ISIS and the Reformation

This morning’s Times contains a heartening piece that reports that a statue smashed up by members of ISIS at the ancient site of Palmyra in Syria has been reconstructed using laser technology. The same wizardry, which has been pioneered by the Oxford-based Institute of Digital Archaeology means that reconstruction of other artefacts destroyed by the group can be “done in an afternoon, while a traditional reconstruction can involve years of research, academic argument and highly skilled craftsmanship”.

And, the Times article continues, the technique is being used to recreate buildings and religious objects smashed during the English Reformation, including Newstead Abbey, ancestral home of the poet Lord Byron.

Ron Inglis, of Nottingham city council, said: “The destruction during the Reformation has parallels to how Isis dealt with religious monuments. What we want to do is to try to recreate what the interior of the priory church would have been like.”

Ouch. So the descendants of the Protestant Reformation in England (and several other parts of Europe) follow a line from people who acquiesced or even participated in the fanatical smashing up statues and places of worship? In Britain, that’s quite a lot of us, even once you’ve discounted the recusants and last four centuries’ immigrants. Mr Inglis’ observation makes it a bit harder to condemn ISIS as doing something we Brits believe could never have happened here.

Then in today’s Telegraph, Islamist-turned-academic Ed Husain writes that Britain “can and should lead the way” in charting a course for a peaceful Middle East because it is admired in the region as a place where “the monarchy, aristocracy, parliament, religion and the people can all co-exist”. That is a great complement for a nation that has redrawn the Middle East’s map and taken out presidents, the latter as recently as 2003.

The flaw in the “just-be-like-us” argument is that for England, then Britain, to reach its relative equilibrium, it blustered via harsh persecution, civil war, revolution, and long-entrenched discrimination against religious minorities – the very issues to which scholars such as Mr Husein are seeking a peaceful resolution in today’s restive Middle East. Arguably the Ottoman millet system operating during the same centuries was kinder to minorities than the treatment of non-Anglicans in England.

No doubt Mr Husain hopes the region’s leaders look to the Britain of today, conflicted as it is, and not the one in which Newstead Abbey (and plenty else) was butchered. But the faith held by a nation, while not monolithic or static, is shaped by the history and self-understanding of that nation. The church-state divide has fallen along one line in Britain, along another in France and along yet another in the US. And so it will be among the Middle Eastern nations. Protestors are challenging Iran’s Islamic Republic, for reasons not exclusively to do with the power of the religious authorities; Iraq’s religious identity has been renegotiated since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and Lebanon’s sectarian mix has resulted in a precarious miracle that somehow hasn’t toppled over despite the efforts of Riyadh and Tehran.

Mr Husain argues that Britain and America’s “accommodation of religion – state neutrality, not hostility” is a helpful example to the region. Potentially, yes, but religious neutrality will remain a long way off as long as national identity is trumpeted as being contingent on fidelity to any one particular creed.

When I was studying at King’s College, London, two lecturers from Northern Ireland drew frequently parallels between religiously and ethnically divided cities of the Middle East – and Belfast. Will the nations of the Middle East look to Britain and find lessons they can learn from without having to replicate them over torturous centuries? While the process may not take 500 years, I suspect every nation has to negotiate its own “church-state divide” as part of its developing self-understanding, just as it negotiates and becomes defined by its geographical borders.

Above: ISIS released a video in 2015 of its members in the Mosul Museum, Iraq, destroying ancient statues they considered idolatrous

Author: Abigail Frymann Rouch

Abigail Frymann Rouch is a religious and social affairs journalist. She has written for the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, Channel4.com and Deutsche Welle. As a commentator she has appeared on Sky News, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service, BBC World News, and regional radio. For nine years she was foreign editor, then online editor, of The Tablet.

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