Osama, icons and iconoclasm

Girish Shahane
·Anything That Moves

Accounts of the life and death of Osama bin Laden typically describe him as, 'an icon to the cause of terror', and, 'the face of global jihad'. Bin Laden's face became iconic because of the way the world saw him: in interviews, snatches of archival footage, and video recordings made to spread his vision. His sensitive eyes, calm demeanor and softly enunciated speeches were unlikely and compelling transmitters of a virulent ideology. He understood the power of television and used the medium as no other terrorist has come close to doing. Recently discovered tapes, released by the US government as part of its propaganda war, reveal the extent of Osama's preoccupation with his own image.

His deployment of that image is deeply ironic given the nature of his faith. He adhered to a strand of Islam called Salafism or Wahhabism which strongly opposes any kind of human representation in art and religion. In this view, the power of images makes them dangerous; they seduce humans into worshipping false gods. The roots of the attitude lie in one of the Ten Commandments, which prohibits the worship -- in some interpretations, the creation -- of anything that resembles sentient beings: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them".

Though the injunction is in the Bible, Christianity abandoned it early in its history. The Church destroyed temples of pagans and polytheists using Biblical commands as pretext, but concluded there was nothing wrong in worshipping images connected to the True Faith. Christian places of prayer filled with paintings, sculptures and mosaics: of Christ on the cross, of the Madonna (The mother of Jesus, not the pop culture icon), and of saints and martyrs. Scattered protests against the Church's iconophilia cropped up now and again, but the strongest and most sustained critique only emerged with the birth of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Early Protestants, particularly followers of Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, eliminated from their places of worship all images that could be interpreted as idolatorous, even unadorned crosses. Wherever they gained power, they launched missions to destroy existing icons. Mobs went from village to village, parish to parish, taking down altarpieces, burning statues of Christ and Mary, breaking crosses, and shattering stained glass windows showing Biblical stories. In all of Britain today, there is hardly a single standing figure of Christ that dates back to the 15th century or earlier, apart from sculptures acquired relatively recently from other lands and showcased in museums. Most Britons blame the 17th century forces led by Cromwell for the wholesale destruction of the nation's Christian heritage, but in fact much of the damage was done during the reigns of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth before Cromwell was even born.

Rattled by the Protestant onslaught, the Catholic Church launched a multi-pronged counter-Reformation, in which images played a crucial role. To lure the masses to their churches, Catholic clergy encouraged a dynamic, decorative style that came to be called baroque. The shock and awe of baroque art provided an atmosphere that spartan Protestant establishments could not hope to match. Eventually Catholics and Protestants fought to something like a draw along a broadly north-south axis within Europe. In Britain, a typically English compromise was reached with the creation of the Church of England (Those who watched the recent royal wedding must have noticed there's a fair bit of pomp and ritual in C of E ceremonies). However, a few Protestant groups, most famously the Puritans, found aspects of England's new national religion abhorrent, and refused to gather under the Church of England umbrella. Some travelled to Holland to escape punishment, and many fled to the New World, helping to found the United States of America. Having been created substantially by zealots persecuted in their homeland, the culture of the USA came to embody both a religious enthusiasm far exceeding anything found in Western Europe, making it obligatory, for instance, for the country's President to mention God in every important speech; and, seemingly in contradiction to this conservatism, an extraordinary commitment to protecting religious freedom and encouraging all varieties of belief. Ironically, the nation founded by icon-hating Puritans went on to become the centre of the world's image-making industry.

The history of Islam displays no great battle between iconophiles and iconoclasts (the latter word meaning breakers or destroyers of religious icons and monuments). The faith has rigorously excluded graven images from places of worship, though the Shia sect is generally more icon-friendly than majority Sunnis. In the 18th century a theologian named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab emerged in what is now Saudi Arabia, and formed a close bond with a local ruler, Sheikh al Saud. When the clan of al Saud became a dominant force across the entirety of the Muslim Holy Land, Wahhabism was made the official belief system of the realm. Wahhabi ideology closely resembles Puritanism in notable ways. Like Puritans, Wahhabis reject any form of intercession by priests and saints, encouraging instead a direct relationship between the individual and God based on a reading of canonical scripture. This sounds rather rational and modern but, as demonstrated by the history of Protestant iconoclasm, it has a dark side. There weren't many pagan icons left to destroy in West Asia by the time the Wahhabis gained power, just as Europe's pre-Christian heritage had been erased by the time of the Reformation. So, as the Puritans had done, Wahhabis focused their vandalism on their own culture. Down the centuries, opulent tombs had been built at the burial spots of important Islamic figures. Dargahs of pirs and saints dotted every land where Muslims lived, attracting devotees and pilgrims. Condemning any attachment to human remains as a distraction from the message of God, Wahhabis launched campaigns of destruction wherever they grabbed power. In the early nineteenth century, they razed the tombs of the two central figures of Shia devotion, Muhammad's son-in-law Ali and his grandson Husayn, in Najaf and Karbala. Soon after, they took control of Mecca and Medina and demolished shrines built over the resting place of the Prophet's daughter Fatima, his first wife Khadija, and a number of his relatives and followers. The Wahhabis' iconoclastic zeal has remained undimmed two centuries later, as demonstrated by the leveling of the tomb of Muhammad's mother Amina in 1998.

Considering this history, it might have been peculiarly appropriate for the US administration to have placed Osama bin Laden's body in a marked grave instead of dumping it in the sea. President Obama and his advisors expressed concern that any spot where Osama's body was buried could become a site of pilgrimage. Had that happened, it would have been another marvelously ironic stage in the iconification of the iconoclast, a man who parlayed his self-image to attract devotees to his cause, in hypocritical disregard of the tenets of the very faith in whose name he issued calls to violent action.

Girish Shahane is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. He writes the blog Shoot First, Mumble Later.