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Holy Places

“The holy shrine will remain safe from all attacks that could possibly harm its sacredness.”

Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Allawi, about the Najaf Mosque

Despoiling holy places is often a deliberate tactic of war. In ancient Sumer, Iraq 5000 years ago, regime change was often reported by the phrase ‘the holy shrine was destroyed and the city overrun.’ When Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C. he, like the later Roman conqueror Trajan, carried off Temple treasures. When the Greeks entered the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem a few centuries later, they slaughtered a hog in the Jewish temple’s most sacred place, the Holy of Holies. In the French Revolution a naked whore was placed on the high altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Osama Bin Laden deliberately brought down the twin towers which he identified as shrines to the American god-money.

Desecration makes the point that new gods rule, and demonstrates contempt for what you hold sacred. In most codes of war sacred places are supposed to be respected. They sometimes serve as sanctuaries for transgressors who must be held harmless, sacrosanct, in the sacred area. The customs of holy places are ancient and widespread. Many stories tell of divine retribution against those who violate holy places.

Leaders too are sometimes regarded as holy and attack against them is sacrilege. Britain in the 17th century developed a concept that the king had actually two bodies, a divine one symbolic of order which could be honored even though they beheaded the unsatisfactory earthly Charles I. The great Puritan poet John Milton assented to the clever justification of regicide-preserving the king’s divine body of order while disposing of the recalcitrant human body.

Crowds which burn leaders in effigy or topple statues signify a desire to destroy icons and individuals. When Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down in Baghdad many people beat at it with shoes, a sign of profound contempt. (Many Americans learned from the commentary not to sit showing the soles of their shoes to Arabs, who regard it as an insult.) But Saddam was not regarded as holy. He was not a sacred place like the Buddhist sculptures the Taliban dynamited as false gods. Saddam was a strongman who ruled by force. Though he had himself painted in the pose of Saladin the great Muslim warrior, Saddam, like his idol Stalin, aspired to power, not holiness.

The women who are raped as an act of war or killed for family honor are more like the holy shrines-not persons but places. Christian Serbs raped and impregnated Muslim women in Bosnia with taunts that they would bear their conquerors. In Bosnia and Ruwanda and many other places women were killed, committed suicide, or experienced ostracism because of rape and impregnation. The Pope begged Bosnian women not to abort, to turn acts of war into acts of love. Wombs are sanctuaries of seed for the Pope, but not for most more tribal peoples. The Abu Ghraib reports of female humiliation and rape have been censored. Recent reports of honor killings in Iraq stress the unforgivable shame that inheres in the women’s sexual despoilation.

This is oddly ancient also. The Rape of Lucrece celebrated in literature and art tells of the Roman matron who is propositioned by Tarquinias. She refuses saying she chooses death over dishonor and he says if she kills herself to avoid him he’ll kill a slave and put him in bed with her, and then tell her husband he avenged his honor by killing both. Lucrece then accepts her rape, and reports the truth to her husband. To prove her honor, she kills herself. Lucrece is regarded as a great heroine in traditional commentary, not as an example of lamentable honor killing.

The sense of sacred places is often linked to blood and sacrifice. The Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, burial place of Mohammed’s nephew, is regarded as the holiest shrine in Iraq. Interim Prime Minister Allawi ordered reporters to leave the city and confiscated cameras. An American reporter working on a documentary about the plundering of the Iraqi Museum and cultural treasures is being held hostage. Every day the threatening and shelling play out around the sacred place, occasionally intensified by newly arrived Marines who have short patience with political waffling warfare. Today’s news (August 19, 2004) reports that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says US forces will not enter the shrine but just open the way for Iraqi troops. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld believes in disinformation, however, and he has clearly demonstrated his sense of sacred places-oilfields and the Oil Ministry.

Interim Prime Minister Allawi says Iraqi forces will attack unless Al-Sadr stands down from the shrine and turns his militia into a political force. But Allawi has also guaranteed the preservation of the sacred place: “The holy shrine will remain safe from all attacks that could harm its sacredness.” The holy place has become the hard place. What it signifies is freedom from and superiority to force. If the Americans-who have done terrible damage in Najaf and throughout Iraq-are seen attacking the shrine the Islamic jihad has the images it needs to prove Bin Laden’s charge. The heart of his message, which the US ignores, is that we are invaders and despoilers of Islamic holy places.

We protest that we are bringing true holy values-freedom and democracy. Our leaders’ analysis is that those who fight us are jealous of our freedom and don’t treat women well. We who have bombed more than any nation in the history of the world hold ourselves consummate victims because we were bombed once in our homeland. Is our land holy to us? Or our people? To most Americans the World Trade Center Twin Towers and the Pentagon were not shrines to money and force. They became holy places through the blood of those who died there.

Ideally holy places staunch the blood flow, becoming places where blood must no longer flow, where men meditate and turn away from human violence. As Sumer had it, when the holy shrine is destroyed, the city is overrun.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu

 

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DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu

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