Several fanatics could have defended what the Taliban did in 2011 when they destroyed the two Buddha statues in the city of Bamyan in central Afghanistan. But what would they say about the destruction of three UNESCO World Heritage Islamic shrines in the city of Timbuktu in northern Mali at the hands of the Ansar Dine group, an ally of both al-Qaeda and Taliban?
The truth is those actions carried out by organizations like Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Ansar Dine are the product of a “culture” that has for decades been prevalent in the Muslim world.
The first victim of such ‘culture’ is Islamic civilization itself. The concept of Islam as adopted by Islamists and nationalists alike is one mostly related to the era of the Prophet and the first caliphs. They do not pay enough attention to, for example, the Abbasid era with all its cultural diversity and the contributions it made to civilization. There are fleeting references to Abbasid Baghdad and Omayyad Damascus, but mostly in a didactic manner that is rarely devoid of chauvinistic undertones. The real interest in Islamic civilization started from other cultures, particularly from academic and orientalist circles that do not have an actual presence in or influence on the Muslim world. The way Islam can coexist with a capitalist system owing to the status of trade in its history, like orientalist Maxime Rodinson argued, was also overlooked.
Islam was always presented in a tribal, non-civilian form and it was constantly separated from the cultural depth it has acquired throughout its long history. It was, therefore, frozen at its very first stages. This was greatly aided by the idea that Islam is a “religion of victory” whose nation managed to expand to the furthest parts of the globe and acquire lands Christian and Jewish powers were never able to reach. This victory became the main source of pride for Jihadist movements and became the main excuse for the necessity of engaging in armed conflict with the West.
This perspective has greatly marginalized the role Islamic civilization played in culture, philosophy, and science and only focused on jurisprudence and exegesis. Other facets of Islam like Sufism, compatibility with capitalism, and rationalism, which are among its integral parts, were totally discarded. All this eventually created the idea of the “other” as a projection of the “self’ if only by virtue of not being able to negotiate its fixated religious identity.
This unilateral, depleting interpretation has gained a lot of momentum in the past few decades with the emergence of fundamentalist movements and which launched a campaign to eliminate the history of the region before the advent of Islam. This was greatly helped by the significance bestowed upon the concept of “identity” and which started in the 1950s with the coming to power of military nationalists and reached its peak in 1980s with the emergence of fundamentalist movements. Therefore, Phoenician, Babylonian, Aramaic, and Pharaonic civilizations became a curse that needs to be fought and destroyed. It never occurred to them that reconciliation with pre-Islamic cultures, like Europe did with ancient Rome and Greece, is an indispensible prerequisite for gaining access to modernity. But it is this modernity that they are trying hard to cast aside.
The article was first published in Saudi Arabia's al-Hayat on July 3