Burning Issues: Islamism, Intolerance, Iconoclasm
by ADRIAN MORGAN, THE EDITOR
December 29, 2011
A week before Christmas, an event occurred in Egypt that is only now being acknowledged as a cultural disaster, a tragedy for Egypt and for the world. The Egyptian Institute, or Institut d'Egypte, which lay in the Qasr el-Aini Street beside Tahrir Square in Cairo, became another casualty of Arab Spring politics. On Saturday, December 17th, the building was firebombed.
The Institute of Egypt was founded in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte as a research center. It was his intention to collate scientific data on Egypt,as well as to assemble for the purposes of study, papyri and historic information gathered during his conquest of Egypt. This institution would utilize this data to form a new science of learning that would establish the foundations of Egyptology. The institute published its own journals and a newspaper, and when the French were officially driven out in 1801 the scholars of the institute spent twenty years compiling their data into a massive work called "The Description of Egypt." This was issued in 23 volumes between 1809 and 1821. An original handwritten version of the Description was housed in the Institute when it was burned on December 17th, 2011. The unique edition – whose massive maps were once exhibited in the Louvre - is believed to have been burned beyond repair.
192,000 books, manuscripts and documents were housed in the building, a former palace of Qassim Bey, an Ottoman dignitary, when it was set alight. Though attempts are being made to preserve the documents that have been rescued, the Description and numerous other priceless and unique documents and records are now wiped from existence.
So far, the exact identity of those who set the building on fire is unknown. The burning came after the army tried to put an end to three weeks of pro-democracy protests. Some of the protesters tried to rescue documents. According to one of these individuals:
"They fired at us with shotguns. A little kid was hit with 11 pellets in the neck."
"Another young man had his back broken by a rock as he attempted to carry books out of the burning building.
Others say that as they worked to arrange the books on the pavement outside, soldiers taunted and threatened them."
Despite this, some of the pro-democracy activists (who had thitherto been demonstrating for three weeks for the army to step down, a protest that had seen 14 people killed by the military) have been accused of torching the building. According to Manal Abdul Aziz, a woman columnist on the Egyptian Gazette, most people in Cairo were unaware of the historic and cultural significance of the building. She argued:
However, images shown by different satellite channels, news agencies and newspapers prove that those who targeted the ancient building were some teenagers and street children, who could never be considered as part of the revolution.
Another proof that the revolutionaries are innocent of this accusation was their later attempt to salvage the rare contents of the institute, even though the security forces continued to target them and some unknown figure were stoning them from the roofs of nearby governmental buildings.
This attack brings to mind a host of prior acts of destruction of historical monuments in Egypt, including the medieval defacement of the Sphinx and the Cairo arson of 1952. Outside Egypt, assaults coming right to mind include the Muslim destruction of Hindu temples in India, the Turkish destruction of churches in northern Cyprus, the Palestinian sacking of the Tomb of Joseph, the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha, the Iraqi pillaging of museums, libraries, and archives, the Saudi destruction of antiquities in Mecca, and the Malaysia destruction of an historic Hindu temple. This barbarism, in other words, fits into a larger pattern. What is it about Muslims and history? As this listing suggests, too many of them hate not only what is non-Islamic but even their own heritage.
Though the perpetrators who lobbed the first Molotov cocktails that started the conflagration are as-yet unidentified, the general point made by Dr. Pipes is valid. One could add to his notes the destruction of churches in Africa (most recently Boko Haram mounted a Christmas campaign against Christians in northern Nigeria, killing forty people), and the desecration of churches in Pakistan and Indonesia where the authorities tacitly collude with Islamists. There are numerous examples from history to augment his point, but the very nature of Islamic fundamentalism means that one need not leave Egypt to see examples of such wanton destruction.
As I wrote in January 2011, when the Arab Spring protesters had only been active in Egypt for one week:
Early in the morning of Saturday [Jan 29], a group of nine robbers broke into the world-renowned National Museum in Cairo, home of numerous priceless antiquities and treasures. Two mummies were destroyed in the raid. Later on Saturday morning, the army had posted soldiers around the building. The museum is situated next door to the headquarters of the National Democratic Party, of which Mubarak is the vice-president. This building was attacked and set on fire on Friday.
Zahi Hawass, who is Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, expressed his fears about the NDP building potentially collapsing and toppling onto the museum. The heads of the two damaged mummies had been removed, but it is possible that they could be restored.
Egypt without its pyramids or other world heritage sites of interest to attract tourists could lose a tenth of its economy. Yet despite this, individuals who are currently gaining votes in Egypt's electoral process are supporting plans for destruction of the pyramids. A candidate from the Nour (Light) party of Salafists stated, shortly after the burning of the Institut d'Egypt, that the pyramids should either be blown up like the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or concealed under wax. The suggestion was made by Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat, but his views have not come from a vacuum.
