How Should Progressives Respond to the Destruction of Artifacts in Muslim Lands?

Yesterday, by coincidence the same day as the assassination of a leftist opposition leader in Tunisia, the following email about other violence in that country was forwarded to me by a European classics colleague. The author, Philipp von Rummel of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome, says this (in my translation from his German):

Dear Colleague,

In the attached file the Tunisian ICOMOS National Committee strongly warns against the destruction of the Sufi cultural heritage in Tunisia. It is stressed that not only buildings, but also the identities of the local people and of Tunisian citizens are under total attack. In recent months over 80 monuments have been destroyed, among them the Mausoleum of the Muslim scholar Saida Manoubia and the Shrine of Sidi Bou Said, the saint of the artist’s colony of the same name, a popular tourist attraction. The Tunisian colleagues request the widest possible dissemination of this text to make known internationally the dimension and dangers of these activities.

With the best greetings,

Explanation: ICOMOS is the International Council on Monuments and Sites. Sufism is a branch of Islam characterized by a mystical approach to religion (most known in the West for the “whirling dervishes” of its Persian branch). Saida Manoubia was a 13th century Muslim figure, as was Abou Said ibn Khalef ibn Yahia Ettamini el Beji, after whom Sidi Bou Said is named.

The file that came attached to the email is a two page pdf document in French entitled (in translation) “The Sufi architectural heritage in Tunisia: a programmed destruction!” I cannot find it on the internet, in particular not on the ICOMOS website, although there are similar warnings there concerning the artifacts of Syria, Libya, and Mali that Anglophones can run through Google translate (be careful, it’s unreliable) or whatever. However, as for Dr. von Rummel’s request to propagate the document, let me at least indicate what is in it. Basically, it gives more details along with praise of the monuments and their honorees, and concludes as follows (I translate):

The world has learned with concern of the destruction and ravaging
of the Sufi heritage in other places, notably in Libya and in northern
Mali. The response can only be global, collective and multifaceted. For
concrete measures to strengthen the protection within the
responsibility of public authorities and administrations concerned, who
must mobilize and involve local communities, it is necessary to
consider the root of the evil and the source of this threat, namely
Wahhabi thought, and to undertake a campaign aimed at all audiences
of explanation and awareness of the outstanding cultural value of this
heritage and of its unparalleled social and spiritual functions.

The Wahhabism that is here blamed (whether or not accurately I can’t say) is a conservative strain of Islamic thought that formed the original ideological underpinning of Saudi Arabia. The events of which the document speaks have actually been mentioned in Western media (for example, here), if they have not gained the coverage accorded to the situation in Timbuktu in northern Mali.

Now I’m sure that all progressives would like to see destruction like that cited here for Tunisia halted, as was achieved in the more widely publicized case of Timbuktu, at least for the moment. (As a literary scholar as opposed to archaeologist, and one who once studied medieval Arab and Persian philosophy in particular, I am naturally more horrified when I hear of old manuscripts being burned, as in Timbuktu, but I certainly understand the pain that archaeologists and museum curators feel when a shrine is blown up.) The problem is: how can we help achieve that goal without helping create equally bad or worse situations?

Here it should give pause that if anyone in the West has made a cause celebre of all this destruction of artifacts and attacks on non-fundamentalists, it is the publications of the intellectual right such as National Review and The Weekly Standard. One looks askance at the prospect of going to bed with these people.

Even more importantly, in the U.S. the three administrations so far of two successive presidents have used real or imagined events in the Middle East and North Africa as an excuse for all manner of ill adventure: Apart from attacks on civil liberties at home, beginning in the wake of events on September 11, 2001 they undertook regime change in Afghanistan under the banner of combating al-Qaeda, to inaugurate a quagmire that continues to this day, then they invaded Iraq with disastrous consequences under the twin false justifications that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11 and had WMD, and they eventually reached the stage where the U.S. now has a military presence virtually everywhere in the region, and has thereby increased the prestige and strength of the very extremists that are claimed to be the target. All this is well documented, at Firedoglake (just enter your topic of choice in the search box at the top of the main page and click) and elsewhere.

Thus it is clearly out of the question for us to call on our government to intervene in the region in order to stop the destruction of artifacts or the attacks on non-fundamentalists. Nor should we support further interventions by other Western powers, for much the same reasons: The French now claim they want to get out of Mali and turn the problem over to the UN, which is a good idea (although a better one would be an all-African peacekeeping force) because France has too much of a neo-colonial interest in the country. But what else can we do?

With the understanding that I am speaking in general (“strategic,” if you will) terms without much thought to concrete action, I propose that progressives should promote division between the moderate Islamist governments of places like Egypt and Tunisia and the extremists (be they Salafists, groups with connections to al-Qaeda, or whatever), and reconciliation between these governments and the secular opposition movements.

To be sure, this is difficult for two reasons. One, our natural affinity is with the secularists. Two, the rancor that pertains between these governments and their oppositions is extreme, particularly in the wake of yesterday’s assassination in the Tunisian case. As for Egypt, there was actually a meeting on January 31 that included both opposition figures and representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood to discuss the issues, but since then the anti-government protests and police response have only grown more intense. Still, are we simply to sit back and watch as President Morsi and the Salafists who issue fatwas against opposition members grow closer together?

We should also encourage domestic movements against the extremists. When the Taliban shot the inspirational figure Malala Yousafzai last October, they also proverbially shot themselves in the foot: The act ignited a tremendous movement both international and domestic. But now, although she has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and although she continues to inspire with her recent statement that “God has given me a second life,” we do not hear much about what the Pakistanis themselves think. Could it be that more CIA drone strikes have reminded them that they hate the Americans more than the Taliban?

Somehow, it always comes back to U.S. government policy, doesn’t it?

Update 2/8/13 8:30 PM (Eastern) As an example of the kind of development I believe we should support, CNN reported 2 hours ago that the Tunisian Prime Minister continues to press his proposal to form a technocratic government in order to calm the situation, in opposition to his party.

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