For a few in Egypt who had access to external information, the June 5 1967 rapid success of Israel came as no surprise. The Jews had in less than two decades built a functioning state that acquired the underpinning of Western culture that many Egyptians envied. The claims and exhortation of “Voice of the Arabs” radio were hollow, and even for a young boy the Arabic language had acquired such a patina of empty bravado that it seemed less a native tongue than imposition by an evil step-mother. In any case, the evidence of defeat came rapidly with news that all military aircrafts around Cairo had been destroyed in less than one hour.
The true disaster began to unfold four days later as Nasser tendered his resignation in a short speech on Television. For a few minutes some imagined an escape under Zakaria Mohieddin; a silent man whom many in Egypt believed to be friendly to the West and hostile to the failing economic policies of the preceding few years. But those who listened closely to the speech heard a father’s assumption of responsibility for the failures of his children; a profoundly damaging and cruel sentence to inflict on those who worshipped him, and those who loved him, even when they feared him. It was also an effective one, for crowds rushed into the streets to demand the immediate return of the “Ra’is”. There has never been an evidence of orchestration on the part of Nasser, and Egypt’s trajectory since that day provides plenty of evidence that the reaction may have been genuine. But a genuine reaction is far more troubling than a coerced one. And indeed, subsequent history would reproduce its lamentable features.
We should note Rushdi Sa’id’s description of the 1967-1973 years as those of “Hope and Despair”. There were genuine openings and an attempt to bring the country together in a spirit of cooperation and “can-do”, but the presence of Nasser, and the “Free Officers”, at the helm meant that little of fundamental change could come to pass. The February revolution of 1968 was at attempt at genuine and liberal change, and it was snuffed out quickly by the wily Nasser who came to its aid as if he had not governed the country for 15 years.
There were bound to be introspection on “what went wrong”. The first, and probably least known, was a panel talk in early July 1967 at Cairo University, organized outside official supervision and thus sparsely attended. A professor of Engineering (later forced to emigrate) boldly suggested that the defeat had two underpinnings. First, Israel had a more educated population, skilled in science and technology which are the tools of modern warfare. Second, it effectively mobilized its population because they were free to voice their views and believed in the goal for which they might give up their lives. The myth of “little Israel” had blotted out the reality that on June 5 Israel had a fraction of the population but more troops, armor and aircrafts than the combined forces of Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Both points were to make it to the official and social conscience, but in grotesquely corrupted forms.
The official propaganda in Egypt began a campaign of promotion of “Science and Technology”, as a quick magic potion to overcome the defeat. But few were willing, even if able, to assert that science rested on the pursuit of truth, and to promote it, one had to rid Egyptian education of lies. In fact, the opposite came to pass. Commentators claimed that Science was an Arab contribution that the West has since appropriated and now it was time to claim it back in “authentic” form. The Israelis, understandably cocky, strutted on the world stage aided by admiring Western press. The psychic damage was severe, leading to a claim that the West had a fundamental aversion to Arab progress and an innate desire to keep the “East” under heel. This flammable discourse had existed since the 1920s and the days of the “Eastern League “in Egypt. (As an aside, the virus having acquired a systematic vector would eventually jump its host to settle in Western discourse of “post-colonialism”) This handicap meant that even the rise of impressively educated technical elite would not rid the country of habits of thinking that anchor authoritarianism deep into the social structure. A prime case is that of Dr. Mohammad Morsi, an American-educated rocket scientist, politician, and briefly a President of the Republic, who would issue bizarre and clearly incorrect speculations with a straight face. Nor is he an exception. Among his opponents there are many (in the acid words of an Egyptian scientist) “back-street obscurantists”.
The second corruption was even more dangerous. The observation that in 1967 Israeli troops were more willing to die for their cause than the Arab troops was twisted horribly toward a culture of death rather than freedom. What the professor meant was that the average Israeli soldier was a citizen with a stake and a voice in his polity, while the Arab soldiers felt coerced, intimidated and ultimately not valued as either citizens or free men. The resurgence of political Islam post 1967 twisted this logic into building a desire to protect and die for Islam. It was but a short step to the grotesque and alien world of suicide vests and decapitation videos.
