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Bamiyan, Timbuktu - Are the Pyramids Next?!

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If you believe this, the days of the pyramids are numbered: "According to several reports in the Arabic media," writes Raymond Ibrahim, "prominent Muslim clerics have begun to call for the demolition of Egypt's Great Pyramids."

In actual fact, it seems the story originated in a spoof tweet. But hey! It's the easiest thing in the world to find someone somewhere expressing some wacko view or other; and then Mark Steyn repeats it all, and off we go...

Let's be crystal-clear about this right here. The answer to the question in my title is a mile-high, neon "NO". The pyramids of Giza are under no threat whatsoever, and neither is any of the rest of Egypt's glorious archaeological record. This is as radical as the thinking is getting among anyone anywhere near power in Egypt. Not to put too fine a point on it, Ibrahim is scaremongering, and it comes as no surprise when he goes on to offer a deeply misleading account of what has been happening in Timbuktu: "Currently, in what the International Criminal Court is describing as a possible 'war crime,' Islamic fanatics are destroying the ancient heritage of the city of Timbuktu in Mali--all to Islam's triumphant war cry, 'Allahu Akbar!'"

To read that that you'd think that the only Muslims involved in events at Timbuktu were the ones doing the vandalism. But of course it was Islamic buildings that they were attacking. Ansar al-Din, the al-Qaeda-affiliated zealots in northern Mali, consider the traditional Sufi practices of Timbuktu to be heretical. What Ibrahim is doing is treating the most extreme voices of Islam as representative of the whole religion, to the extent of implying that the Sufi Muslims of Timbuktu aren't really proper Muslims at all.

Ibrahim is not alone. I blogged last week about Pamela Geller playing the same game, using Timbuktu as a stick to beat Islam when what Timbuktu was telling us was something entirely different.

Islam is a very broad church, with no central organizing authority (like a Pope, say) to fix doctrine. As in other religions, there's a tendency for different traditions within the religion to claim themselves as the uniquely authentic face of Islam, and al-Qaeda and their allies make that claim in a particularly uncompromising and brutal way. But there's a further point: if Raymond Ibrahim treats the Sufi of Timbuktu as not proper Muslims, he's in effect adopting the viewpoint of al-Qaeda. What a stunning victory for extremists this is, that people across the US and beyond are being encouraged to accept al-Qaeda's distorted ideology as the truth!

The comments under my blog on Timbuktu told a similar story. Someone came in with a link to Ibrahim's article; others encouraged me to read polemics by Hindu nationalists such as Sita Ram Goel's Hindu Temples--What Happened to Them, which seeks to prove that Muslim rulers in India systematically destroyed Hindu shrines. That brought me back to where I started with this whole issue, the Buddhas of Bamiyan. One way that the Taliban and their sympathizers sought to justify the destruction of the Buddhas was to claim it as payback for the demolition of the Baburi Mosque at Ayodhya by Hindu hardliners in 1992.

An intense and polarized debate continues to this day about Ayodhya, what was there before the mosque was built by the Moghul emperor Babur, and what (if anything) happened to Hindu buildings on the site, and it was an issue of great interest to Sita Ram Goel. On the other side, numerous Islamist terrorist attacks on Indians have claimed the destruction of this mosque as their motivation.

Extreme Hindu nationalism, like the ideology of al-Qaeda and the paranoid theories of certain US commentators, is very interested in history, but deals in radical historical simplifications--for example, the idea that Islam is a religion hard-wired to destroy the religious monuments of its opponents. That is simply a false account of what happened, historically, when Islamic peoples encountered non-Islamic.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan survived, and were celebrated, for 1,200 years among Muslims before the Taliban and their allies in al-Qaeda destroyed them. I encourage anyone interested in Islamic attitudes to Hindu and Buddhist holy places to read Richard M. Eaton's measured, careful analysis, "Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States", Part 1 and Part 2. He tells a story of Muslim rulers in India who for the most part protected non-Islamic shrines, and on the rare occasions they did otherwise were following a time-honoured tradition within India of destroying your enemies' favourite temples: Hindus had been demolishing other Hindus' places of worship for centuries before Islam arrived. The crucial point, though, is that these Muslim rulers in India were never driven by religious fanaticism. However, in the context of tension between India and Pakistan, extreme simplifications of history thrive: Hindus are superstitious idol-worshippers; Muslims are intolerant idol-smashers. Scrupulous scholars like Richard Eaton prove that it is just not that simple.

But, as I commented at the end of my blog on Timbuktu, "Ideologues in one camp have a habit of creating ideologues in other camps, and the argument goes on and on and on..." That notion was illustrated in glorious technicolor below the line. Get your head around this logic, in one of the comments:

"if Ansar al-Din, the extremists doing the damage in Timbuktu, claim to be the only true Muslims, then we have to accept that claim, and regard what is happening in Timbuktu as Islam attacking non-Muslims."

In other words, we must accept al-Qaeda's analysis of Islam and the world, that they are the only authentic Muslims and all other Muslims must be forced to follow their creed. That strikes me as plain bonkers. What on earth compels us to accept al-Qaeda's view of things? Sufi Muslims are Muslims. Full stop. But credit where credit is due: irrational as it is, that comment does capture something essential about the thinking (for want of a better word) on this issue. Radicals like al-Qaeda want to provoke their opponents to be equally radical, because they want to create unbridgeable divisions between peoples, and an existential conflict which (they fondly suppose) will bring their appalling ideology to world domination. Commentators who define Islam as essentially incompatible with Western values are doing al-Qaeda's job for it.

Sita Ram Goel, Raymond Ibrahim and Ansar al-Din are all, in a peculiar way, speaking the same language, the language of extremes, where religions cannot communicate peacefully with one another, and complex and diverse faiths are reduced to crude caricatures. In the words of the Arab Spring activist Iyad El-Baghdadi, "Islamophobes and extreme Islamists are two peas in a pod. Both invent a radical, extreme sect and call it 'the one & only true Islam'."

But we must insist that there is another language, a precious but undervalued one. It isn't glamorous, and it requires the kind of laborious hours in the library that Richard M. Eaton put in. It resists seductively black-and-white explanations of events, and the temptation all humans feel to demonise what they do not know. It is never going to inspire young men to pull down a mosque or become suicide bombers. It is fiddly, unexciting, humane--and true. It is called moderation.