Rome was not just the terror of the Goth Alric, but a seed of destruction that lay hidden in the very rottenness of that civilization of which Rome was the apogee. It was the decadence of Rome, more than the rigour of the invader, which brought down the edifice. Rome had become weak because it had failed its own ideals---it was this weakness of Rome that almost invited its nemesis.

Commenting on this Vernon J. Bourke writes :
Augustine's message is not without optimism ; he obviously felt that some measure of earthly peace had been achieved in the better days of the Empire. Yet it is a mistake to take the City of God as a charter for an earthly kingdom. This was a mistake made by Charlemagne and his associates, who thought to realize the Heavenly City in the Holy Roman Empire. Still, out of the impetus of the civilization and political states, which they established to fill the void left by the destruction of Rome have developed the social and political institutions of modern Europe and America.

Etienne Gilson comments :
The preaching and teaching of Christ was in no way compatible with the duties and rights of citizens; for, to quote an instance frequently alleged, among its precepts there is found : "Do not repay injury with injury", and 'if a man strikes thee on thy right cheek, turn the other cheek also towards him : if he is ready to go to law with thee over thy coat, let him have it and thy cloak with it ; if he compels thee to attend him on a mile's journey, go two miles with him." Now, it seems clear that such moral norms could not be put into practice without bringing ruin to a country. Who would suffer without retaliation the seizure of his goods by an enemy? Would anyone, thenceforth, refuse to punish according to the laws of war the devastation of a Roman province? These are arguments with which we are familiar, and which are constantly being revived by "conscientious objectors"

St Augustine argues that these essential values of the Gospel are not only peculiar to Christianity, but are essential to religion at its highest and foundational for the ideal City in which Justice as well as Peace are supposed to reign. The question which we need to ask today, is: Are these values of Peace what lie at the heart of the kind of Civilization which Bush or Blair are advocating? Is their call to retribution and revenge in any way Christian ….or even religious ? And so what are the clashing civilizations which they are talking about ? The values that they seem to advocate are no different from the terrorist barbarians whom they decry. In other words, the destruction of the ideal city which is being symbolized by this act of terrorism is as much a consequence of the failure to establish an order of Justice and Peace within the institutions of the City, and the Civilization, as an intervention from some evil force coming from outside. Terrorism is a seed of destruction that comes from the ambiguity lying within a culture; it is the shadow thrown by a civilization. In order to deal with this terror, we have to own it as our own. To simply project it on an "enemy" is to increase its power to corrupt, by worming its way into the very heart of a civilization, through the spread of resentment as opposed to peace.

Seeds of Chaos

What we are really dealing with here is not just a matter concerning buildings, or those who work in them. Rather we are looking at movements related to the condition of the human mind. What one feels so deeply sad about on occasions like this is the abdication of that cultural rooting in a belief in peace, that is so evident in the way destructive impulses are aroused; not only in those who perpetrate these acts of violence, but even in the resentful reactions of those who feel that they are the victims.

One of the ideas behind the recent understanding of Chaos is that vast conditions in our environment can be affected by very small changes. The picturesque image that is suggested is that of the flapping of a butterfly's wings, which supposedly can even change the weather, giving rise to a terrible storm. The nature of that kind of turbulence which we call chaos, is that it is additive, and cumulative. One reaction leads to another in geometric progression, so that the nail that is missing in the horse's shoe, is finally the reason why a great battle is lost. The symbolic power of events like the one which we witnessed on the 11th of September, lies precisely in the way that such events have the capacity to create chaos. This, we are told, is the result of a new kind of war, though actually there is nothing so ancient as this understanding of violence springing from what is regarded by the strong as insignificant and the mere expression of the weak. It is the very asymmetry, or imbalance of power that gives rise to this turbulence whose scope is ultimately cosmic. Many myths discuss precisely this state, where the proud tyrant is over thrown by a weak child, or dwarf. Remember even the image of the young David throwing his stone at the giant, Goliath.

