There are universal values, but there are many fewer of them than you probably think.
I write this as I watch the destruction of venerable mosques and tombs in Timbuktu with horror. Iconic, historic buildings – gone.
All that is left of some are photos.
But whether this is a crime or an act of piety is a matter of opinion. In my opinion and probably in yours it is an appalling act of wanton destruction. But in the eyes of the men (I use a sexist noun deliberately; I don’t think this particular group lets its women handle sledgehammers in public) these are acts of piety.
These vandals are pious Muslims and they are destroying venerable buildings lest someone venerate them.
Belief that historic buildings can become objects of veneration detracting from an understanding of the oneness of God is widespread in Islam, and is increasing with the rising popularity of Salafism. While the world press is comparing this to the destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan, the closet comparison is actually to the destruction of historic and religious sites in Mecca, on a scale that boggles a Western mind, and many Muslim minds, but not the Salafi mind.
Muslims do not have an exclusive on iconoclasm. Some of the nicest peoples we know have gone in for this sort of thing, there was a Dutch iconoclasm, an English iconoclasm, a Byzantine iconoclasm – all were motivated by piety and the objects they destroyed were as irreplaceable as the mosques of Timbuktu.
Yes, I am appalled, just as I would be appalled if they were burning books. There is, by the by, a small, glass rondel from a church window at the Cloisters in Manhattan. It shows Europeans throwing books into a bonfire and it was created as part of a series illustrating praiseworthy acts. Cultures can change. They do it all the time. But rarely because they are scolded by UNESCO, which does have great photos of the buildings now being destroyed.
Back to my assertion that there are very few universal values. Take incest, for example, marriage betwwen a brother and a sister. Prohibition of sibling marriage is often taken to be a universal value. Yet it was a normative practice in Roman Egypt. (Full Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt: Another Look Seymour ParkerCultural Anthropology, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Aug., 1996), pp. 362-376) The culture valued the preservation of family assets and the ability to pass them on to grandchildren. Genetic diseases were not well understood.
Values are not part of human being, they are part of human culture. They vary between one human group and another. Some of these variations are minor. Others are yawning chasms, like the cultural gap that separates the men from destroying the mosques in Timbuktu from the columnists writing about them.
The destruction in Timbuktu is not “an attack on our humanity“, nor is it “totally unjustified“, as Ban Ki-moon has asserted. These iconoclasts are not hooligans in blue robes. These men have ideological motivation for tearing down venerable mosques and tombs. Their ideology horrifies me, but it is not irrational.
Ideas have consequences, and one consequence of Salafism is an imperative to annihilate the venerable.