Ali Gomaa, the former mufti of Egypt issued a fatwa in 2006 against statues and sculptors - a decision that caused alarm across the nation. Gamal al-Ghitani, editor of the literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab, said of Ali Gomaa's fatwa:
"We don't rule out that someone will enter the Karnak temple in Luxor or any other pharaonic temple and blow it up on the basis of the fatwa."
A century earlier, the reformist mufti Muhammad Abduh (1849 - 1905), who encouraged reconciliation between Shias and Sunnis, had declared that it was halal (permissible) to have statues of politicians and thinkers installed. At the time, scholars had thought that such items could lead to their worship (shirk, or polytheism). Abduh argued that statues were found around the world and no-one worshipped them.
Gomaa's 2006 edict against statues was approved by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a man regarded as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to American writer Jay Tolson, Gomaa's statue fatwa only applied to statues in the home, and the Mufti "made it very clear that the destruction of antiquities and other statues in the public sphere was unacceptable and indeed criminal. He is also on record deploring the Taliban's destruction of the great Buddhist statuary in Afghanistan."
Despite this, the approval of such a fatwa by Qaradawi, a key figure in the Muslim Brotherhood is worrying in terms of the current political climate in Egypt. The Brotherhood and the Salafist parties - including the Nour party of pyramid-hater Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat - are highly likely to end up in a power-sharing deal when the Egyptian elections are over.
Egypt's History of Oppression and Iconoclasm
British Orientalist David Samuel Margoliouth (1858 - 1940 ) noted in his book "Mohammedanism" (1912, p 31, available in pdf form here) that “Egypt was an early and easy conquest of Islam, consummated in the twentieth year of the Flight.” (642 AD).
"The stages whereby the Christian population was reduced to less than a tenth of the whole have not, indeed, been recorded, but they can be divined. Under some of the Moslem rulers the life of the non-Moslem was rendered so intolerable by ceaseless humiliations and vexations that the motive for conversion to Islam became overwhelming, and though, when the tyranny became less galling, a certain amount of reversion to Christianity was permitted, not every one would care to make a second change."
I wrote of the troubled history of the Christian Copts of Egypt in early January, 2011, when a rise in sectarian attacks against them had preceded the initiation of the Arab Spring demonstrations in Tahrir Square:
In 697 AD, the fifth Ummayad Caliph, Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan (who built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and instituted the first Muslim currency), ordered that Arabic should be the official language of his territories, including Egypt. Egyptian Copts who worked in government had to learn Arabic or lose their jobs. Marwan died in 705 AD, and under the Abbasid dynasty that began in 750 AD, forcible Arabization was dropped and Copts’ lives returned to some semblance of normality.
Egypt came under the rule of Al Hakim Bi Amr Allah, the Sixth Fatimid Caliph, in 966 AD. Al-Hakim – an Ismaili Shia - was an autocrat and the country was subjected to his tyrannical whims. In 1004 he banned all Christians from celebrating Easter and in 1005 he ordered that Christians and Jews should follow the law of ghiyar (differentiation) where they should wear symbols and clothes that identified their faith. (The name ghiyar referred to a strip of yellow cloth, that the alh-adh-dhimma /Dhimmis were advised to wear by the Second Caliph, Umar ibn-Khattab in a pact, though the first recorded use of such items appears in the early 8th century under Umar ibn ‘Abd al-Aziz. The ghiyar law would later be re-adopted by Ottoman ruler Murad II who made Jews wear yellow headgear). In October 1009, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, at the site where Christ is said to have been buried, was destroyed on al-Hakim’s orders. In 1021, al-Hakim disappeared, almost certainly murdered, and he was succeeded by his son Ali Az-Zahir.
Under az-Zahir, some of the excesses of al-Hakim were mitigated. Zahir ordered the rebuilding of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1280, a new sultan ruled over Egypt, called Sultan al-Mansur Qala’un, who was the seventh Mamluk Sultan. He ruled for 11 years, and during this time his treatment of Coptic Christians and other dhimmis was poor. According to an article entitled “Coptic Conversion to Islam under the Bahri Mamluks, 692-755/1293-1354” from 1976 by Donald P. Little (now Professor Emeritus at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies), quoting from 15th century chroniclers al-Maqrizi and al-'Aynl , 'the Dhimmis had been in a state of extreme humiliation and degradation.” Little related that under the al-Mansur’s son al-Ashraf Khalil, Copt scribes were allowed some protection by Mamluks, until 1293. In that year, al-Ashraf Khalil ordered that no Christian or Jew could be employed as scribes. Those that were already employed were given the choice of conversion to Islam or death. His viceroy Baydara ordered a number of Christian scribes to be burned alive.