Many will correctly try to link the setback of June 5 1967 to the current disasters in the Arab world. The hinge remains June 9 1967, when reality, having shone a light on profound deficiency, caused a retreat to the comfort of myths and repose of death within them.
— Maged Atiya
A woman died in Cairo in 1966, said to be 102. In the last years of her life she remained an attraction for boys and girls who overcame the young’s normal revulsion for the very old to listen to her tales. Although she regularly confused near events, she had a sharp and unvarying memory for those of her youth. The tale she told repeatedly was of how she traveled north to Egypt from her home in the Sudan. She described herself on a donkey, carrying a newborn baby, with her husband hurrying behind her on foot. The iconography of her tale should make us suspicious of its accuracy, and indeed it is unlikely to be exact. There must have been others in her party, including a younger sister who would give birth to this author’s maternal grandfather. The traveling party must have looked more like a refugee train than a Holy Family.
But the events are partly true. In 1884 a certain Englishman, Charles George (Chinese) Gordon was sent to the Sudan to organize the removal of civilians from the advancing army of the Mahdi’s religious extremists. Gordon was the kind of man that only Victorian England, or Hollywood, could conjure. In his case, it was both; Charles Heston starred in Gordon’s bio-epic “Khartoum” in 1966, before he stripped to his undies in “Planet of the Apes”. Gordon did indeed fulfill one part of his charge and evacuated most of the civilians likely to be butchered before ignoring the remainder of his brief and remaining in Khartoum to organize a valiant defense. He was killed in 1885, just days before a procrastinating relief expedition was to arrive. We should not delve further into Gordon’s fascinating and fragmented psyche; he was part warrior, part peacemaker, part soldier of fortune, part fervent abolitionist, part mystical fundamentalist, part daring general, part moral busybody and part closeted Homosexual. But the events he participated in are useful to recall today. In 1966 they were considered to belong resolutely to a darker past, impossible to believe they would ever recur in other disguises. A half-century later the bare outline of a last defense against wild religious extremism and the hesitant response of a great Western power to eventual intervention, seem sadly familiar.
The woman who traveled north out of the Sudan was ethnically Egyptian. Her father had gone south to start a farm and prosper south of the Cataracts, near Omdurman. It remains unclear as to why he left his village near Esna. He was either in the initial wave of an ethnic cleansing campaign against Copts by Muhammad Ali’s son Abbas Helmi I, or he simply sought better farmland. The Abbas Helmi campaign, mostly forgotten now, never took off, thanks to Egyptian inefficiency and to the murder of Abbas by his courtiers who were terrified by his mad ways. But the fate of Christianity in Northern Sudan remains instructive. The evacuation of Khartoum did not end Christian presence in the Sudan. The Mehdi’s revolt died and although Egyptian Copts never came back in any significant numbers, there were missions from Egypt as well as Europe to revive the local Christian population. Things remained stable until the 1980s when the Islamist government in the Sudan began a campaign of coercion against local Christians. That was the opening shot in a policy of bad governance that would create humanitarian crises of vast dimensions and ultimately rip the Sudan asunder. Those of us who warned in the early 1980s that the Sudan’s persecution of Christians is a precursor to worse deeds were largely ignored. Although monies were raised and protests were lodged, little could be done to effectively help the local population there. The horrors of Darfur and the Sudanese civil wars could be glimpsed then, but absent stark evidence in human blood, or interest from glamorous celebrities, Western governments were largely as uninterested as Gladstone had been a century before. Intervention can never be wholly separated from imperialism and the White Man’s burden consists of both good intentions and self-interest.
Out of the Sudan come instructive lessons. First, that expectation of outside help for Christians harried by Muslim extremists is likely to end in disappointment. Once religious zealots seize the reins of power, the best hope for Christians is that they find a home elsewhere, however difficult the journey. But there is an even more important lesson. The costs of cleansing Muslim-majority lands of Christians are also high for the Muslims in the population. Long after the Christians are gone new victims will be sought and the wretched ratchet will keep turning in on itself. The lessons of the Sudan maybe lost on many lands in the Near East, but at least in Egypt they should be heeded. The ugly practice of pushing Copts out of their homes to calm irrational mobs, and allow the police to snooze in peace, will likely prove a disaster in the long term for everyone, including those who incite or join the mobs. These events should not be seen as merely harmful to Copts, but a prelude to Egypt’s descent into its version of the Sudanese maelstrom.