The City, and Civilization as a whole, has much in common with principles which are discussed in relation to ecology. That is because these social structures are based on the same rules of systemic growth as we find in nature. If diversity is an essential feature of the natural world that we observe around us, a pluralism and rich tapestry of cultures is ultimately essential for the health of a city. The moment barriers are set up against those who are deemed to be "outsiders", limiting the free inter action of those who are within the city walls, resentment sets in, and this leads to the eventual over throw of a whole civilization. The very Truth which we hope for in a State, is that it is strong enough to allow a process of questioning from within. It is because we are living in an increasingly divided world, which talks about free trade, but does not respect religious and cultural diversity, that the very fabric of the modern city is in danger of being pulled apart.

Here we need to take a closer look at the way in which minorities within a culture are treated. Already the fear of the terrorist who is like a hidden enemy, has led to many citizens being targeted, and abused. The test which we are now witnessing, concerns the real values of a civil society. Has it room for religious diversity ? Is it defined as a kind of mono-culture? The root issue which confronts the world today is one of identity. Post modernism which in many ways lies under many of the assumptions behind globalization, and the market economy, questions the meaning of the self. It is perhaps a new form of totalitarianism, which fears the individual. Religion has also been used as a basis for patriotism. In India we can see how an effort is being made to turn Hinduism into a State religion. To be a true Indian you are supposed to represent Hindu civilization. The Islamic state also uses religious identity to define itself as over and against the others. The same problem seems to underlie the way in which Zionism has been turned into an instrument of Terror for Palestinians. Are we in fact looking at this essential rift between Civil Society as it is emerging out of a post modern globalization, and the earlier model of Nation States? Somewhere along this fault line, terrorism breeds.

If we believe in the civilization that has given rise to our modern world, we should not just tolerate differences, but need to celebrate diversity. This certainly was one of the important features of the kind of society that the United States of America has aspired towards. But, almost in the wake of its own prosperity, its own increasing eminence as a super power in the world of today, the fact that many citizens of this emerging society want to monopolize, and possess their own good fortune, is the beginning of the fall. An earthly city can be an image of a heavenly city, but it can also become an idol. I think it is important to return to those insights of a prophetic Faith which warned a proud and headstrong people that the very providence which gave them all that they have, can also be the author of their own destruction. The signs which we need to read in our own times, do not point in the direction of an imagined enemy "out there" in the wilderness, but to a reckoning which comes from the centre of our own heart.

Art and Violence

As mentioned earlier in these pages, Violence is often not directed at persons, but at objects. These objects are seen to have a symbolic significance in that they objectify deeply held values within a society. Sometimes the very destruction of an object can be an expression of the value given to it. Most ancient religious systems believe that an image is so potent that it should not remain visible for too long. Thus images are veiled, buried, even destroyed as part of a ritual of first of all manifesting the image, and then hiding it by removing all traces of its presence. Many forms of daily household rituals are linked to this deep seated fear of the image as having power, and the "cleansing" of a home is linked magically to the removal of traces, which in some mysterious way carry memories, or tracks which need to be hidden. Making ones bed, by smoothing out the sheets, and re-arranging the pillows is not just a matter of "hygiene" understood in a very rational sense of keeping everything tidy. The underlying magical reason for making a bed, is that the place where we sleep carries a kind of "image" of something very personal and secret, and therefore has to be re-made in order to protect a private world from being "seen" by others. In the same way we might want to remove traces of finger prints, or foot marks so as to keep our movements secret. This tendency obviously goes back to very ancient impulses, which are even found in the animal world, where signs of presence are protected against those who might be predators.