Al-Malik al-Nasir Muhammad ruled from 1299-1309, and during this time a decree was issued, ordering that the pact of Umar ibn-Khattab should be enforced, with Jews and Christians compelled to wear certain clothing, and only to ride donkeys. The decree ordered that no churches or synagogues could be built or repaired. At this time, many Christians converted to Islam. In 1321 there were riots in which churches across Egypt were destroyed. Egypt continued to be ruled by Mamluk sultans until 1517.
On January 20, 1517, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I (who was also the Ottoman Caliph from 1512 until 1520) took control of Egypt. In February 1856, an edict called the Hamayouni Decree was issued, which stated that any moves to construct a new church, or to repair a dilapidated or damaged church, could only happen with the express permission from the (Ottoman) Sultan. In 1934, a minister named Al-Ezabi Pacha added 10 further criteria to the Hamayouni decree, making it even more difficult for churches to be built or repaired. In practice, this law could be seen as an extension of the pact of Omar, forcing the non-Muslim population to feel inferior to their Muslim neighbors.
On January 19 2011, Anba Agathon, Bishop of Maghagha, said that the Hamayouni Edict should be abolished. He announced:
“We are in the 21st Century , and the laws of Ottomans when they were occupying Egypt were all revoked by the state except for the Hamayouni Decree. As citizens we demand the revocation of the Ottoman law concerning our places of worship. We cannot accept that it should remain any longer.”
In July of 2011 there were rumors of a draft bill being introduced to the Egyptian parliament, but the post-Mubarak political crisis saw any such hope of reforming the law evaporate.
In recent years, persecutions of Copts have escalated as Islamism has emerged as a force in its own right. Within Egypt, the “revivalism” of Islam that had been championed by Muhammad Abduh had been influential in bringing Salafism into the modern world, and soon after, the ideas promoted in Al-Manar would have a direct influence upon the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. From March 17th, 1898 onwards, Abduh would work with another Egyptian, Rashid Rida, on producing a magazine called Al-Manar (The Beacon). After Abduh died in 1905, Rida would continue to produce this journal until his own death in August 1935. An assiduous reader of this journal was Hassan al-Banna, who in 1928 would found the Muslim Brotherhood.
When Al-Manar was first being produced, Egypt’s revival of Islam played to a general disillusionment with the Ottomans, who were seen as corrupt, decadent, and even Western. Most importantly, the Ottoman Caliphate, being Turkic, rather than Arabic, was seen as alien to many of the thinkers and Islamists who were taking root in Egypt. After the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished on March 3rd, 1924, both Islamism and pan-Arabism, sharing the same roots in protest at the bureaucracy and political stagnation of the Ottomans, became international movements. Pan-Arabism and Egyptian Islamism/Salafism would prove to be highly influential in the Muslim world of the latter half of the 20th Century. The once-popular pan-Arabist movement would become appropriated by tribalist dictators such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Gaddafi in Libya. The Arab Spring has apparently wiped away most traces of Baathist or pan-Arabist ideologies, with Bashar el-Assad of Syria now stumbling on as the sole proponent of such beliefs. Islamism, however, has grown far stronger with the Arab Spring.
There are secularist parties, but these are fragmented and have little hope against the more organized Islamist and Salafist candidates in Egypt. For Copts, who make up no more than 15 percent of the population, life has become more precarious this year. 2011 began with a car bomb outside the al-Qiddissin (Saints) church in Alexandria. The attack was criticized by the Muslim Brotherhood and by Mufti Ali Gomaa, but did nothing to stem the assaults upon Egypt’s Copts.
These attacks seemed to increase as the Arab Spring progressed. Salafists, or Islamists, were blamed for some of the incidents of church-burnings in Egypt in 2011. But in other cases, the army stood by and allowed the Islamists to attack Christians. On March 9, 2011, Christians in the district of Mokattam (Moqattam) in the outskirts of Cairo were attacked by Muslims. The army were called, but these ended up shooting at the Copts. Nine people died.
A few days before this, a Coptic community at Soul, about 30 kilometers from Cairo, was attacked by Muslims. Two churches were set on fire. In April in Abu Qurqas, 260 kilometers south of Cairo, sectarian violence erupted after two Muslims died, and Copts were blamed. One person died, an old Christian woman was thrown from a balcony, several were injured and Christians’ crops were set alight.