— Maged Atiya
On December 8 1965 King Feisal of Saudi Arabia flew to Tehran for a meeting with the Shah of Iran. Both men shared a pebble in their shoes; President Nasser of Egypt. There were also other similarities between the two men. Both were absolute monarchs and sons of petty adventurers who raised themselves to seemingly ancient thrones and assumed lavish roles. Both were spending considerable oil fortunes to modernize their countries. Both ruled nations with flammable religious hierarchies that rarely held back from baiting angels and devils in equal measures. But beyond these similarities there were vast differences. Feisal was as wily as the Shah was improvident. Iran’s alliance with the most visibly and noisily Sunni power earned the Shah the scorn of the Shi’a Mullahs, and within a dozen years would cost him his throne. Feisal knew that an alliance with the primary Shi’a power in the region would anger the atavistic Wahabi clerks, who viewed these fellow Muslims as worse than Christians, or even Jews. To boot, Saudi Arabia was increasingly reliant on Christian powers for its security and the continuation of the Saud family in power. Feisal’s acumen led him to one road, buying off the Wahabi clerks with a flood of cash to support their Da’wa, or missionary efforts in the Muslim world and beyond. The marriage of convenience between Saudi Arabia and Iran soon collapsed in a heap of venomous and murderous recriminations, but not before begetting a twin offspring that still haunts the region, and indeed the world. The twins are the curious and dangerous phenomena of the Arabization of Islam and the Islamization of Arab Nationalism.
Less than 1 in 5 Muslims speak standard Arabic with any facility, and even fewer are skilled in Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur’an and the only language in which it should be read according to many Salafi (and hence Wahabi) theologians. In their mind this is a serious situation that will lead to either limiting the spread of Islam or the “corruption” of its tenets by native beliefs. What the Muslim world experienced since the 1960s was a new version of Arab cultural imperialism clothed in religious fervor. Many cultural institutions and practices unique to the harsh Arabian Peninsula were imported into various Muslim communities. This not only upset the cultural balances in many countries, but also created a cadre of nearly de-racinated young men ready to join in any fight to “save” Islam from its enemies. Curiously most of the dangers to Islam seem to be peculiarly Arab obsessions. Take the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for example. For many decades three major Muslim powers had cordial relationships with Israel; namely Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Since the 1970s, all have moved into confrontation with Israel, most recently Turkey under the pressure of its Islamist governing group. But beyond the Israel issue, all three powers became keenly involved in Arab affairs. Iran was a partisan in the Lebanese civil war, and now in the Syrian civil war. Pakistan developed close relationships with the Gulf, even importing Arabs to do fighting in Afghanistan and occasionally in Kashmir, and on many occasions lending troops to Arab countries. Turkey has recently become the unfettered voice of Islamism, working actively to undermine traditional Arab states such as Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Islam has become “Arabized” both in form and in strategic objectives. It is a development unlikely to positively affect many non-Arab Muslim countries, as it absorbs their energies into conflicts irrelevant to them, and sets them up for a nasty fight with the larger global world simply because the Arabs have a variety of such grievances.
But beyond the Arabization of Islam, Arab Nationalism became increasingly “Islamized”. The notion of a great Arab nation was developed by westernized theoreticians, including many Levantine Christians. In their view this was a way of building national identities larger than the narrow religious confessions, giving them political agency and power that would normally be unavailable if viewed as merely non-Muslim minorities. All nationalisms are at some level manufactured, and so is Arab Nationalism. This would not be a drawback if it had succeeded in its objectives. But beginning in the 1960s the entire edifice began to crumble. Saudi Arabia needed to grasp the leadership of the Arab nation from men such as Nasser of Egypt, motivated by self-interest. In his rendering of Arab nationalism, progress came as traditional monarchies are transformed into popular Republics. After the bloody demise of another Feisal in Iraq, the removal of the Yemeni Imam, and the traditional King of Libya, the house of Saud saw no alternative but to join, and ultimately drive, the Arab bandwagon. Money, and the decline of Egypt and Levant, assisted greatly. But Saudi Arabia could no more rid itself of its Wahabi baggage than a lion of its fangs. Inevitably, Arab nationalism became increasingly Islamized. Witness the flags of various countries such as Egypt and Iraq gaining deeply Islamic symbols (the Eagle of Qureish and the Shehada). In time this transition would serve more to shatter than cement the Arab nation. No better proof is needed than Palestine, locked in an existential struggle with Israel, seeing itself partitioned again between the nationalist PLO and the Islamist Hamas. The Levant, once the home of Arab culture and sophistication, is now a post-apocalyptic patchwork of religious lunatics. Egypt, which stayed aloof from Arab entanglements until the 1940s, only to lustily lead it for three decades, is now locked in an ugly struggle between the forces of Islamism and traditional nationalism. A significant fraction of the Egyptian public applauded Israel’s recent pounding of Gaza, and even the election of the hyper Jewish nationalist, “Bibi” Netanyaho. Even distant, and usually off-the-Arab-track Tunisia, is locked in a similar struggle.
