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Dr James Noyes and the Politics of Iconoclasm

Date:16 October 2013
Author:Christoph Grüll

On the 17th of November, Dr James Noyes visited the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen to give a lecture on his new book ‘Politics of Iconoclasm’, in which he examines the destruction of images of the sacred across various historical, geographic and political contexts. In this post, Erik Meinema reflects on Dr Noyes insights, adding some of his own.

Starting out with the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in March 2001 and including events such as the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and attacks on shrines in Timbuktu, Noyes began his lecture with a large amount of modern examples of Iconoclasm. According to Noyes, the global scale of these acts of destruction have led some observers to describe the first decade of the twenty-first century as a newly iconoclastic era, in which iconoclastic acts are frequently described as irrational acts of ‘barbary’ or ‘vandalism’. In his lecture, Noyes opposed both these claims: iconoclasm cannot be dismissed as mere ‘barbarism’, and it also cannot be considered as a resurging phenomenon, as modern instances of Iconoclasm build on long traditions present within Christianity and Islam, in which iconoclasm is performed for both religious and political purposes.

Based on an analysis of the famous story of the worship of the Golden Calf by the Israelites, Noyes discussed that the worship of false gods and idols is described in both Islamic and Christian traditions as not only a religious, but also a social, territorial and political error. In other words, idolatry defies not only the ‘true god’, but also the ‘true church’ and the ‘true government’. Therefore, Noyes argued that the intended destruction of idols not only has religious, but also significant political effects, in the sense that it unites the adherents of the ‘True God’ under an often much more centralized ‘True Government’. In the rest of his lecture, Noyes effectively explained how this basic dialectic between religious and political aspects of image-breaking can be found in different examples of iconoclasm throughout the ages. He also clarified how iconoclasm is often related to state-building, such as in the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, or the Islamic reformist movement of Shaikh Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab, that united with the Najdi al-Saud family to lay the foundations for the modern Saudi Arabian state.

Noyes ended his lecture by suggesting that the political control of the image – or the politics of iconoclasm – can also be effected in less violent ways than through the destruction of icons. As an example, he raised the reconstruction of Ottoman-era mosques that were destroyed by Serbian and Croatian (para)military forces during the Balkan wars. Part of the reconstructed mosques were rebuilt through funds provided by Saudi Arabian charitable organizations, who rebuild the Ottoman-era mosques in a ‘Wahhabi’ style, neglecting the Bosnian architectonical heritage and increasing their religious and political influence in the Balkan region. Based on this example, Noyes raised the question whether we can see reconstruction as part of the same politics of iconoclasm as deconstruction, in its aim to exert political influence through the control over images.

As the discussion following Noyes’ lecture highlighted, it is also possible to broaden the analysis of the politics of iconoclasm to include more ‘soft’ examples in which actors try to exert political control over images. Other examples could be discussions on the practice of religious customs or the wearing of religious symbols in the public domain. However, I would caution that there may be a risk in over-interpreting acts of iconoclasm or the ‘soft’ exertion of control over (religious) images. Very often, religious images are used, constructed, reconstructed or deconstructed for much more mundane or pragmatic reasons than attempting to establish political control, legitimized by religious imagery. For example, a person may choose to use or wear a religious symbol to be part of a subculture or community, instead of having religious or political motivations to do so. Even in conflict situations, religious buildings can be destroyed for much more local and social motivations than (global) geo-political and religious ones. In the context of heated discussions or conflicts however, more far-reaching political and religious motivations are easily ascribed to actors, which can in turn provoke further polarization of opposing parties. Consequently, I would suggest an in-depth investigation of the intentions of actors who (re)construct or destroy religious imagery is a critical dimension of analysing their roles in the politics of iconoclasm.


About Dr Noyes

Dr James Noyes is a British scholar, who received his PhD from the University of Cambridge. He is currently a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Paris Institute for Political Science, and a senior research associate at the London Think Tank Respublica, which works on questions about Religion and the Public Domain. He is also a Fellow with the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, University of Groningen.

Dr Noyes has a highly interdisciplinary approach to religion, drawing together religious studies, politics and visual culture. He is part of a global network of recognized experts on Iconoclasm. This network of experts has a book coming out this month with Ashgate titled Striking Images: Iconoclasms past and present and Dr Noyes has also, as part of this network of global experts, been a special advisor to a new exhibition at the Tate Modern in London opening this month called Art Under Attack: histories of british iconoclasm. Dr Noyes’ own recent monograph, The Politics of Iconoclasm, has been highly acclaimed world wide, with endorsements from, amongst others, Talal Asad, John Milbank and Mark Juergensmeyer. The book can be purchased from IB Tauris.

Erik Meinema is a recent graduate of the Research Master Religion and Culture in Groningen who did fieldwork on sexuality and youth in Kenya and Uganda and youth peacebuilding initiatives in Ambon, Indonesia.


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