SAN DIEGO — Ever wonder why the mainstream media so consistently apply the adjective “holy” to places like Najaf and Karbala? The Associated Press Style Guide says nothing about holy cities, preferring to let reporters decide for themselves whether they’re filing stories from sacred ground. Reporters, for their part, typically defer to local sensibilities, unless those sensibilities are Christian, Jewish, or unlikely to impress America’s self-styled cultural gatekeepers, many of whom are discomfited by religious faith any stronger than the Unitarian or agnostic brews to which they’ve been conditioned (good luck looking for “holy” in a byline from Rome, Hebron, or Salt Lake City). That approach has combined with the fighting in Iraq to make a handful of Muslim shrines household names, and people in the “blogosphere” have noticed.
In one of the wire service parodies for which he is notorious, Scott “Scrappleface” Ott announced earlier this year that the city councils of Washington, D.C. and New York City “unanimously approved resolutions declaring both metropolitan areas Muslim holy cities like Najaf, Kufa, and Karbala in Iraq.” Mark Shea wondered why Beijing, China didn’t count as holy, when “it used to have a divine emperor and everything.” Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias proposed limiting the number of cities that any one religion can designate as holy, and Josh Chafetz suggested a tradable voucher system, “where religions that don’t need many holy cities get to sell their leftover city vouchers to religions that need more.”
This politically incorrect whimsy would probably have amused Augustine of Hippo, who borrowed from early Christian preaching about conduct befitting “strangers in a strange land” to write about the “City of God.” His book was a virtuoso riff on the “Heavenly Jerusalem” described at the end of the Christian Scriptures, and commonly regarded as a metaphysical analog to the earthly Jerusalem. In other words, Augustine’s City of God is not the kind of place where tourists pump locals for advice on where to find cappuccinos and Wi-Fi hotspots.
But Augustine was writing early in the fifth century. Reporters these days have no trouble locating holy places, if only because U.S. Marines seem to be encamped near a disproportionate number of them. Staffers at the Council on American-Islamic Relations probably think the American military has a jones for Muslim shrines, but the truth is more complicated. If, for example, Nepalese leaders were better known for fostering hatred of the Western world than for anything else, the number of postcards sent from Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal to military towns like Oceanside, California, might increase exponentially, but not because imperialist Yankee devil-dogs had suddenly decided to pick a fight with Buddhist and Hindu partisans.
AS A MARINE HELICOPTER PILOT wrote August 23 for the New York Times, his low-level flights over the cemetery next to the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf were made not because his commanders were insensitive to Muslim burial rites, but because the cemetery had been used as a staging area for attacks on American forces. Sermons erasing the distinction between blessings and bullets tend to aggravate that kind of thing by distorting the whole concept of holiness, and exposing it to the corrosive sarcasm of pundits like John Derbyshire, resident curmudgeon at National Review Online.
Fresh from a mind-meld of sorts with aspiring politician and Insurgent-of-the-Month Moqtada al-Sadr, Derbyshire observes that “poking a finger in the infidel’s eye trumps any amount of holiness in any number of shrines.” In the same vein, one contributor to an Internet bulletin board asked his fellows to “name a city in Iraq that is not holy,” and the wittiest response to that challenge cited the “Green Zone” in Baghdad which houses many of the Americans now helping Iraqi reconstruction efforts.
When coffins conceal shoulder-fired missiles, schoolchildren are massacred without compunction, and videotaped “militants” shout “God is Great” while sawing other people’s heads off, it’s safe to infer that “holiness” means different things to different cultures. We also know that the definition of holiness can change within a culture, and sometimes even from one neighborhood to the next. This, of course, is a two-sided coin: Mr. Eric Scheie noticed that editors for his Philadelphia newspaper avoid using the term “terrorist” except when quoting other people, because they prefer the term “extremist.” Scheie then pointed out that this puts actual terrorists “on the same moral plane as conservative radio talk show hosts.”
SO WHAT CITIES ARE holy and why? Christians, Muslims, and Jews all agree that Jerusalem is significant, but Muslims alone exalt Medina because the prophet Mohammed is buried there, and consider Mecca the first created place on Earth. Unlike their more numerous Sunni co-religionists, Shiite Muslims also embrace Karbala and Najaf as the burial sites for Mohammed’s grandson and son-in-law, respectively. Kufa, the city between them, is revered as the place where Mohammed’s son-in-law was stabbed to death by assassins working for a Sunni rival.
Western Christianity pays unique attention to Rome (read: the pope), and, to a much lesser extent, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where First Daughter Jenna Bush made a splash on a spring, 2004 pilgrimage. The caption on the ensuing AP photo noted that Jenna and her friends averaged 19 miles a day over the 112-mile pilgrimage route, without explaining that Santiago de Compostela derives any holiness it has from proximity to Jesus, because the remains of Jesus’ apostle James are buried there (this would be “James the Greater,” as opposed to fellow apostle “James the Less,” first bishop of Jerusalem, whose death could not lift that metropolis into the holy city sweepstakes only because it was already there).
Various European locales important to Protestant Christians are not usually described as holy. This can be attributed to the “local sensibility” rule mentioned earlier. Journalists who don’t know or care that Protestant theology avoids ascribing holiness to physical places so as to avoid even the appearance of conceding anything to Catholic talk of “sacramentals” are nevertheless clever enough to pick up on the nomenclature cues offered to them in the pubs and newspapers of places like Canterbury, England.
Here at home, and to the great relief of adamantly secular organizations like the ACLU, it also takes more than an explicitly religious name to plant “holy” among the preferred list of adjectives associated with a particular place. Holiness can be thought of as a kind of perfume whose fragrance diffuses over large areas. Thus Abraham Lincoln could speak of how the valor of the dead had consecrated the battlefield at Gettysburg without ascribing special merit or divine blessing to the town around the battlefield.
Were that not the case, the American Southwest would be pockmarked with holy cities from Santa Cruz, California, to Corpus Christi, Texas. It’s an intriguing thought, and a gentle but unmistakable indictment of how we usually view the world.