The numerical reality is that being a Muslim cannot be conflated with being an Arab, while the forces of ugly ethnic cleansing may mean that all non-Muslim, or even non-Sunni Muslim Arabs will simply quit that national grouping. The harsh numbers are beginning to define the post-Arab reality. States such as Iraq and Syria can no longer be spoken of as real entities. Their component pieces will be largely Muslim, but not all will be Arab, even if Arabic speaking. The larger world is understandably interested in reducing the damage from the chaos in the Arab region, and in some parts of the Muslim world. But any rational policy must begin by ditching epistemological fallacies; first and foremost conflating Islamic and Arab cultures.
— Maged Atiya
Egyptian President Nasser (1918-1970) is frequently hailed as the epitome of the great Arab leader. His nemesis for much of the 1960s, Faisal Ibn Abdel Aziz, not so secretly believed that Nasser was an unscrupulous Egyptian out to swindle many of the Arab lands out of their natural resources. Nasser’s desire to unify the Arabs under his leadership, and by extension Egypt’s, would have greatly helped Egypt and disadvantaged the Arabs, as the union with Syria amply demonstrated. Yet in this season of Arab state collapse few are advancing the thesis that Nasser is the man who struck the first blow that led to today’s horrors. Let us remember four elements, all of his creation, that arguably cooked up today’s toxic brew.
Creation of the Security State. Between 1952 and 1954 Nasser created a template for state structure that would be followed by several other Arab nations. The rough outline of it is simple. Overthrow a monarchy; declare a populist Republic; base its institutions on the primacy of the military and security services; and finally proclaim such an entity as a forward-looking and revolutionary. If the formula barely held in Egypt, it is because of its history of cohesion and Statism. The other Arab countries that emulated this model, Libya, the Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen have all collapsed.
Adoption of trans-national goals. Arab nationalism gave Nasser a justification for meddling in the affairs of other Arab states. His real reasons were probably base (vanity) and narrowly nationalistic (advantaging Egypt). But the formula became a handy tool for more principled, and far more dangerous, true believers, namely the Islamists. His diatribes against the Sykes-Picot accord, most of which were nonsense, have been adopted by a wide range of wild Jihadis, who sing his lyrics but to a very different tune.
The demonization of Israel. Nasser’s trial-by-fire in the Faluja enclave convinced him that the Arab armies are no match for Israel. He never really wanted to fight Israel, and at one point even sought a reapproachment with Ben-Gurion. He was forced into one war, 1956, and bumbled into another, 1967, both verifying his hunch and destroying his dreams and ultimately his life. Yet, his constant taunting of Israel, and the demonization of the country, did little to help the true victims of the Jewish national dream, the Palestinians, and much to embroil the Arabs in failing enterprises.
The corruption of Education. Within a month of the 1952 coup, Nasser had taken Sayed Qutb’s advice to radically alter the educational system. The result was a drop in the intellectual output in Egypt, and as its teachers traveled into the Arab countries, they carried the virus along. Today the entire Arab world publishes fewer books than a decent size University Press in the US.
The Arab masses, and their leaders, are the authors of this collapse. But they were also willing students of a capable tutor. Nations have no epitaphs, but states do. When that of the Arab states is written Nasser should be accorded the dubious title of the “Destroyer of the Arabs”.
