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Why extreme Islamists are intent on destroying cultural artifacts

A member of the Taliban stands near the remnants of a Buddha statue in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in March 2001. The militia blew up two ancient Buddhas after a decree from their supreme commander to destroy all of the country's statues.
A member of the Taliban stands near the remnants of a Buddha statue in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in March 2001. The militia blew up two ancient Buddhas after a decree from their supreme commander to destroy all of the country's statues.Saeed Khan / AFP - Getty Images, file

LONDON -- They have destroyed the iconic Buddhas of Bamiyan, smashed down the fabled “end of the world” gate in the ancient city of Timbuktu and even called for the destruction of Egypt’s ancient pyramids and the Sphinx.

Extreme Islamist movements across the world have developed a reputation for the destruction of historic artifacts, monuments and buildings.

This week, officials confirmed that up to 2,000 manuscripts at Mali's Ahmed Baba Institute had been destroyed or looted during a 10-month occupation of Timbuktu by Islamist fighters. Some experts have compared the texts to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

To many in the West, such actions are simply wanton vandalism. However, experts say the thinking behind it is actually part of a wider tradition of rooting out idol-worship and superstition found in Christianity and Judaism as well as Islam.

Usama Hasan -- an Islamist for about 20 years, who now works to counter extremism at the U.K.’s Quilliam Foundation -- said most Muslims had “a kind of tolerant attitude" and a "live-and-let-live" approach toward such things.

"Mainstream Muslim thinking tends to tolerate these historic artifacts," he said. "Even if they don’t agree with the superstitions, they don’t want to provoke the community and don’t see it as a big deal."

But Hasan said he understood the mindset of those condemned as cultural vandals “very well” as he “used to subscribe to it.”

He said that during his Islamist days he would say things like: “Yes, let’s destroy the pyramids when we take over Egypt.”

"It’s very sad. You lose all that cultural heritage, music, history, art, ancient books. If they (Islamists) don’t agree with what’s in them … they seem to think it’s OK to burn these books," he said. "If you’re not Muslim or don’t subscribe to the same narrow interpretation the militants do, they will oppose everything you do and do so violently if they need to."

Hasan said there were a number of stories explaining how the Sphinx lost its nose, but one account suggests that a religious figure in the 14th century, Saim El-Dahr, tried to get rid of it.

“There was a common belief that the Sphinx had some power over the level of the River Nile … he wanted to smash the locals’ superstitious belief in the power of the Sphinx and tried to destroy it,” he said.

Similar reasoning was likely behind some actions of Islamists in Mali. Breaking down the gate in Timbuktu was probably designed to show any local people who still believed in the fable that it was not actually true, Hasan said.

But while the Taliban justified the 2001 demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by saying they were idols, Hasan said there was more to it.

“The Taliban’s destruction of the statues was a political gesture. The United Nations had sent money to restore these statues at the same time there were sanctions [against Afghanistan],” he said. “The Taliban said children were dying because of this … and the U.N. was more concerned about statues than people.”

Noah Charney, professor of art history at the American University of Rome, said that the destruction of idols dated back to biblical times, when warring factions would destroy monuments of rivals that were thought to have religious power.

The Ten Commandments include a proscription against making “any graven image” of anything in heaven or on Earth, but Charney said this had been “quickly forgotten” or interpreted to mean only images of “false idols” by many Christians.

The reason many Ancient Greek and Roman statues of gods are missing their heads and arms is not faulty construction, Charney said. Instead, it is often the legacy of the 6th-century Pope Gregory the Great.

“He found the classical statuary to be very beautiful, but there was a danger people would revert back to their pagan ways” and start worshiping them, Charney said. By removing the head and arms, which often held items identifying the deity, the statue “lost all its power because you don’t know which god it is.”

In seventh century Byzantium, clashes between Christians over the alleged worship of icons gave rise to the term “iconoclasm,” meaning the destruction of religious images.

The Reformation in the 16th century also saw many statues in churches literally defaced by Protestants in Europe.

The city of Timbuktu has borne the brunt of recent Islamist iconoclasts, with rebel forces in Mali setting fire to its historic library as they retreated in the face of French and Malian government troops this month.

After the militants took the city last year, they destroyed mausoleums and a gate that local superstition said would only open at the end of the world.

In November, an ultraconservative religious figure in Egypt, Murgan Salem al-Gohary, told local television that the Sphinx and pyramids at Giza should be leveled, an idea that sparked headlines but is shared by only a tiny minority of Egyptians.

“All Muslims are charged with applying the teachings of Islam to remove such idols, as we did in Afghanistan when we destroyed the Buddha statues,” he said.

While he celebrated the destruction of the two 6th-century statues -- one 180 feet, the other 125 feet high -- in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley in March 2001, world cultural body UNESCO described it as a “tragic” act that “shook the world.” 

The wrecking ball has also been swung to significant effect in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

According to an estimate in 2005 by Sami Angawi, an expert on Islamic architecture, at least 300 historic buildings were demolished over the previous 50 years. 

The reason, espoused by the Wahhabi movement within Islam, was that people might start idolatrously worshipping structures associated with Muhammad, rather than God.

David Thomas, professor of Christianity and Islam at the U.K.’s Birmingham University, said iconoclasm was “a strain in all religions unfortunately,” but added that was “present at the moment in Islam more than anywhere else.”

In contrast, he said that there were “teachings in the Quran that are actually very open and tolerant. There are teachings that accept other ways than the way given to Muhammad.”

And Thomas said some Islamists were in danger of committing the very sin they despise.

“The Taliban have an attitude that almost shades into idolatry itself. They are saying they know what the truth is, that they have a monopoly on the truth and that they can therefore almost take the place of God in judging who is right and who is wrong.”


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