The Anglo-Saxon Death Cult
Assuming that at least some of us have the ambition of understanding the Islamic world and being better able to predict events there, rather than just randomly hating and fearing them, and assuming that some of us in that group do not really have the time or ability to learn Arabic and become experts on the Islamic worldview, one of the things that might be really useful would be a few analogies between the Islamic worldview and our own. Being able to think in terms of “X is to them as Y is to us” is often a good way to get inside someone’s head. With this in mind, I offer the following contribution.
A lot of the reason why well-meaning and intelligent people inadvertantly helped to fuel and sustain what might otherwise have been a minor moral panic in the Muslim world over those Danish cartoons, is that the level of outrage seems (to us) completely disproportionate to the insult. Since it seems to disproportionate to us that anyone should riot over a disrespectful portrayal of Mohammed, or the defacement of a Koran, I suggest that the problem here is that we are using the wrong symbols when we translate their actions into our own terms. We do not have anything like such a serious taboo on religious blasphemy. It is therefore by that token bad analysis to think about Muslims’ reactions to defacement of their holy symbols, by considering what we might do if someone defaced our holy symbols.
We do, however, have an awful lot of taboos when it comes to death and dead bodies. These are actually much older, more universal and more serious in English-speaking cultures than the sexual taboos – in the original Anglo-Saxon tongue, “fuck” and “cunt” were simple descriptive terms for what they described and all the swear-words were to do with death. Certainly people who would not think twice of displaying their genital piercings in the street would cover themselves up and nod their heads when a funeral cortege passed by.
A dead body is a simple physical object; it looks like a person, but it is not that person – the person stopped being there at the moment of death. It may look like somebody’s loved one, but so does a picture or a caricature. However, in English law, it is in many circumstances actually illegal to put a dead human body on display; the most recent case involved the sculptor Anthony Noel Kelly. The only public display of human bodies which has been allowed in the UK in the last forty years was Gunther von Hagens’ “Bodyworlds” scientific exhibition, and this was extremely controversial at the time (as was Channel 4’s broadcast of an autopsy by Hagens) despite the education and scientific nature of that exhibit. Simply putting dead bodies on display to ogle at would be completely unacceptable to British society in this age, although perhaps not in older and more bloodthirsty times. Certainly, there is no longer anything but revulsion for the concept of public executions.
Not only that, but when we in the English-speaking world see dead human bodies being treated disrespectfully, or otherwise than in accordance with our particular customs and taboos, we react in an extremely emotional fashion. In March and April of 2004, we attacked the city of Fallujah with bombs and white phosphorus, in response to an incident in which four contractors had been murdered. Of course they were not the first contractors to be killed in Iraq, and nor was this even the worst attack in Fallujah by that time. However, the insurgents who dragged them from their cars also mutilated and burned their bodies while putting them on public display. This led to vastly more outrage in the English-speaking world than several other atrocities by the insurgents which had been much worse in terms of actual deaths. I did not read all the opinion published at the time, but I don’t think anyone at all in the English-speaking press or on weblogs suggested that a massive all-out attack on a whole city was in any way a disproportionate reaction to the desecration of four corpses.
So I think that this is the analogy; whenever one hears of a Koran defacement or some such, it makes sense to imagine that a corpse has been desecrated, because it seems to me that this is the analogous taboo. I don’t want to at this point say anything about whether it is more or less rational to respond in this manner to a holy book or to a dead human body; for one thing I am a Westerner and hardly in a position to judge the rationality of my own beliefs, and for another I am currently of the opinion that the leisurely study of whose taboos make more sense is a luxury that we will be better able to afford when we and the Muslim world have stopped rattling our sabres at one another to quite such an extent. But it strikes me that the Muslim taboo on graven images and the Anglo-Saxon death cult, whatever their historical origins, have the same psychological roots.
Postscript: This post is dedicated to Philip Davies, who died on February 9th of complications following the massive stroke he suffered last November. He was a regular reader and occasional contributor to this blog, most notably to this post on the speed of falling spherical parachutists, which has always been a personal favourite of mine (particularly its comments).
Dad was a really great bloke. He lived his life according to a fairly simple personal rule which involved caring a great deal about a small number of important things and not at all about a large number of basically unimportant things. I’ll miss him a hell of a lot, and I keep resolving to be more like him.