— Maged Atiya
Pope Tawadros II became Bishop of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark the Apostle less than 30 months ago. On his ascension he insisted that he would devote himself to his ecclesiastical duties and avoid politics. He has delivered on the first with robust changes in Church policy and pointedly changed his mind on the second. The Pope has become a frequent commentator on Egyptian politics and effectively a contestant in them, an “agonist”. The assumption of such a role makes it necessary to subject the Pope to careful and well-reasoned critique, if only to forestall potential errors and pitfalls. While the vast majority of the Pope’s flock almost certainly supports his stands, he has faced criticism. Much of this criticism misses the point and little hits the target.
One criticism is that it is unseemly for the Pope to be so close to the President. We do not know the real nature of the relationship between the two men, beyond the public expressions of support and respect. But more to the point, all Popes in modern Egyptian history found it necessary to build a close relationship with the ruler. Strong or public disagreement can be dangerous, and does not always rebound to the benefit of the community, regardless of the merits of the case. Kyrillous IV (The Great Reformer) found that out to be true in the 1850s, so did Kyrillous V in the 1890s, and so did Shenouda in the 1970s. In any case, is it really the responsibility of a religious Patriarch to be a throaty supporter of democracy in a land with few democrats?
Another frequent charge is that the Pope’s support for the regime has not improved conditions for the Copts. It is true that many of the coercive measures against Coptic identity persist, and there is much tolerance for mob behavior against Copts. The trouble is that many, if not most Copts, feel that conditions are better now than under the Muslim Brotherhood regime. To persist in this charge is to assume the mantle of uncomfortable arrogance. Also, conditions are such that most Copts are grateful when things are not significantly worse off, which Papal disapproval of the regime might have triggered.
A third charge is that the Pope’s stand is risky for the Copts, should the political winds shift. The reality, of course, is that the Islamists’ hostility toward the Copts has little to do with their positions or preferences. And even if the regime were to attempt reconciliation with a more docile version of political Islam, the Pope’s support for the regime will either be a minor positive or a negligible negative.
The real question is whether the Pope’s stands and statements elevate the Copts as a community and thus enhance the chances for both survival and continued progress, which depend entirely on their own efforts, for it is unrealistic to look for help elsewhere. We should recognize, but not be discouraged, by the grim realities. Egypt retains a nasty religious discourse; witness the mobs that greet any attempt to build a Church or a cultural center, even to honor those slain in Libya. The region beyond is in free fall with much of Eastern Christianity trying to evade the wrath of competing Islamic forces. The larger world is of little help. While the West frets over the fate of Eastern Christianity, it lacks both the will and the means, and in some cases even the desire, to affect it. Numerically, the fate of the Copts and the fate of Eastern Christianity are nearly synonymous. The Copts must shoulder this responsibility as they have always done, alone or with the uncertain support of some of their fellow Egyptians. In that regard some aspects of the Pope’s public stands leave a lot to be desired.
First, there is the constant echoing of national propaganda about the conspiracies against Egypt. This is unnecessary as the Pope is in no position to combat these conspiracies, even if real. But more importantly, they place him, and by extension the community where he is the leader by default, in a rather sorry camp. He has a responsibility to represent the Copts as the better part of the national consciousness, not its common denominator. This is also important in building external support, however meager the returns might be.
Second, there is the dismissive attitude toward members of the community who do not fall in line with the Church official positions. Even if those positions are sound, regurgitating attitudes and arguments of decades long gone, which were mostly won by the Clerical establishment anyway, is of little value. Many who contributed to the cultural and social resurgence of the Copts in the last two centuries did so in opposition to this very same Clerical establishment. They were motivated by deeper reasons, often little articulated; of a sense of historical duty and obligation to a nation with no topography and one that transcends the exact details of belief and faith.
Third there must be recognition that the future of the Copts, while tied closely to that of Egypt, is not synonymous with it. They have become the largest group of Eastern Christians while never taking up arms, and often facing daunting odds in the country they intensely love but rarely loves them back with similar intensity. At critical moments, cultural progress, initiated by the laity, and more often than not without the whole-hearted approval of the Clergy, has made the difference. This cultural progress is increasingly a phenomenon removed from Egypt, both because of the strength of the immigrant community and the cultural weakness of Egypt. The current media profile of the Pope, unfortunately, does not make him the representative of a resurgent Eastern Christianity that bridges the gap with between East and West and attempts a larger and more embracing definition of both culture and faith. And it is in that role that Copts will have the better chance of not only survival, but more importantly, of growth and progress.
