07 January 2012
Fanatics who wish to purge Egypt of everything un-Islamic
The Sphinx is missing its nose, and not because of millennia of exposure to the elements. In 1378, a passing Sufi fanatic, Mohammed Sa’im al-Dahr, was appalled to see this huge stone face rising out of the sand in defiance of Islam’s ban on graven images. When he noticed that the local peasants were making offerings to the Sphinx in the hopes of reaping a bountiful harvest, he was so outraged that he got a ladder and some chisels and pried off the nose. The peasants, furious at this desecration, lynched al-Dahr on the spot and buried him in the sand before the Sphinx as their next offering. He got his just deserts, but his spirit lives on in legions of 21st century fanatics who wish to purge Egypt of everything un-Islamic. And the descendants of those peasants are voting by the millions for these madmen, and putting them in charge of Egypt’s destiny.
The threat posed by Islamists to Egypt’s ancient heritage became evident in April 2006. Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the highest religious authority in the country, issued a fatwa proclaiming the sinfulness of statues and forbidding their display in the home. He claimed that his ruling did not apply to Pharaonic treasures, but from the logic and rationale behind his reasoning, it was hard to see why not. And a broad interpretation of his fatwa was eagerly endorsed by none other than Yussef al-Qaradawi, world-famous TV imam, champion of suicide bombers, and spiritual advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood. In his words, “Islam proscribed all that leads to paganism or smells of it, statues of ancient Egyptians included”.
This fatwa bore fruit in June 2006, when the guards at a small museum featuring the work of Egypt’s leading modern sculptor, Hassan Heshmat, were woken in the middle of the night by screams of “Infidels! Infidels!” They found an old woman, fully veiled in black, smashing everything in sight. She left no doubt that she was motivated by a religious duty to carry out the Grand Mufti’s fatwa. This outburst of iconoclasm was promptly put down, but at that time Hosni Mubarak’s police state still had a firm grip on the country. The events of the Arab Spring have demonstrated that the state can no longer be relied on to safeguard Egyptian heritage.
Egyptian Museum Cairo Looted
When the smoke cleared from the climax of demonstrations in Tahrir Square that forced Mubarak to step down, it became clear that Egypt’s flagship museum had been breached.
Had it not been for thousands of citizens who formed a human chain around the museum and prevented looters from escaping, the losses would have been terrible. It quickly came to light that police and guards had done much of the looting & smashing. Aside from the scenes of beheaded mummies and smashed gilded statues of King Tut in Cairo, reports from archaeologists around the country revealed that looting and pillaging had taken place in Abusir, Memphis, Saqqara, and elsewhere. Some monuments had been abandoned by the police, leaving it up to the locals to protect them. These acts of theft and vandalism were the work of criminals and opportunists seeking personal gain. Nonetheless, treasures that are vulnerable to common criminals are vulnerable to idol-smashers.
Institute d’Egypte Firebombed
The depths of chaos into which Egypt has sunk were shown a week before Christmas, when the Institute d’Egypte was firebombed. This building was ground zero for Egyptology. It was established in 1798 by Napoleon, who brought hundreds of scholars along with him on his campaign to conquer Egypt. The work of these men, crystallized in the magnificent 24-volume Description de l’Egypte, formed the foundation on which archaeologists with a passion for ancient Egypt have built to this day. Among countless other things, they discovered the Rosetta Stone. Over the years, the Institute amassed a unique collection of 200,000 books, maps, and manuscripts that told the story of how Egypt was discovered by the modern world. Now all that’s left are charred and scattered remnants. In the words of the Director of the Institute, Mohammed al-Sharbouni, “the burning of such a rich building means a large part of Egyptian history has ended”.
What makes this tragedy worse is that the Army that presently rules Egypt did nothing to prevent it. It was Institute employees and civilians who rushed into the burning building to salvage what they could. The attitudes they encountered from soldiers ranged from indifference to murderous hostility. Horror stories of rescuers being shot and pelted with rocks abounded. So preserving Egyptian heritage is very low on the list of military priorities, and there’s no reason to think Islamists shed any tears over the burning of the Institute either. For them, it represented the moment in history when their Muslim paradise was invaded by infidels bringing modernity.
The chaos of the Arab Spring had a lot to do with the looting and burning described above. But looking into the crystal ball gives little hope for improvement under a government completely controlled by Islamists. The first two rounds of elections for the People’s Assembly (the lower house of the Egyptian Parliament) were held in November and December. As expected, the Muslim Brotherhood took a commanding lead, with over 36 % of the votes. The real story was the popularity of the Salafists, who wish to return Egypt to the time of the Prophet. They’ve received over 26% of votes thus far, soundly trouncing all of the liberal and secularist parties. The third round of voting is currently underway, and once concluded, the Salafists will be certain of holding more than 100 seats in the 508-seat Parliament.
The Muslim Brotherhood, in one form or another, has been the biggest and best-organized opposition almost since its founding in 1928. But until now, the Salafists boycotted the political process completely, believing it put the will of the people above the will of Allah. Their al-Nour party didn’t exist until June of last year. And while the Muslim Brotherhood might fool some people with their suits and ties and claims of moderation, anyone who votes for a bearded Salafist knows exactly what he’s getting. So there’s no doubt who has the momentum in Egyptian politics.
There’s no doubt about the Salafists’ dim views of Egypt’s ancient history either. A pure Islamic state can’t be filled with pagan monuments, and it can’t sustain itself by catering to millions of infidel tourists drawn by those monuments. To this end, prominent al-Nour candidate Abdel Moneim al-Shahat proposed that even the Pyramids, if not blown up, should be covered with wax. Keep in mind that these are not the ravings of a lunatic wandering the streets of Cairo. They’re the thoughts of a founding member of a party that will command over 100 seats in Parliament.
Egypt’s treasures aren’t just a threat to Islamist piety. They’re an existential embarrassment
Egypt’s treasures aren’t just a threat to Islamist piety. They’re an existential embarrassment. When the Pharaohs ruled, Egypt was # 1, leading the way in countless areas of human endeavor. Today, its not even # 100 (its ranked at # 113 on the Human Development Index). More than 5000 years after the first hieroglyphs were carved, nearly a third of Egyptians are illiterate, and hungry. The constant refrain of the Islamists is that Islam is the answer, Islam is perfect and Islam is supreme. Every ancient treasure offers mute but eloquent testimony that they’re wrong.
Perhaps the safest treasures will be the ones that aren’t on Egyptian soil. To date, all entreaties for the repatriation of the bust of Nefertiti have been refused. One shudders to think of what Salafists would do to this bold, beautiful unveiled woman. So she will remain safely tucked away in Berlin, out of reach of delirious holy men. And somewhere her spirit will look down sadly at what’s become of her country after 3300 years.