6 thoughts on “Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic studies, New College, University of Edinburgh

  1. Complex subject, this. As we’ve come to expect, it was dealt with sensitively and intelligently by Professor Siddiqui.

    The Benin Bronzes are, like most objects we have from the past, infused with layers of meaning. It helps to work backwards in time to untangle these layers. As a consequence of their theft by the British, at the moment they are symbols of cruelty and oppression. They are also symbols of a condescending superiority, in that academic opinion that they are better off in the west as we can look after them better. For both these reasons, they should be returned immediately.

    But then there is the next layer of meaning. The bronzes are symbols of oppression and power in and of themselves. They are religious only in the sense that they were part of a system of demonstrating the righteousness of the king and his friends. To own anything made of bronze, one had to be either royalty or have the favour of the king, so simple possession of one of these items was a method of reinforcing a rigid (and cruel) hierarchy. The religion Mona discusses was that of the worship of the king as a god, always useful in maintaining power and wealth.

    And then there was slavery. At least one African-American group opposes the return of the bronzes to Nigeria (Benin), because of the latter’s heavy involvement in capturing and selling slaves to the Europeans. In fact, this involvement was the major source of wealth for Benin during the18th and early 19th Centuries.

    So what are they, these bronzes? Symbols of an oppressed people, or symbols of oppression? Religious icons, or tokens of power and control? The answer is that they are all of these things and more. Seeing them in one light only is like seeing only one side of history, usually a sign of wanting to use that history for today’s ends. In the first instance, they should be in their original place – Britain has no right to their possession or to their sole interpretation. But beyond that, only if we see the past, and the things that have come down to us from that past, in all possible lights will we be capable of learning from it and moving on from it. Otherwise, these bronzes risk becoming like the Confederate Flag or a Victorian statue – just a badge for the simplistic worldview of some modern-day megalomaniac.

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    1. An intelligent and eloquent response Steve — so, for those reasons, you’re ruled out of ever presenting TFTD !!

      Philosophically, history is an interesting topic [and one on which my opinion has changed over the years – at school, I couldn’t see the point of it and didn’t like the teacher; now I can see it has interest, if no direct use]. I now see it as potentially useful guidance, but almost always divisive and prolonging discord.

      It is good to know how we got here and what mistakes were made which we can avoid repeating. However, when presenting history there is always a choice to be made how to describe events — it’s usually (but not always) from the victor’s perspective.

      The decisions on what to teach / document / describe are always loaded with political and social perspectives and will inevitably glorify some and diminish others.

      When the same events / artefacts / objects are viewed by different groups, there is the danger of differences being exaggerated and new conflicts arising [e.g. Ireland]. This can perpetuate problems rather than resolving them.

      There have been some genuine reconciliations where, effectively the attitude has been taken that the past is as it is and cannot be changed, let’s move on to a more peaceful future; South Africa being an good example.

      Returning “looted” items is commendable. Big gestures and apologies for past events (when nobody alive can remember anyone who may have been involved, however tangentially) seems pointless and just serves to keep opening old wounds. Reasoned discussion can help, but not if overloaded with accusations

      As an aside, I recall talking to an Irish colleague over a beer or two one evening when he mentioned the ‘oppression of the English’ as taught in his school; I pointed out that, as I am far from aristocratic descent, my ancestors would have been under similar pressures and that we were far from different; I could appreciate the hurt, but felt absolutely no responsibility for it. It was an interesting chat and I think that we both saw a little of each other’s perspectives and reduced the apparent differences. Difference that were very minor in comparison to common ground, but which were highlighted by the way in which history was taught,

      Sorry for such a long reply!

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  2. Just a note about something on Radio 4 yesterday [Sunday] where someone was very happy to defend the indefensible; bishops in the House of Lords. Casuistry so brazen I just had to share it.

    Apparently the bishops should be there because they are a shining example to us all of the way forward. 1) they have no party allegiance [so, no longer ‘The Tory Party at Prayer’ then?] 2) they are regional representatives [condescending to speak on behalf of all in their bailiwick despite not being elected] and 3) they have to retire at 65 [not mentioning that they are immediately replaced by their successor in an unending chain].

    Sorry, I didn’t catch the woman’s name. This looks like it will be the party line as the C of E shamelessly attempts to cling on to power.

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  3. The obvious thing to do with all these carvings and relics is to scan them to create 3D digital models, make 3D printed copies to keep in the UK, and hand the relics back.
    We now have the technology available and don’t need the originals.

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  4. Excellent analysis by Steve and Birch above. Many thanks.

    But in a way the Benin Bronzes are pretty straightforward. They were taken in an act of grand larceny and should be returned. There are many more difficult cases, starting with the Elgin Marbles: there are good reasons for giving them to Greece, and good reasons for hanging on to them.

    The point of great art is that it’s universal, and deserves to be seen worldwide. Every time there is a campaign to keep some national treasure in the UK, it occurs to me that people elsewhere in the world are being denied the opportunity to have it in their own galleries to look at themselves. (Of course many such objects end up in private collections and never see the light of day again, which is another complicating factor). There is no single easy answer.

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