The Church always echoes Egyptian and Coptic exceptionalism, sometimes with good reasons. The deeper question is the exact contour of the “exception”. Is it in the pedestrian facts of history and geography, or in a more profound grounding in attitude and culture? Should the Pope, in his capacity as “father”, encourage his flock to embrace the more hopeful message of Isaiah 60:3 rather than the narrowly exclusive one of Hosea 11:1? That in a nutshell is the contest.
— Maged Atiya
April 12 marks the 60th anniversary of the passing of Ahmad Zaki Abu Shadi. Most historians of Egypt mark the end of the so-called “liberal era” from the date of the 1952 coup. A more fitting date would be April 1946, when Abu Shadi immigrated to America *, one step ahead of the twins of Egyptian oppression, the secret policeman and the religious fanatic. A mere decade earlier, Abu Shadi was a luminary of Egypt’s cultural scene, a doctor by day and a poet, translator and cultural reformer by night. He bore the stigmata of the rare Egyptian liberal, advocacy for the right of women to control their lives and their bodies. The intervening years were bad for his kind. In 1933 a budding Egyptian thinker, Sayyd Qutb, published in Abu Shadi’s magazine “Apollo”. A decade later he would denounce similar men as “Brown Englishmen”. Qutb and Abu Shadi, once companions, were now sailing in opposite directions. Having left Egypt for America, Abu Shadi made a remarkable confession of faith, writing for a radio program “For the sake of freedom, I preferred to leave my country when tyranny was throwing independent thinkers into chains”. Qutb, returning to Egypt from America would speak of how independent thinking in the West led men to become “numb to faith in religion”.
Perhaps there were earlier Egyptian immigrants to America, but Abu Shadi’s public act of immigration, rare for its time, should earn him the distinction of “Immigrant Zero”. More immigrants would follow him, seeking either freedom or opportunity, or both. Many would not share his vision, but bring Egypt’s divisions and ills along for the ride. Even after decades of immigration, there is no large representative “hyphenated” group that espouses broad liberal values, especially with an eye for implementation in Egypt. It is not that the immigrants and their descendants lack men and women holding these views; it is that they are so far unable to create a viable block. The situation mirrors the travails of liberal political currents in Egypt. Even with the third generation of immigrants now coming into adulthood, there seems to be no movement toward building such groups. Many walk away in despair of the seeming insolubility of the Rubik Cube of Egypt and freedom.
It is unfair to expect a small group of immigrants to lift the fortunes of their Motherland. But it is not too much to ask them to preach the values they witness every day in lives frequently better than any they might have had in Egypt. This observation brings us back to the point made amply by Abu Shadi and his cohorts; that political oppression in Egypt is a by-product of social oppression, rather than its cause. The nation’s constrained and unreasoned attitudes towards religion and sex make it easy for many a demagogue, on any of the polarized sides, to mobilize followers and marginalize opponents. The situation has not gotten better with time either. The “chains” of Abu Shadi’s lament may now seem velvety by comparison.
— Maged Atiya
* Abu Shadi’s work can be found in two locations. “The Bee Kingdom“, collated by his granddaughter, artist Joy Garnett. Also, at the library of the University of Utah, placed there by historian Aziz Atiya, who followed him into immigration by a few years, and was his one-time neighbor in Alexandria.
Right around Luxor the Nile seems to change its mind about flowing north and makes a dash east toward the Red Sea. After 30 miles or so it gets its nerves back and continues its northward journey to its destination with the Mediterranean. The “knee” of the great river is home to many ancient Egyptian small temples. Few are as grand or iconic as Luxor or Aswan’s, but they give a sense of the deep religiosity that must have pervaded the land with multitude of temples. If you know where to look you will find evidence of crosses chiseled onto the faces of these temples. Early Egyptian Christians (and Christianity sprouted roots in Egypt very early and with little assistance from the original Jewish followers of Jesus) must have used these temples for worship. Strictly speaking the chiseling of Crosses is an act of vandalism, or more severely Iconoclasm of the ancient pagan temples. There is a certain irony, but no surprise, that the modern descendants of these Christians seem to include the ancient Egyptian key of life, the Ankh, frequently as part of cultural celebrations.
