DE­VOTED TO THE PAST

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

any years ago I was in­volved as a guest in a think tank dis­cussing fu­ture sce­nar­ios in eco­nomics and pol­i­tics. A lot of plau­si­ble fu­tures were pro­posed by dif­fer­ent speak­ers, but what struck me was that the most dra­matic events of com­par­a­tively re­cent times had not been plau­si­ble at all un­til they hap­pened. Had one been con­sid­er­ing, 40 years ago, what the fu­ture might hold for Bri­tish farming, for ex­am­ple, any­one who had raised the pos­si­bil­ity of a cat­tle epi­demic that could lead to the dec­i­ma­tion of the na­tional herd would prob­a­bly have been re­garded as a crack­pot. And then mad cow dis­ease ap­peared.

Sim­i­larly, any­one who had sug­gested, in a dis­cus­sion of East-West pol­i­tics in Europe, that the Ber­lin Wall sud­denly might be brought down by a spon­ta­neous pop­u­lar up­ris­ing and that the con­se­quences of this event could in­clude the col­lapse of the whole Soviet em­pire, they would have been treated with de­ri­sion. In fact there is lit­tle doubt any­one who had so much as asked such a ques­tion 30 years ago would have been re­garded by the left as a fas­cist and by the right as a dreamer. And then there were the events of 1989.

More re­cently still, if a would-be fu­ture sce­nar­ist had floated, even long af­ter the Ira­nian revo­lu­tion of 1979, the idea that a rise in re­li­gious fa­nati­cism could be among the great threats of the new mil­len­nium, the con­sen­sus would have been that re­li­gion was a spent force in history. We in the West had last ex­pe­ri­enced re­li­gious wars in the 17th cen­tury, and since then the progress of science and tech­nol­ogy had cor­re­spond­ingly re­duced the place of re­li­gious be­lief in mod­ern life.

Lit­tle did we know that the plague of Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism was about to erupt and to de­stroy po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity through­out the Arab world. In hind­sight, we can see com­plex rea­sons be­hind this phe­nom­e­non, in­clud­ing mis­judg­ments in Western pol­icy and the de­lib­er­ate fos­ter­ing of ex­trem­ism in na­tions from Saudi Ara­bia to Pak­istan, but the im­pon­der­able fac­tor was the re­lease of pro­found and ir­ra­tional, ult- imately psy­chotic rage that found an al­ibi in re­li­gious big­otry.

Where did this rage orig­i­nate? Was it in the po­lit­i­cal im­po­tence of pop­u­la­tions liv­ing un­der mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ships? The eco­nomic de­spair of peo­ple toil­ing in back­ward economies? The sex­ual frus­tra­tion of young men liv­ing un­der a regime that pro­hib­ited sex be­fore mar­riage? Or some poi­sonous com­bi­na­tion of these fac­tors? What­ever the root causes, the re­sult man­i­fested it­self in world­wide out­breaks of vi­o­lence against ev­ery­thing the mod­ern world had worked hard to achieve: democ­racy, sec­u­lar gov­ern­ment, free­dom of speech and re­li­gion, and the rights of women.

What has been most strik­ing in the sav­age be­hav­iour of groups such as the Tal­iban, Boko Haram and most re­cently the so-called Is­lamic State is they seem to rel­ish ex­tremes of be­hav­iour that any nor­mal so­ci­ety re­gards as ab­hor­rent: not just killing or tor­tur­ing pris­on­ers but sys­tem­atic rape, slav­ery, the mur­der of women and chil­dren, burn­ing peo­ple alive, be­head­ing men in front of their fam­i­lies.

How they man­aged to per­suade them­selves this kind of be­hav­iour could be pleas­ing to God and merit a place in heaven is hard to un­der­stand. It is clearly akin to the cor­rupted logic by which mem­bers of to­tal­i­tar­ian states in the 20th cen­tury could con­vince them­selves they were putting peo­ple to death to cre­ate a bet­ter world. The moral of all these cases is not to be­lieve the ideas in your head, es­pe­cially if they in­volve harm­ing other peo­ple.

The cul­tural van­dal­ism of the Tal­iban many years ago when it blew up the Bamiyan Bud­dhas and more re­cently the dev­as­ta­tion caused by Is­lamic State in Syria are ob­vi­ously not com­pa­ra­ble as acts of wicked­ness to, say, the butch­ery of re­li­gious mi­nori­ties such as the Yazidis. But in a sense, pre­cisely be­cause they are not so im­me­di­ately eth­i­cally rep­re­hen­si­ble, they rep­re­sent the spirit of evil, the face of ha­tred, in a pure state.

What does it mean to de­stroy the mon­u­ments of the past, to smash arte­facts or to de­mol­ish build­ings that have sur­vived for 2000 or some­times even 3000 years? It is not only to demon­strate a rad­i­cal lack of re­spect for peo­ple who came be­fore us, and for what is left of their im­ages and their voices: it is quite sim­ply an at­tempt to kill them, to de­stroy their mem­ory. It is the odi­ous act of a delu­sional mind that would an­ni­hi­late any­thing that con­tra­dicts or rel­a­tivises the ideas by which it is pos­sessed.

Is­lamic State has van­dalised much in Syria, but by far the most prom­i­nent vic­tim of its de­struc­tive pas­sion was the an­cient city of Palmyra, once a pros­per­ous hub of com­merce,

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO DE­STROY THE MON­U­MENTS OF THE PAST, TO SMASH ARTE­FACTS?

The arch of Palmyra, which was de­stroyed by Is­lamic State

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