This morning Regina Bendix sent me a BBC story about stonemasons working on Lyon Cathedral. Following the millenial Catholic architectural tradition, they decorate the building’s exterior not only with fantastic creatures and details of everyday life but also with portraits of one another. A new gargoyle in Lyon charmingly immortalizes one of the master masons, a French Muslim who has worked for decades on the renovation of French religious monuments. A far-right group calling itself Les Jeunes Identitaires Lyonnais—see what pretty things breed inside the black box of identity!—has denounced this “Muslim takeover” of a Catholic monument (as if Muslims were a new presence in the south of France). A church spokesman, on the other hand, says that the church authorities neither authorized nor condemns the gargoyle. His endorsement is not exactly a ringing call for ecumenical inclusion: “In history, gargoyles were always profane figures and a chance for irony and satire. In any case, they’re not inside the church.” Nonetheless it reflects the accommodation that Catholicism has traditionally made with social reality, policing orthodoxy inside enclosed spaces of power (cathedrals, texts, liturgies) while accepting that mixity and instability are the price of popular participation, so that the excrescences of buildings, the marginalia of manuscripts, and some of the festivals calqued upon holy days offer richly untidy encyclopedias of everything formally excluded from the center. Dignity and purity are trumped by a recognition that the reality is always more complex than our chosen picture of it.
That was the morning’s email. On the radio was President Obama denouncing the loony pastor of the Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, who has announced his intention to burn copies of the Qur’an on September 11th. The President echoed General Petraeus’ recent statement that such an action would damage US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, alienate the Muslim world, and endanger American troops. The pastor reports with a certain complacency that he has had 300 death threats and says that he is willing to meet with the President to discuss the matter.
American representatives from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the mayor of Gainesville have appropriately denounced the proposed action as marginal, extremist, and profoundly alien to the spirit of the Founding Fathers. But the most intelligent immediate response seems to be that of the Muslim community of Gainesville. One local imam is asking his congregation not to turn up and protest but, if they wish to do something, to spend Saturday volunteering in local hospitals or charities. He cites the desire to avoid escalation, and given the current hysterical tone of American political life this is certainly prudent; as Heine famously observed, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen. But perhaps he is also inclined to put a damper on the discursive escalation. Petraeus’ comments have helped to up the ante, so that this small man in Florida is suddenly able to call for meetings with the President; he suddenly holds international relations in the palm of his hand; he is credited by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari with the power to “cause irreparable damage to interfaith harmony and also to world peace.” Heady stuff for a pastor with a flock of 50 people. One thinks of the delight the Taliban took in announcing their intention to blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas, in exciting the outrage of the world, and at last in carrying out the execution of it.
Which takes me to cultural property concerns more narrowly defined. Bruno Frey and Paolo Panini (2010) have suggested that UNESCO designations and other international instruments of recognition may endanger cultural monuments in conflict situations by raising their value as targets, citing not just the Buddhas but the destruction of the Mostar Bridge, the bombings of Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, and the border conflict over the Temple of Preah Vihar, studied in our own project (Hauser-Schäublin, in press). A copy of the Qur’an has a different status, to be sure. It is not a unique physical monument; when copies are burned, the text remains. But apart from the generally powerful symbolism of book-burning in the modern world, the burning of a Qur’an is an act of profanation and an outrage to believers. Thus another issue arises that is often invoked in international initiatives to protect cultural goods: that of moral rights over sacred things, the idea that the dignity of peoples, cultures, or belief systems is vulnerable to the misuse of cultural goods by outsiders.
Petraeus’ comments on the proposed Qur’an burning remind me of one of the famous “koans” expressed in U.S. Army/Marines Field Manual 3-24, the counterinsurgency handbook produced by Petraeus and his team in the aftermath of the Iraq debacle: “Insurgents succeed by sowing chaos and disorder anywhere; the government fails unless it maintains a degree of order everywhere.” Many would argue that the US’s ambition (that of states in general) to maintain order everywhere has greatly increased the force of disorder in the world, with global apparatuses mobilized to address every local disruption and raising the stakes thereof. The image of America has itself been a major casualty of this change, damaged not only as propaganda abroad but as a genuine social imaginary for Americans themselves, as we see in the current rise of intolerance. In parallel to the errors of states, the Catholic church, once accustomed to living with a “tolerated margin of mess” (Babcock 1975), is today struggling mightily with the pathologies of an excessive zeal for control. Will not an international regime to protect the dignity of identities make itself as vulnerable to every ambitious local strongman as American power has done?
To be sure, in an age of viral communications, a Gainesville pastor can be heard by Indonesian activists without the intervention of governments or television cameras, and there had been protests at the US embassy in Jakarta long before Petraeus decided to speak. For good and ill, local actors have new kinds of agency open to them, both to initiate actions and to represent the actions of others. But I wonder whether the man in Florida would care so much about responses in Indonesia if these were not in turn provoking attention closer to home. If no cameras showed up to see them, would Qur’ans be burned in the end?
The hunger for recognition, the desire for protagonism, are a central human urging: they are in fact intimately bound up with that desire for dignity, the mix of attention and distance that the Latin languages call re/spect. But attention, as Richard Lanham argues, is the great scarce resource of a connected world. You have to do something big in the face of so much competition. Like many others, the man in Florida is treating respect as a limited good: he can obtain it by damaging someone else’s, and the bigger the target he can attack—1.5 billion Muslims is a start—the greater the hoped-for repercussions for himself. Having apparently little credit locally, he is escalating in order to rise into a more consequential sphere of action, and governments and media are inevitably giving him assistance despite themselves.
But the Muslims of Gainesville have declined to magnify his act into a conflict of civilizations, and their actions, geared to the immediate situation and the immediate community, seem apt to earn them the local respect which matters most to human happiness in the long run—that of one’s daily interlocutors, the network of people who know one over time. In their tempered response to a ridiculous gesture, they seem to be managing their own dignity quite effectively.