By Michael Curtis
A new form of warfare by Islamists is being waged. This new offensive is not only a military campaign for jihad and for the creation of Islamic states ruled by sharia law; rather it is explicitly for the elimination of the non-Islamist past -- an ideological offensive to remove the memories, historical artifacts, monuments, buildings, or any other evidence of the history and contribution of Judaism, Christianity, and even the moderate forms of Islam to civilization. This offensive is potentially more dangerous than any violence or vandalism or acts of revenge directed against supposed enemies. Part of it is the denial or minimizing of the Holocaust.
It is now well-understood that since the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, Islamist forces and groups, as well as the Palestinian extremists, have not only sought to eliminate it by military methods -- by wars and terrorism -- but also asserted that Jews have no historic association with the land and therefore that the State is illegitimate. They even ignore or deny the visible evidence of Jewish history offered by the many physical sites in the area. Instead, a fallacious Palestinian narrative has been created declaring that the disputed area, from Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea and embracing Jerusalem, Acre, Haifa, Jericho, Gaza, Galilee, Hebron, and Tiberias, is not Jewish, but rather completely Arab by associations of history and identity.
Though their specific activity varies from country to country, in recent years Islamist leaders have emphasized this argument. Iranian President Ahmadinejad has proclaimed that most Jews have no roots in Palestine and, in what may be considered incitement to genocide, argued that the "Zionist regime" as he refers to Israel is on its way to annihilation. In similar frame of mind, Mohamed Morsi, in September 2010, before he became President of Egypt, declared that the Zionists, "occupiers of the land of Israel ... these blood suckers, these war mongers, the descendants of apes and pigs ... must be driven out of our countries[.]" For Ahmadinejad and Morsi, Jewish history in the area of Palestine never existed.
Recent events in a number of countries have made clear that Islamist extremists have not confined their ambition to obliterate the history of the Jewish people in Israel. Now they are applying it to all countries in which they have or seek to have some authority.
The occupation of northern Mali by extreme Islamist and Salafist forces in 2012 has exposed this clearly. These extremists have sought to obliterate the reminders of the history of the more moderate Sufi Muslims, whom they regard as heretical and worshipers of idols. They have destroyed three historic mosques, eleven mausoleums of holy Muslims and cemeteries, and thousands of ancient manuscripts in the historic town of Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a center of Islamic culture five centuries ago. The tombs of Sufi saints were totally destroyed. The Ansar Dine militants, who declared that they would destroy every mausoleum in Timbuktu, regarded the destruction of the various artifacts as obeying a divine command. Between 2,000 and 3,000 manuscripts in the Ahmed Baba Institute were burned or destroyed in the city.
These militants were following a pattern that has become familiar. In Libya, Islamists had wrecked shrines and mausoleums and destroyed Sufi holy sites, some of which were also World Heritage sites, in Zliten, Misrata, and Tripoli. For Sufis, the sites were of cultural and religious significance. The brutal civil war in Syria has led to the destruction of churches, as well as six World Heritage sites in Damascus and Aleppo; historic buildings; and archaeological sites, and the looting of museums. In Iraq, libraries and archives were destroyed, and the National Museum in Baghdad was looted in 2003.
The emphasis on destruction has a long history, and it is not confined to the Muslim world. Other religions in the past have sought to eliminate what they regarded as idolatry, but at the present time, iconoclasm is largely evident in extremist Islamist groups. Some of these groups have memories of the consequences of the Muslim invasion of India and the rule of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, in the 17th century, who destroyed Hindu temples and replaced them with mosques.
This kind of destruction has taken place and is still applauded in other countries: in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Perhaps the mildest but most absurd statement, and the one that would affect the largest number of tourists from Western countries, was the demand by an extreme religious Egyptian named Murgan Salem al-Gohary to destroy the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx, which is said to have some power over the level of the River Nile. He argued that all Muslims were charged with applying the teachings of Islam to remove idols such as the Pyramids, as had been done in Afghanistan with the Buddhas. He did not mention that the Pyramids were the only survivors of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The "removal" of supposed false idols in Afghanistan and of the heritage of Buddhists was indeed catastrophic. The most well-known disaster is the destruction in the Bamiyan Valley in March 2001 of the world's two largest Buddhas, one 175 feet and the other 120 feet tall, carved into a sandstone cliff, which had stood for more than 1,500 years and which together made for a World Heritage site. The Taliban, perhaps influenced by al-Qaeda, destroyed them by explosives and tank fire.
These actions have to be seen as the desire to destroy all parts of the pre- or non-Islamic past of Central Asia and North Africa. To its discredit, the international community took no action to prevent the destruction in Afghanistan. But the lesson has now been learned to some extent: Irina Bokova, the Director General of UNESCO, did in December 2012 call on the international community to act urgently to protect the cultural heritage of Mali. She recognized that the attack on the heritage of Timbuktu was an attack against the nation's history and values. The wanton destruction of inestimable treasures was a crime against the people of Mali, committed by the Islamist radicals.
The urgent issue now is whether the international community is indeed willing to take action to prevent history and the artifacts that attest to that history from being erased or from being falsified for the sake of anti-democratic and fanatical ideologies.