We live, in the West, in a society where knowledge of the context in which religious matters should be discussed is at such a low level that much of what passes for public discourse would disgrace a society which realised it; it is a further mark of the paucity of knowledge that the leaders of our society do not realise it, either. Not a single British newspaper has a full-time religious correspondent, and our national broadcaster has no journalist in place who has a good background knowledge of religion. Its religious coverage is woeful, and given the importance of the topic, probably dangerous. It, rightly, emphasises the importance of diversity, but its idea of diversity is that of a modern secularist: it asks how many journalists are from ‘ethnic backgrounds’, how many are gay, how many are women; but it seems not to ask how many of its journalists have an educational background that does not make them part of a liberal, secularist consensus? If it, and our newspapers, do not have journalists who know something about the history of religion and of the language and concepts of theology, then our media is severely limited in what it can do by way of informing us about current affairs.
Thus, with the exception of the Guardian, who asked a clergyman to comment, I have not seen a single media outlet mention the word which forms the title of this post – ‘iconoclasm’. This is a shame, as it provides a context which help explain the Charlie Hebdo incident. We are told it is terrorism, and that the terrorists are not acting in the name of Islam; if that were really so, it would leave us scratching our heads as to what had so infuriated the Muslims concerned that they did what they did. One understands why the media wants to do nothing to encourage Islamophobia, but ignoring the truth is seldom a good idea, and never ends well. Yes, it is true that until about the eighteenth century, there is in Islamic art, a tradition of portraying Mohammed, just as there is, in Christianity, of portraying Jesus and the Virgin Mary. But, as the image above shows, there is in Christianity also a tradition of destroying images – of iconoclasm. There was, in eastern Christianity, a century long dispute which, in the eight and ninth centuries resulted in a victory for the iconodules.
The iconoclasts based themselves on a literalist reading of Exodus 20:3-5. They ignored Exodus 20:18-20, and Exodus 37:7-9. In part, they were responding to the rise of Islam, which had taken on board a literalist reading of Exodus 20:2-5. Mohammed and his followers ignored the context, and the other verses from Exodus, and they destroyed images. We see the same thing in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when equally ignorant men destroyed some of glories of medieval art – because they didn’t know how to read texts, and actually had as little sense of what God wanted as the fundamentalist Muslims have and had.
A historically and theologically literate media would be able to defuse potential Islamophobes, not by denying that Islamic origins of the impulse to destroy those who make images of the Prophet, but by pointing out that the Muslims who feel that urge are as ignorant as the Christians who felt, and in some quarters still feel it. Ignorance is our common enemy, education our common ally. But, of course, we lack such a media.