Syria (Rebel Destruction of Holy Sites) (Against Political Theology)


Important article by Matthew Barber  explaining the shift in thinking at Syria Comment, a blog run by Joshua Landis, for which and for whom I have boundless respect and admiration. Barber explains how Syria Comment has tried to come to terms with regime brutality on the one hand, versus sectarian violence on the part of Islamist resistance groups. Included in this piece are two video clips documenting the destruction of an Alawi holy site and a Shite mosque at the hands of Sunni, Islamists rebels. I share these not because I have anything useful to say about the politics of a conflict that veering out of control, every day for the past two years, but because, very simply, I find these clips so very painful to watch, the mutilation of a religious site and its the human-all-too-human face of God.

About the larger contours of the conflict, Barber writes: Yesterday I spoke to a Sunni Syrian friend who recently found out that her fiancé (though not having participated in any demonstrations or resistance activity) was arrested by Syrian mukhabaraat while at his job teaching in a university. He was tortured to death in a detention center. Would the sectarian terrorism against minority civilians in the regime’s absence be worse than the current terrorism on the part of the regime against Syrians in oppositional territory? This is the enduring question, and will continue to be hotly debated. The answer depends on gaining an accurate sense of regime violence vs. violence of extremists within the opposition—something that we do not have and about which there is no consensus.

My only criticism of this excellent piece is that with more information we could figure out the analytic and come to some half decent answer. Even were one able to assess all the relevant data, I don’t think you could come up with anything apart from a composite image of wanton destruction and the incalculable loss of life. But I’m sure Barber understands this better than I do. Whatever might have been done early on to somehow tap this down is now too late. But then again, that something was probably nothing, even from the get-go.

About the destruction of holy sites, Barber comments: Watching it is almost more painful than the many videos of wounded people, because more than a physical attack on the body of a political rival, it represents a spiritual attack on the soul of what others consider most sacred. I think I would put it this way. The holy site stands in for God, constitutes the place of God. What people do to God is an index to or crystalization of  what they do to other people. It is the finality of the act that puts a definitive end to something that once stood for a long span of time.

For my part, I’m pretty sure why this post by Barber and these clips explain my intense dislike for the rarified discourse extolling “resistance” and “divine violence” and even “fanaticism” in left-left wing critical theory and political theology. Off the bat, I’m thinking of Benjamin, Butler, Derrida, Zizek, as well as others. I know that one will say that you can’t conflate the one with the other, symbolic violence versus real violence, the violence that you want and the violence you don’t want, that the one is not the same as the other, and that this is not what is meant. I just have my doubts that you can split that hair.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Syria (Rebel Destruction of Holy Sites) (Against Political Theology)

  1. efmooney says:

    On your last lines, right: once you say Gandhi is more violent than Hitler (S.Z. just grandstanding?), we start getting cute, trivializing the distinctions that let us live, or start splitting hairs, and people listening, overhearing, think their intellectual mentors who like SZ & others have a bitter aversion to non-violence, or think non-violence doesn’t really exist, non-violent Gandhi is REALLY violent, a torturer, or that violence is everywhere . . . so . . . who’s to say that THAT violence is more violent than THIS . . . And then we either cringe speechless, or throw up our hands in a “whatever.”

    I once taught a Holocaust class decades ago and vowed never to do it again. It turned out I was expected to say what was WRONG with Hitler. Wasn’t he just a murderer like every other leader past and present? I wanted to trace how people hide themselves from the worst of evil, and my class wanted to know why I thought something was evil, or why this was more evil than that. Today I want to know how people countenance atrocity, in Syria and the Sudan, and the knowing wink I get, from faculty and students, says “but isn’t violence inevitable? From what privileged position do you declare X to be atrocious? ” So does it boil down to “suck it up,” — Whereof one cannot speak, Thereof one must be silent ? ! ?

    • dmfant says:

      in general we don’t do well with matters of scale and intensity, especially across time and space.
      the question of how to make such matters vividly manifest is a haunting one.

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