The Dark Side of Beauty: The Mosque As "Terror Cell"

The relationships of cultures are not so very different from the relationships of individuals.
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This is the sixth and final installment in a series of posts on mosques as seen through the eyes of some of the great novelists, poets, journalists, and critics of the last three centuries. See the fifth installment.

The relationships of cultures are not so very different from the relationships of individuals. When the balance shifts between two lovers or two cultures such that one acquires power over the other, so often the very features thought to be beautiful and binding at the relationship's start, in the end become repressive and terrifying. The romance that had developed between the West and the Middle East in the 18th and 19th centuries was disrupted in the 20th by decades of escalating resentment over Western intrusion on Muslim affairs and finally ended in the terror of extreme retaliation. Sadly, the mosques that once symbolized the splendor of Islam are now refashioned into the darkest and most treacherous of terror cells.

If I'm here reminded of Carl Jung, it's because he famously interprets every character in our dreams and fantasies, even those most hostile and menacing, as projections of ourselves--or at least what we unconsciously believe about ourselves. This means that what we're most afraid others would do to us is very likely what we're capable, given the means and the motive, of doing to someone else. By inverse reasoning, if the follower of one faith begrudges the power and beauty of another's faith, it is out of a desire to become as powerful and beautiful as he imagines that faith to be. In the end, both sides are blinded by their beautiful yet competing ideals, to the point that they become unconsciously attached to the irreconcilable contest being waged.

As an agnostic, I confess that my own anxiety can at times be aroused by the great mosques' representation of a deity I can't embrace. And that is even before I think of how such magnificent structures as the Muhammad Ali Mosque of Cairo, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque of Istanbul, the Selimiye Mosque of Edirne, the Jumeirah Mosque of Dubai, the Shah Faisal Mosque of Islamabad, and the shrine of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, can all still inspire religious conversions so fervent that they impel acts of barbaric terror. It's this proselytizing allure of sacred architecture that keeps me coming back to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose fear of beauty I echoed at the start of this series.

"Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror," begins Rilke's "Duino Elegies," of "which we still are just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us." It may surprise some of you to learn that the beauty Rilke here holds to be so sublimely dangerous are those beings we call angels. To be caressed by an angel, Rilke writes, is to be consumed by its overwhelming existence. The angel is, of course, Rilke's metaphor for religion. And rightly so, considering that religions count heavily on beautiful guardian and savior myths, as conveyed through scripture and iconography that entrance its devotees to submit to total subjugation.

Next to Rilke's panic over religious beauty, Karl Marx appears compassionate in his estimation that religion "is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation ... the opium of the people." Marx at least metaphorically accounts for how the architecture of churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques calm us with their womblike embrace and protection--being the richly ornamented receptacles of narcotic enablement they are. For once a searching wanderer, especially one long bereft of personal belief or social position, has found such a welcoming and uplifting domicile, it might not be long before she finds the empowering scriptures enshrined within it, and with which she takes to assuaging her distress.

Herein resides the terrible beauty Rilke fears. But Rilke underestimated the power that modern secularism, buttressed by a belief in reason and democracy, would have in breaking the proselytizing spell of the sacred temple. Any secular student of art and architecture can attest to appreciating the beauty of the world's religious art without swaying to the faiths that produced them. Or are we really being imperceptibly inclined toward the faith all the while we study it? It's a question that prompts me to imagine what might happen if the finished design for the much protested Park 51 Islamic Community Center (the mis-identified "Ground Zero Mosque") proved so beautiful as to win over its most ardent opponents from all faiths. Or would that be even more terrible? Would it mean, as some Americans fear, that we would be veering dangerously close to a kind of conversion to Islam. Or even worse--a complicity with its terror.