An interesting example of this ritual of removing traces is the way in which designs especially connected with the protection of home against spirits, as in threshold patterns (I am thinking of Kolams, or Rangoli designs in South India, for example) are drawn as a daily act which has to be removed, covered over, and then redrawn so as to keep these patterns effective. At a more sophisticated level, we find Tantric traditions of drawing the Mandala (as for example in the Lamaistic rituals of Tibetan Buddhism) where a symbolic image which represents the underlying plan of the whole Cosmos is drawn with great care, and then ritually destroyed, for fear that it will get into the wrong hands. In folk cultures we see this tendency in various festivals where images of Divine presences are created, and then removed after a set number of days, as part of the festival period. Take, for example, the Christmas Tree, which is decorated, and loved during the twelve days of Christmas, but then on the last day, the day in fact of Epiphany, the tree is dismantled, and its decorations stored and hidden away for the next year, while the tree itself is thrown out, even burnt. In Indian folk culture the festival of Ganesh Chathurthi shows the same pattern of ritual destruction related to the image. The form of Ganapatti is first of all made out of clay, or some other natural material, and then after a period of festivity, the image is carried in procession and ritually immersed in water, so that it dissolves, and is no longer visible.

It is interesting in this context to further note how much aggression, and even overt iconoclasm this act of ritual destruction releases against other symbols of religious belief. Often in the very act of taking out a procession, to carry the image to the place where it is to be immersed, or buried, the whole community which is preparing itself for this sense of "loss" seems to get possessed by a destructive impulse which vents itself on acts of destruction in connection with the symbols of other Faith communities. It is as if the very act of destroying an image, becomes infectious, and a community proceeds to destroy other images in a general fervor which wants to express its feelings by cleansing the whole environment of every sign of religious identity. In other words the act of destruction in order to hide or protect what is held to be most sacred, leads on to a general attack on images that are thought to signify the presence of other religious identities which are considered as a "threat".

This background to the motivation behind the destruction of images is necessary for us to understand if we are to focus on the sociological implications of iconoclastic acts. When, to take another example, an image of a demon is made and then ceremonially destroyed, it is obviously felt that the destruction of the image will harm that which is represented. In festivals like Dusshera the image of the giant demon king Ravana is made, and then destroyed as an act of war against the forces of darkness and evil in society. The same impulse is the basis for the festivities of Guy Falkes in Europe, which again draws from very primal belief systems that attributes to the image a significance deriving from the power of that which is represented. In recent times images of the American President, or the flag of America, have been publicly burnt or otherwise defaced as an expression of hatred for a whole society which these symbols represent. Such acts have repercussions which are being politely called "co-lateral damage". That is to say, whether it is the terrorist individual attacking a symbol of the oppressive state, or in response the oppressive state attacking the symbol of individual rebel, many innocent people are likely to get injured in the process. The target may in fact be an object, but in so far as such objects are held to be sacred by those who believe in them, people and their lives are also under threat. Every iconoclastic act, which aims to destroy some object, also hurts, both physically and psychically, those who have invested this object with a real power and meaning. In that sense every act of iconoclasm is also an act of war or physical conflict.

In this regard it is also perhaps important for us to note the link between iconoclasm and that religious motivation which underlies Sacrifice. Sacrifice begins naturally in human sacrifice---it is an act of offering life. But as civilizations have advanced, there has been a growing belief that it is not necessary to sacrifice life itself, only what it represents. In other words the real taking of a life has been substituted by a symbol of that life. This begins with the offering of an animal, or some other precious object, which is felt to be representative of the life which is present in a human being, or in a whole community. A symbol is offered as an "act of sacrifice". Even when the image of Ganesh is being immersed in the primal waters from whose mud his image was first fashioned, it is as an act of sacrifice that we must understand this gesture. Sacrifice is always linked to creation. Sacrifice returns a community to the beginning, in order to re-discover its origins. But in order to effect this return to the beginning, what is now has to be destroyed.

