What the reaction to Notre Dame does and does not say


Gothic survivor. Cathedral of Notre Dame reflected on the River Seine after a massive fire devastated large parts of the gothic structure in Paris, April 18. (Reuters)

Arabs may have lost much of their faith in the value of their heritage after they lost adequate appreciation of the value of lives in their midst.

Some have taken the massive fire that destroyed the roof and spire of the 856-year-old Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris as a sign; others as a warning. A journalist reporting for an American TV channel said the sight of the burning cathedral left a “sense — real or imagined — that we were watching a metaphor.”

Of what? There is more than a whiff of seventh- and eighth-century Byzantium in some of the Western reaction to the fire that engulfed one of Europe’s most architecturally and aesthetically remarkable mediaeval churches.

In 730, many Christian clergy in the Byzantine Empire supported the view that the upstart Arabs’ territorial gains and battlefield victories (as well as a volcanic eruption on the Aegean islands of Thera and Therasia) were signs of divine wrath at Christians’ idolatrous practices.

Indeed, the Arab conquests were sizeable. By 634, the Arabs had taken Syria and Palestine; by 650, the Byzantines had lost Egypt, their richest province. As the Arabs grew in strength and influence, the Byzantines became more superstitious, watching for signs and metaphors that foretold the future. It was all pretty much nonsense, as it turned out. Constantinople didn’t fall until 1453. So much for signs of divine wrath.

The Notre Dame fire has prompted similar angst, for reasons that seem to have as much to do with the current turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church as with polarising trends within Western culture. The sense of being under siege was captured by Alexandra DeSanctis, a staff writer for the conservative American magazine National Review: “To many Catholics, it feels as if the Church is on fire in a sense already and now we are watching it blaze.”

That sounds like a 21st-century reprisal of mediaeval apocalyptic thoughts. In 686, John of Phenek, a Christian monk who often wrote about the early Muslim conquests, seemed to take an outbreak of plague in eastern Syria as the tipping point. “The end of the world has arrived,” the monk declared. It is of a piece with today’s overwrought commentary, with New York Times columnist Roger Cohen describing Notre Dame as “a story of European civilisation.”

Intense sorrow at what has befallen Notre Dame Cathedral is natural. It could have been destroyed, leaving humanity collectively poorer. Its loss would have been as heart-rending as when the Islamic State (ISIS) demolished temples, columns and the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, once one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world, or when ISIS smashed ancient statues in the museum in Mosul and bulldozed the ancient Assyrian capital, Nimrud.

Notre Dame, however, has evoked a more anguished reaction than ISIS’s depredations across Syria, Iraq and Libya. French President Emmanuel Macron described Parisians’ feelings as a “tremblement interieur” — an internal trembling. It is an evocative phrase, one that almost suggests existential dread. If so, what existential threat has provoked such a response?

There is one further point to make about the reaction to the Notre Dame fire. The West cares — truly and deeply — about its cultural treasures. Unlike the Arab world’s rather muted reaction to the cultural vandalism perpetrated in Syria, Iraq and Libya, Western urgency about rebuilding Notre Dame is apparent. Within 24 hours, millions of dollars had been committed to the reconstruction project by two of France’s leading industrialists. By April 17, nearly $1 billion had poured in from ordinary Frenchmen and women, as well as wealthy businessmen.

It’s fair to note the Arab world hasn’t mobilised in similar fashion, with such energy and determination, when faced with the destruction of its artistic heritage. Does the apathy say anything other than profound exhaustion at the toll taken by conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya?

In 2015, before ISIS destroyed Palmyra, many Syrians said they cared more about the humanitarian toll of war than about antiquities. At the time, Syrians spoke more passionately about the horrors perpetrated 35 years before at the prison in Tadmur, the tiny town near Palmyra, than about the city’s imperilled treasures.

Before I wrote this column, the editor of the paper suggested Arabs may have lost much of their faith in the value of their heritage after they lost adequate appreciation of the value of lives in their midst.

That’s a fair point. It’s also the one that might justifiably trigger a “tremblement interieur.”

Originally published in www.thearabweekly.com