In May 2011, Christians at Maspero were protesting the detention of 16 Copts who had been imprisoned two months earlier. The protesters were then attacked repeatedly by men in Salafist costume, leaving one person dead, and a hundred Christians injured. A week before, on May 7, Coptic churches of St. Mena and al-Azraa had been burned down in Imbaba, a region of Cairo. 15 people were killed, and more than 200 were injured. Salafists were blamed for the Imbaba assaults. In all, five churches were attacked on the night of May 7.
On September 31, 2011, the century-old church of St. George in Edfu near Aswan was attacked by a crowd of Muslims. Like many similar attacks in recent history, the Muslims engaged in the attack after attending Friday evening Juma prayers, suggesting that mosques had a direct part to play in the violence. The church at Edfu was dilapidated. As well as trying to keep the Christians in a subordinate position to Muslims, the Salafists who carry out such attacks exploit the Hanayouni Decree and the 10 conditions of Al-Ezabi. If a church is destroyed, it will be unlikely to be rebuilt in any hurry.
When Christians tried to protest in Cairo about their treatment on October 4, 2011, bemoaning the lack of interest from Egyptian media and politicians (pictured below), their demonstration was attacked. Armored cars drove into protesters, killing dozens. Here, unmistakably, the Egyptian army had colluded with the sectarian violence.
Furthermore, in many of these church attacks the Salafists are using unsubstantiated rumors that a Muslim woman was being held captive by a Christian, or engaged in a relationship with a Christian, to fuel sectarian rage at Copts. The mere rumor of there being sales of DVDs of a play that dealt with this theme were enough to see churches in Alexandria attacked in late 2005. A Coptic nun was stabbed and had a finger amputated, and the Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, was driven to tears.
The notion that a Muslim woman must never be in a relationship with a Christian man (it contravenes Sharia codes) is a powerful tool employed by Salafists to whip up hatred against Egypt’s Copts. In Pakistan, Muslims use the lie that a Christian had torn up a Koran or burned its pages to see their victims jailed under blasphemy laws, or as a pretext to unleash a mob to attack churches, as happened in Sangla Hill, Punjab, on November 12, 2005.
The potency of the notion of a Muslim woman abducted by a Coptic Christian elicits a visceral rage similar to that used in former times to enact lynchings against young black men who were (falsely) accused of abducting or raping a “white woman.” The rumor that two Egyptian Muslim women had been abducted and were forcibly held against their will by Christians even traveled to Iraq. On October 31, 2010, such a rumor led to a bomb attack upon a church in Baghdad that saw 57 people killed. The women were named as Camellia Shehata and Wafa Constantine, but there have been no corroborations that such women ever existed. However, this myth of two precious Muslim women being held hostage in Egypt may also have led to the New Year’s Eve bomb attack in Alexandria.
It is appropriate that I end this section of the article on the subject of Alexandria. In Part Two I will describe how the culture of Islamist religious sectarianism has been used to destroy churches and non-Muslim communities in countries other than Egypt. But it is appropriate to understand that Alexandria was the scene of another deliberate conflagration of documents, in its own way an act of vandalism that set back the intellectual progress of the Christian West by several centuries. For it has been commonly alleged that in 641, on the orders of Caliph Omar, that the last remnants of the Great Library of Alexandria were destroyed. The library was a repository of all of the knowledge that had been available in the Classical age. The story appears in an account written down by the Syrian-Christian chronicler Gregory Bar Hebraeus, (Ibn al-‘Ibri, 1226 - 1286 AD).
In this version, first translated into English in 1663, the Caliph Omar’s general, Amrou (‘Amr ibn al-’As) was asked by John the Grammarian if he could spare the library. Amrou went to Omar who told him: “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.”
The library was then burned, according to Bar Hebraeus. There are some doubts as to the authenticity of this tale, which I hope to clarify in Part Two. Whether or not Caliph Omar really did destroy the library at Alexandria nearly fourteen centuries ago is far less important than the actual persecutions that are currently taking place in the world today, carried out by Muslims against those who are different.
If the representative bodies of the Muslim world, such as the OIC were willing to condemn such assaults against Christians and others, there would be some hope of reducing such acts of sectarian religious bigotry. In the West, our media outlets are too scared of being perceived as “Islamophobes” to even report objectively on Muslim-upon-non-Muslim violence. And so it goes on, unchecked. If a problem can not be addressed, it is unlikely to solve itself. As Michael A. Walsh writes in the New York Post: “The Islamists’ fires: When will the West wake up?”
That is a question that has to be answered.
Continued in Part Two.
Adrian Morgan, Editor of Family Security Matters, is a British-born writer and artist, whose work has appeared in various publications, including the Guardian and New Scientist. He is a former Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society.
Adrian Morgan is a British-born writer and artist. He has previously contributed to various publications, including the Guardian and New Scientist and is a former Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society. Since June 2010, he has been the Editor of Family Security Matters.