DEVOTED TO THE PAST
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