by Robert Fisk, The Independent, UK
“Then I crushed it and ground it to powder as fine as dust…” – exactly, I imagine, what the Islamic zealots were thinking as they trashed ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu last week.
Or indeed what the Taliban’s munitions men had in mind when they blasted the Buddhas of Bamian to bits in 2001. Only the quotation comes not from the Koran or the Hadith of the Prophet Mohamed, but from the Holy Bible, Deuteronomy 9:21. I’m afraid to say that in the religions of Abraham, idolatry is a statue-smasher, a stained glass window- breaker, a shrine-destroyer, a book-burner.
True, the Saudis have already bulldozed graves of the early Islamic era. But didn’t Oliver Cromwell’s troops pull out the bones of the knights of Kilkenny and hurl them into mass graves, all the while hacking off their carved stone heads from their tombs? All golden calves must be immolated. And if cosmopolitan art and culture are symbolic of a hated multi-ethnic world, then surely this explains why I discovered on the floor of the burned-out Sarajevo library only the card-index files of books in the failed pre-war European ‘language’ of Esperanto.
Odd how Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who became the 18th Century philosophical high priest of the future Saudi kingdom and the Sunni world’s principle enemy of graven images, was so unpopular. The Iraqis of Basra allegedly chucked him out of town – even his own brother condemned him – but the beliefs he bequeathed to the house of Saud have survived. Fight corruption but never kill the king, which means that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and his family are safe, at least until he dies of old age. Quite a sword to live under.
Yet 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 act 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. Teach this to the illiterate, the poor, the lost souls of war – and they will tear down the gates of the Sufi saints, and view the libraries of Timbuktu as idolatrous as the torn mobile phone posters and scratched safe-sex advertisements which my colleague Daniel Howden witnessed in the city last week.
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 Papal rival of his own supreme leadership of the church in England. The Taliban regarded the representation of any human form as corrupt; so, too, the English Puritans regarded the wondrous stained-glass windows of the Middle Ages.