One of the most shocking recent news items to me was the burning of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu by the retreating Islamic fighters. I don’t understand this destruction of a culture by its own people. I can understand an invading army rampaging and destroying everything related to the people they have just beaten, but to destroy your own heritage is something else.
A few years ago Dan Cruikshank, art/architectural historian was talking about the loss of historic buildings, and he was almost in tears, apologising for the fact that sometimes he cares more about buildings than people. This sounds utterly callous at first, but I know what he means. People can look after themselves, whereas buildings are completely in our hands. Buildings and art are what we do, what we create to leave a mark on the world, to define who we are and what we believe, so they are things that unite us.
Which is why the Independent’s Middle Eastern correspondent Robert Fisk is so brilliant in explaining how such behaviour has precedents.
Not just in the Taliban’s blowing up of Budhas at Bamian in 2001, and the Saudis bulldozing early Islamic graves, but in the other Abrahamic faiths.
Fisk opened his recent article with “Then I crushed it and ground it to powder as fine as dust” which is from Deuteronomy 9:21 and has helped justify or inspire the malicious destruction of statues, stained glass, shrines and books in the centuries since.
When Oliver Cromwell’s troops removed the bones of the knights of Kilkenny, they threw them into a mass grave, and hacked the stone heads from their tombs. How can we ever measure the amount of art, literature and architecture that was destroyed in the name of religious puritanism in Europe? By looking to our own past we may come closer to understanding what is happening in the Moslem world at the present.
Fisk writes: “Wahhabism remains the Salafist creed, a Sahara Puritanism that Cromwell’s army could only dream of. Read the first chapter of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and you’ll find the most compelling explanation of this harsh, self-destructive absolutism. Infinitely sad, totally uncompromising, a belief sucked from the colourless sands and the sword-like heat of the desert. God cannot tolerate any partner, any rival, and thus the Arabic shrk – the art of “sharing” – has come to represent iconoclasm which, at its most extreme, means that no bust, no written page, no decorated grave may distract us from the worship/fear/abstraction and anger of God.
The Islamists of northern Mali, many of whom are indeed Malians – with an added cocktail of al-Qa’ida desperadoes to quicken the fury of the West – smash their own cultural history with the same abandon as the Islamists of Nigeria burn churches. for the Salafists, a Muslim shrine signifies a rival to God, as surely as Henry VIII saw the monasteries as a Papa rival of his own supreme leadership of the church of England.”
He continues to list the destruction in recent times, Croatian Catholics destroying the Ottoman bridge of Mostar, with many other Ottoman, hence Moslem shrines and mosques, and the Muslim Azerbaijanis destroying Armenian Christian graves.
He mentions the Taliban hanged televisions from gallows in Afghanistan as well as destroying their own national artefacts, so in a way their rage is more consistent.
Fisk continues “The Taliban recognised their “nation” only as a mini-caliphate, a Saudi funded experiment in Salafi state building, in which humiliation of the West – of our armies, and of our predilection for “heritage” at the expense of human suffering – becomes proof-positive of Islam’s superiority.
How many Muslim institutions have condemned the Timbuktu book-burning or the Sufi shrine-bulldozing? for what is parchment in comparison with the majesty of god – especially when a god belongs only to the most self-regarding, the most irredeemable and most isolated of believers, grinding his rivals to powder as fine as dust?”