Sacrifice has always been deemed as different from murder. And yet the boundary between taking a life as a ritual sign and taking a life as an act of revenge is very difficult to draw. When Cain killed Abel, he was in a way sacrificing Abel, because God had accepted the sacrifice of Abel and not Cain. Murder always begins with jealousy and resentment. But what we are calling "civilizations" use the imagery of Sacrifice to address a deeper problem which concerns the very origin of evil in the world. Evil is that force in Creation which has distorted, or destroyed the true "likeness" which creation has to its primal proto-type in the mind of the Creator. And so every sacrifice is an attempt to destroy evil in order to re-affirm, or re-discover the prototype. An act of sacrifice does not only want to destroy, it also wants to re-create, to be a foundational impulse in the generation of a new heaven and a new earth. That is the meaning given for example to the "Just War". The war is a collective sacrifice, which includes the offering of many lives, in an effort to create a Just society, which is in the image of that Divine Prototype which is imaged as the "City of God".

The relation of art to ethics, which is based on the deeper concern of what we hold to be "good", and consequently "beautiful", concerns these basic issues related to what is being "imaged". Is the image that of a Divine prototype, in accordance with the Divine Will, or is the image just a replica of a human power, which by its very nature is an effort to usurp, to appropriate something belonging to the Creator. Every dictator sets a human agent up in the place of the Divine. This is the root of all idolatry. It is a defacement, an abuse of the Divine Image by those who want to make themselves equal to God. In this simple fact we observe the basis for a theology of the image, and also an understanding of the central importance of the image in an understanding of what we mean when we say that the human being is made in the image of God.

So art and conflict cannot easily be dis-entangled. Art stands for peace, in that it is only in a state of peace that art and culture can flourish in any civilization. But art also emerges out of a deep human longing for Justice, and this Justice demands a kind of iconoclasm which rejects the false image, the image which has been appropriated by those who are in power, simply to serve their own selfish ends. One of the most powerful images of a Creator God, represents the play of Creation as a Divine Dance. In that dance, the Lord is both the infinitely beautiful, infinitely protective and loving Creator of all that we see around us, but also, and this must never be forgotten, the Great Destroyer. It is on this account that every work of art, is also in some mysterious way, also a work of destruction. Destruction and Creation are inter-twined, for that is the mystery of a world in which life and death are not just opposites, but rather complement each other. This, let us be careful to always say, does not give human beings a license to kill. But it does demand of every creative individual, and by extension, every creative effort to establish here on earth an image of the City of God, a sense of discrimination, viveka. Civilization as a human project, is of necessity concerned with the problem of evil. Every civilization, as we have argued earlier, carries within itself its own seed of destruction. A civilization is not something God has made. Rather it is something very human, which attempts to mirror that Divine Order which came into play at Creation. Civil society is itself an image of that communion, and just order which is the basis of the Divine City in which not only human beings, but the whole of Creation is mirrored. Part of the evil that we can observe in our earthly city relates to the way in which our civilization destroys its natural environment. The city here on earth is daily becoming a source of contamination, breeding an unjust state of affairs where not only nature and its resources are being abused, but also the image of God in every human being is daily attacked. It is this evil of the city which is the real cause of the downfall of our civilization.

However, in this present time of conflagration, it is important that artists and other creative thinkers play an active part. The image has the power to heal, precisely because it has the power to bridge the gap between the actual and the virtual. Because the artist is involved continually between these two realities of dream and reality, inner and outer, it is more possible for this person to discriminate between the reality and what it projects. In the present world of conflict it is vital to remove the mask which obscures the Truth with a pretence at being the truth. As an Aztek poet queries :

Life is but a mask worn on the face of death
And is death, then but another mask ?

Perhaps it is the function of the artist to unmask the terrible face of death, in a world where so many have lost the power to distinguish the real from the unreal.

(The essay is being published in a collection of essays in honour of Fr. Michael Amalados sj, to celebrate his 65th birthday. © Jyoti Sahi, Art Ashram)


© ACAA - Asian Christian Art Association