Fallen American Idols

Friday 3 July 202012:00 pm

In a country where Liberty is a statue, and busts of the founding fathers are carved into colossal mountains, icons and idols have always been a quintessential component to the social fabric. With the ascending racial equality movement came a demand to radically revise American history and remove all contested figures from the public sphere. A debate I find fascinating as an expatriate coming from a region where the spirits are still marked by scenes of recent iconoclasms. 

The word iconoclasm comes etymologically from the Greek eikon klastes, meaning the destruction of icons. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the destruction of cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the grounds that they are erroneous or pernicious". In Fact, the oldest known instance of damnatio memoriae occurred in our part of the world in ancient Egypt when king Thutmose III ordered the total erasure of any reference to queen Hatshepsut from the walls of Deir el-Bahari temple and all official pharaonic history.

As the debate heats up between those who want to remove the 718 confederate monuments and those who believe that these relics are an intricate part of US history, I can’t help making controversial and improbable correlations with events in the Middle East

In a predominantly Muslim Arab world, our relationship with images and sculptures is a grey space where the sacred meets the profane. Our iconography is tempered by biblical and Koranic scenes of Abraham and other patriarchs destroying pagan idols. Artistic representations of physical beings, notably religious figures, is still considered blasphemous in many countries. Few exceptions are eastern Christian biblical illuminations and Shia portraits influenced by neighboring traditions or the scarce structures we produced after the colonial encounter. Archeological excavations tell us that we have not always been this way, and exhumed proofs of a past abundant with drawings and sculptures from early and mid-antiquity, most of which embellish western museums today.   

Maybe the most marking iconoclasm in recent Arab imagination is when the US army staged the pulling down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos square in Baghdad. A scene that announced the official fall of the Baath regime in an old fashion Byzantine way

As the debate continues to heat up between those who want to remove the 718 confederate monuments and those who believe that these relics are an intricate part of the US history, I can’t help making some very controversial and improbable correlations with events that happened in the Middle East. At first glance the US seems very remote from the destruction of Palmyra in Syria and Assyrian Nimrud in Iraq by ISIS militants. Still, if you look closely, both are an attempt to reclaim the public space by utterly effacing symbols that remind of a past that they oppose. Heritage is an indissoluble part of the national rhetoric no matter how contested it may be. Just remember that most historical sites we celebrate today were built by despots with the hands of slaves.

In a predominantly Muslim Arab world, our relationship with images and sculptures is a grey space where the sacred meets the profane. Our iconography is tempered by biblical and Koranic scenes of Abraham and other patriarchs destroying pagan idols

Maybe the most marking iconoclasm in recent Arab imagination is when the US army staged in 2003 the pulling down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos square in Baghdad. A scene that announced the official fall of the Baath regime in an old fashion Byzantine way. Needless to say, that the toppling of that monument together with all those that followed in 2011 with the Arab uprisings did not stop our dictators from remaining erected in our subconscious as invisible tyrants that keep pulling us backwards.

As if compensating for its short national history, the US is a manufacture of ephemeral idols, some are even voted live on primetime television or handed as small statuettes to celebrated movie stars. 4th of July is usually the occasion for an ubiquitous exhibit of American national symbols in a sort of Banal Nationalism. Flags and ribbons are proudly displayed in disposable cups, rubber flip flops, and minimalistic bathing suits. This year Independence Day will be different, as the nation is going through some serious soul searching. Can one really become independent from one’s memories? Can idol toppling chase the demons of a hideous past? Or would it only perpetuate the cycle of violence like in the Middle East?

Show the comments
Website by WhiteBeard