I’m primarily science blogger, with an amateur interest in history. But I’m still disturbed that over 10 years after 9/11 elite media still can’t be bothered to be precise and accurate about the affairs of the Muslim world. As a neo-Isolationist when it comes to military adventures I wish that ignorance were tolerable, but the reality is that a substantial minority of the populace and the majority of the elite seems intent on flexing American muscle abroad, come hell or national bankruptcy. Instead of imparting to the populace a genuine structure of facts and concepts which adds value in terms of comprehending things as they are, the media seems to just repackage its preconceptions in more sophisticated garb.
For example, The Washington Post:
Timbuktu now endures the destruction of many of the city’s ancient monuments and religious sites. The devastation is reminiscent of the Taliban’s 2001 attacks on the towering Buddha statues of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Four of Timbuktu’s landmarks are included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, but history and heritage mean nothing to the leadership of Ansar Dine, which has destroyed at least six above-ground mausoleums of religious figures regarded as saints and, on Monday, the door of one of the city’s most sacred mosques.
Timbuktu, a center of Sufi mysticism, apparently represents a broad-minded world view at odds with Ansar Dine’s radical conservatism. When asked this week whether the destruction of these cultural artifacts will continue, a spokesman for the sect told the New York Times: “Of course. What doesn’t correspond to Islam, we are going to correct.”
There are many points to dispute in this editorial, but I want to put the focus on the idea of “radical conservatism.” Though one can strictly be radically conservative, one has to be careful when someone uses such a term. After all, conservatism in a deep sense is at cross-purposes with radicalism. In the 1990s many American conservatives were angered that the media kept referring to unreconstructed Communists in the former Eastern Bloc as “conservatives,” but in a strict sense that was defensible (though I do think that the terminology ultimately reflected media bias in part).
Not so in this case. Groups like Ansar Dine, inspired by the infantile iconoclasm which seems to crop up in Islam, makes it part of its program to destroy very ancient monuments. In other words, Ansar Dine is attacking the organically developed traditional customs and folkways of Islam in the region, going first at the material manifestations of the local culture. This is fundamentally anti-conservative. Rather than conserving, these radicals resemble the Khmer Rouge or the Red Guards, who wished to create a cultural blank slate and start over. This is the delusion of strain of the Islam which we term Salafi (and its related siblings, such as the more radical Deobandis).
Salfism is predicated on a radical delusion, that modern Muslims have access to the arrangement of life of the first generations of Muslims, and can recreate that way of life. The analogy here to radical Protestant sects which attempted to emulate “primitive Christianity” is strong. To recreate the Islam of the first decades of the religion the Salafists and their fellow travelers construct a society to their own tastes. It is fundamentally a utopian project. Because of their reliance on their own rational faculties of analysis and reconstruction the Salafists feel no need to give due deference to the organically evolved history of Sunni Islam from 8th century down to the present (or, what was to become Sunni Islam). This is why they are engaging in acts of egregious iconoclasm against the past: they believe that the past is untrustworthy a idolatrous, as opposed to their own idealized blueprint. To get a better sense, here is a Wikipedia entry, Destruction of early Islamic heritage sites:
The destruction of sites associated with early Islam is an on-going phenomenon that has occurred mainly in the Hejaz region of western Saudi Arabia, particularly around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The demolition has focused on Mosques, burial sites, homes and historical locations associated with the Islamic prophet, Muhammad and many of the founding personalities of early Islamic history. In Saudi Arabia, many of the demolitions have officially been part of the continued expansion of the Masjid Al-Haram at Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and their auxiliary service facilities in order to accommodate the ever-increasing number of Hajj pilgrims. Detractors of the demolitions and expansion programs have argued that this phenomenon is part of the implementation of state-endorsed Wahhabi religious policy that emphasizes the Oneness of God (Tawhid) and entirely rejects the worship of divine proxies to God or even the practices and habits which might lead to idolatry and polytheistic association (Shirk).
For example, “The House of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid in Makkah was demolished and paved over and several public protests were heard at the building of a public toilet on the same site. The house where Muhammad was born was converted into a library and was slated for demolition as part of an expansion project.” Khadijah is Muhammad’s first wife.
Why does any of this matter? Because of the media characterization of radical Islamists as neo-feudalist reactionaries misleads the public as to the basic nature of the danger the world faces. Radical Islamism is not the resurrection of an old world, it is the accelerated destruction of elements of the old world, an almost nihilistic response to modernity. The project of development and modernization may inevitably lead to a minority of Muslims in any nation to embrace a position analogous to that of the Salafis. All the education and economic development won’t change that. Instead of expressing shock and horror we need to figure out mitigating strategies. These sorts of infantile pseudo-traditionalist radical may be like a fever which will eventually pass as cultures stumble to modernity.