Sadly, that's when a terror of our own making takes hold of us, one that blinds us so completely that we lose sight of the realities we share with people who worship a beauty different than our own. We allow the beauty of our respective ideals to divide us in two: Americans gripped by patriotism; Muslims by submission to Allah. The glare of our own beautiful ideals keep us from recognizing the ethics of diversity. On either side, beautiful ideals, beautiful memories of loved ones lost, beautiful visions of utopias out of reach, can compel the fanatical suicide bomber or rogue soldier to seek out the ever-more exhilarating beauty for which he becomes willing to obliterate himself and others. For in the obliteration of self and others--the only way he can impose his beauty on the world--he falsely believes he attains the beauty he lacks in life. The quest for beauty is, after all, nothing if not the desire for completion.

Susan Sontag, in her 1974 essay "Fascinating Fascism," saw in the burning fervor of ideological exclusion an exalted if entirely delusional beauty that, taken to inhuman extremes, compels pogroms and incites genocide. As targets of the terror, we forget that whatever mode of terror is adopted, it must be born in a pathological commitment to a beautiful ideal. Sontag of course is referring to the historical confusion of the beautiful with the good and which has too often aroused and sustained the will to annihilate whatever, whoever, falls outside the fascist standard of beauty. It is this obsession with, distention and corruption of, beauty that gives rise to the imagined master races of the KKK, the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the Hutu Akazu, the Taliban. Myopic beauty prompts the extremists of even the most benign and humane ideological systems to rise up and destroy the beauty of competing ideologies and faiths--the way that Christians in the 4th century warped the teaching of Jesus to justify desecrating the "pagan" art and architecture of the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians; or that compelled Muslims to destroy Hindu Temples in India and Buddhist shrines in Afghanistan. Even among the usually pacific Tibetans, monasteries have been burned to the ground by rival Buddhist sects because the beauty seen up close obstructs the beauty others behold farther away.

And yet--and this is an exceedingly redeeming "and yet" for the cause of humanity--beauty also inspires us to perform beautiful deeds. Who among us hasn't been stirred by the beauty of the relief aid worker helping the sick and wounded in the wake of a natural catastrophe or the social advocate who brings meals to the aged and homeless. Who hasn't been inspired by the beautiful piano nocturne, guitar riff, poetic stanza, or enigmatic painting enough to repeat, reproduce, or mimic it. It is beauty that compels us to proclaim saints and geniuses while motivating mystics and visionaries to reach for the edge of heaven. Beauty is required to keep human affairs in their natural proportion. Proportion is the key principle here. Beauty is nothing more than the most harmonious of natural human proportions. When beauty loses its sense of human proportion, or when it becomes too divorced from the nature that determines proportion, it is no longer beauty. It is addiction, or the will to power, or both.

By contrast, the beauty of democracy and the beauty of spiritual faith are liberating. That's why it seems unfathomable that the idea of a mosque in America is being stripped of its allure at the same time that democracy and Islam are being stripped of the tolerance and diversity for which both are famed.

Of all the writings on mosques I've encountered, it is within G. K. Chesterton's The New Jerusalem that I found the philosophical antidote to Islamophobia and democrophobia alike. Jotted down as he gazed at Jerusalem's Mosque of Omar (our Dome of the Rock), Chesterton articulates the only lesson of substance to be learned by a traveller--the lesson that informs him who he is. That Chesterton learned who he is as he became entranced with one of the great architectural monuments of Islam impresses me with a principle on which the atheist and the believer can agree--and which is necessary to keep beauty from being corrupted by ideologies and politics. That is the lesson that even so majestic a structure as that bequeathed to us by one of the world's great empires cannot be fully appreciated unless its beauty is understood to proceed not from the object to us, but from us out onto the object. In other words, even if we believe beauty ultimately proceeds from God or the universe, it is the self that remains the earthly source of all beauty. And herein we find the end of terror. For the beauty we require to complete us is the self.

Note: After I published this on 12/1, I became informed that just last week Israeli authorities had demolished a small mosque in the Yarza village of the West Bank, saying it was "illegally built" though it stood there since 1967. Once I have acquired a photo of the mosque before its demolition, I will include it in the slideshow "Ruins of Beauty Feared" below.

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Before: Al-Askari Mosque, Samara, Iraq, 944 CE

Ruins of Beauty Feared

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