Yale so venerates written words and old stone that it’s hard to imagine a world that does not accord respect to such relics. Yet cathedral-shaped Sterling would have offered a tempting target to the most determined and destructive attackers Anglophone culture has ever seen.
Between 1536 and 1541, religious vandals systematically destroyed the monasteries of England, Wales and Ireland. Henry VIII, motivated by greed, politics and paranoid anti-Catholicism, licensed his agents to gut, demolish and plunder the institutions that had been the primary repositories of English knowledge for nearly a millennium.
Architectural marvels were smashed, the remains of legendary monarchs destroyed (including those of Alfred the Great and possibly King Arthur) and countless irreplaceable writings were lost. Worcester Priory had a collection of six hundred unique manuscripts — a mere six survived the Dissolution. The consequences for other British cultures were even more dire — the major centers of Cornish culture, Glasney and Crantock, were destroyed — along with their libraries — and the Cornish language never recovered.
Most Americans know little to nothing about the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and most self-appointed culture warriors seem blithely unaware that by far the greatest damage ever wreaked upon our culture occurred at the hands of militant Protestants. We prefer to focus our ire on religions we see as inherently intolerant — Islam being the bugbear of the moment.
There is certainly a dangerously anti-archaeological bent to radical Islam. Many high-profile cases in recent years have involved Buddhist relics — most famously, the Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.
And just last week, thugs broke into the National Museum of the Maldives and destroyed nearly thirty priceless Buddhist artifacts. “The whole pre-Islamic history is gone,” the museum’s director told the New York Times — an exaggeration that nonetheless underscores the scale of the loss.
Buddhist art, with its Hellenistic appreciation of the human form and its occasional sexual openness, is particularly jarring to the most puritanical Muslims. And unlike Hindus in India, who often retaliate violently against iconoclasm, there are virtually no Buddhists left in Afghanistan or the Maldives (or much of the Muslim world) to defend their heritage. (For those who would cite this as inherent proof of Muslim intolerance, I could discuss the size of the current population of traditional polytheists in Europe, Australia and the Americas, but I digress.)
There’s even a linguistic bias — in Persian, Urdu and other languages of Muslim South Asia, the sin of idolatry is known as “bot-parasti,” an archaic term for Buddhism.
Yet claiming that Islam harbors an inherent vendetta against Buddhism — or against pre-Islamic history and culture in general — is like arguing that Anglicanism is inherently anti-Cornish.
That argument highlights the excesses of radicals and ignores the deeper complications of history and culture. Destructive acts must be weighed against undeniable truths — like the Islamic preservation and transmission of countless classical works that would otherwise have been lost. The Arabic word for the time before Muhammad — Jahiliyya, or “The Age of Ignorance” — seems unduly offensive until you recall that the English word “paganism” is remarkably similar. It comes from the Latin paganus, meaning rural or rustic — hence ignorant or backward.
And just as Christians have long venerated their pagan heritage even while professing their disdain or dressing ancient customs in the trappings of Christmas and Easter, so Islam is full of Jahiliyya. The poetry of ancient Arabia suffuses not only the Quran but also the entire corpus of classic Islamic literature. Iranian ayatollahs address God as Khoda, a word once reserved for the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda. Popular Islamic mystic traditions like Sufism owe nearly as much to Neoplatonic philosophy as to Quranic doctrine.
To argue that any religion is inherently opposed to history, culture or even its own competing creeds is to misunderstand the actual interactions of faith and human life. Yet by the same token we cannot ignore the incalculable damage that fundamentalist revisionism has caused to our global heritage.
Religious extremism denies the realities of both history and the present. In its rejection of all historical facts outside the bounds of its own propriety, religious extremism bears an uncanny resemblance to the politically correct fanaticism that would rename buildings and denude libraries or curricula of offending classics.
Both phenomena are marked by a troubling belief that when narratives compete, there must be a winner and a loser, a version to exalt and a version to expunge. Justice and history should never be forgotten — or confused.
Sam Lasman is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.