Iconoclasm is the act of destroying religious icons. The term derives from two periods of the Byzantine Empire that experienced a reversal of fortunes against the rising Arab (mostly Muslim) forces in the east and against the Slavs in the Balkans. The destruction of religious icons was done ritualistically to denote rejection of their worth, and perhaps even theological deviancy. Any attempt to relate iconoclasm to Christian theology is bound to fail. For example, Nestorians did not particularly venerate icons, nor did Egyptian Monophysites (as all Copts are), reject them. Equally problematic is the attempt to imply that the Byzantine Iconoclasts were influenced by Islamic thought or the opposite, that Islam’s iconoclasm is borrowed from Byzantine practices. Islam’s prohibition on images was never absolute, and was observed mostly in the Levant, Arabia and Egypt. Persia and India continued their rich tradition of colorful human imagery.
The colloquial interest in Iconoclasm is motivated by the horrific destruction of ancient heritage in the Levant by the loose bands of armed men on behalf of the so-called “Islamic State”. The frequent interpretation is that ISIS is being rigorously Islamic and the destruction follows Islam’s prohibition against images. Another more nuanced interpretation is that ISIS is acting from a more modern resistance to Western hegemony in taste, which dictates that respect and preservation of ancient artifacts is a sign of civilized behavior. Neither is truly satisfactory, and there is a more ready explanation.
First, it is counter-empirical to insist that Islam is hell-bent on destroying ancient heritage. It has had 1400 years of near dominance in a broad region. Yet, there have been few recorded instances of systematic destruction of ancient heritage. Some Muslim thinkers even took the initiative to attempt to understand and admire the mute witnesses to ancient empires, or read in them historical lessons. The attitude of the average faithful Muslim for many centuries was to either ignore or profit from the heritage.
The attempt to interpret the destruction using the now canonical discourse of “Orientalism” and “post-colonial” discourse is also unsatisfactory. The ideas of preservation and conservation are now intrinsic to many indigenous efforts at social reform, including those most hostile to the Western cultural influences. It is not uncommon for the cultural elite (of all religions) to hector their fellow believers into conservation by shaming them though highlighting of similar Western efforts. The removal of the Genizah records from Jewish Cairo 100 years ago was occasioned by bitter arguments within the community there.
The most intelligent and scholarly example of the above argument was advanced by Elliot Colla in a blog posting. We can respect Colla’s scholarship and still disagree with three of his arguments. First, that there is “nothing uniquely ‘Islamic’ about the ISIS attacks”. While not unique to Islam, it is rooted in many orthodox views of it. Anti-Semitism is not uniquely Christian, but Christianity sometimes helped and even fueled it. Second, that we need to take “autocratic and colonial legacies” into account when discussing such destruction. Again, the evidence is against such a view. The most systematic “Salafi” destruction has been in Saudi Arabia, ironically against Muslim heritage. Mecca and Medina are rebuilt to resemble Las Vegas. This is in a region that experienced little or no colonialism and where such destruction is supported by religious authorities that cow the political autocrats. Third, that we must compare the destruction of ancient statues with the toppling of Saddam’s massive statue prompted by American troops. Are we to say that the toppling of the statue of Mussolini can shed light on a potential destruction of Coliseum?
The explanation of ISIS behavior is not to be found in complex and intricate scholarly arguments. These are simply attempts to assert dominance within the faith using particular concepts that are genuinely within it but not intrinsic to its continuation. A fair comparison would be the rise of virulently anti-Semitic group within the Christian community which revives the old charge of deicide against the Jews to gain dominance over other Christians, especially those in the mainstream of modern liberal societies. It would be a tough sell in today’s world, primarily because of the strength and legitimacy of many of these societies, and because most of the major Christian denominations have long rejected, or at least avoided, the ugly charge. ISIS is attempting to tweak other Muslims into following it. By positing the challenge in stark and violent terms, which are bound to generate strong response, they are hoping that the Muslim community at large will be bitterly divided, with ISIS garnering the larger portion. The ISIS cycle of increasing violence and destruction is Salafism carried to its logical ends. The challenge is primarily not to the West, but to other Muslims.
— Maged Atiya