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Wahhabism and Civilisation

This first appeared in The Hill Times on 22 January, 2015

The Art Gallery of Ontario’s new approach to its exhibits is known as Art as Therapy. This new style of presentation is derived from the work of British pop philosopher Alain de Botton whose website proclaims that ‘if art is to enjoy its privileges, it has to be able to demonstrate its relevance in understandable ways to the widest possible audience.’ Accordingly fatuous slogans now adorn many of the galleries and washrooms at the AGO. ‘Art is advertising for what is good’ is one of them, and some galleries include single words, such as ‘POLITICS’ written on the wall in monumentally large letters. One of the most disturbing slogans of them all goes like this: ‘this museum displays a lot of religious and aristocratic art; it is quite normal to feel uncomfortable in front of it.’

Have western Civilisation’s highest moral and social values become cause for discomfort? Have nearly a century of modern art and Marxist clap-trap led us to a collective sense of discomfort at older art? Or have Canadians simply become so removed from the faith and culture of their ancestors, that they can’t understand and therefore dislike their art when they see it? It’s hard to pin-point the exact reason why, but that slogan implies that an alarming number of people in the world are indeed made uncomfortable by the art works of a civilisation which they no longer understand and cannot relate to.

The slogan is symptomatic of a problem in the West which usually smoulders quietly but which has recently blazed up in the context of the western response to militant jihadism — not only in the effort to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but also in response to Muslim terrorism in Canada and France. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, some left-wing commentators began objecting to the idea of framing the jihadist threat as one of a clash of barbarism and civilisation. But some commentators, such as Jon Wilson of the far-left LabourList blog in the UK, objected not because jihadists are barbarous but because he has trouble believing that ‘our’ civilisation is ‘a good thing worth defending at all costs’, and that ‘our way of life’ is ‘in danger’ [http://labourlist.org/2015/01/je-ne-suis-pas-charlie-hebdo/]. Similarly, it was not long ago that a certain Canadian MP could not bring himself to say that female genital mutilation, honour killings, polygamy, and forced marriages were ‘barbaric cultural practices’. 

I am sure that the discomfort which Alain de Botton claims to be a ‘normal’ reaction to civilised art goes hand in hand with an incapacity to recognise and condemn barbarism and savagery. It has been rightly observed that the struggle against Muslim terrorism of the sort that motivated the killings at Charlie Hebdo is one of free speech versus totalitarian repression. The same may also be said in the Muslim context, since it is obvious that a great many Muslims want nothing to do with al-Qaida, ISIS, Boko Haram, and their murderous and repressive ilk. But there is a far larger problem that looms above the question of free speech, because the future of civilisation is at stake.

Without invoking the truism of the threat posed to Europe by successive waves of Muslim invaders from the very beginning of Islam, I can illustrate my point by looking at Islam itself in its proper context. An aggressive and puritanical form of this religion was preached by one Ibn Taymiyya in the thirteenth century in the wake of the Mongols’ conquest of Baghdad and their brutal execution of the last caliph al-Mustasim in 1258. Ibn Taymiyya hated the mystical doctrines of Sufism and Shiism, he hated representational art, hated the veneration of Muslim saints, and hated his Mongol overlords even after they had converted to Islam. He preached a doctrine of renewal through a puritanical return to the literal word of the Quran and by advocating the jihad against what he saw as an illegitimate political authority.

Ibn Taymiyya’s preaching exerted an evil influence from the beginning. But it was only in the eighteenth century that his doctrines received any serious political expression. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) read and believed the doctrines of Ibn Taymiyya, and worked with Muhammad ibn Saud to establish the first Saudi state on principles that have come to be known as Wahhabism. Wahhabism is the intellectual foundation of every group of Muslim terrorists that has appeared since the eighteenth century. Abd al-Wahhab rejected popular veneration of saints and pilgrimages to tombs and shrines, and even insisted on chopping down trees which were regarded by others as sacred. He tried to have the main shrines at Mecca and Medina bulldozed also — behaviour which no one could consider civilised. It is because of him that many Muslim shrines and mosques all over the world have been whitewashed.

Since Abd al-Wahhab’s day, the form of Islam that he preached has become worse. ISIS, al-Qaida, and Boko Haram are now household names in the West, and it is impossible to ignore the brute reality of the new ‘Caliphate’ and its genocidal warfare and beheadings. But we need also to remember the grim news coming out of Mali in late 2012 and early 2013. Rumours circulated of savage enforcement of the sharia and recruitment of child soldiers, and the group known as Ansar Dine destroyed Muslim shrines and mausoleums in Timbuktu. These shrines and mausoleums were UNESCO world heritage sites, and Timbuktu was a centre of Islamic learning for much of its history and was still home to thousands of mediaeval Arabic and African manuscripts. These manuscripts had never been been edited, studied, or translated, but al-Qaida, Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) didn’t care. Is there any clearer sign of militant Islam’s irrational hostility to Near Eastern and African civilisation?

In fact there is. The state of affairs in Mali was eerily reminiscent of Afghanistan’s own turmoil. The Soviet War in Afghanistan ended in 1989, but internal conflict carried on, and civil war throughout the 1990s saw the rise of the Taliban and the infiltration of al-Qaida. These two groups were not originally on good terms, but they quickly came to espouse the same Wahhabist ideology of anti-Western terrorism, an austere and puritanical form of Islam, and an implacable will to destroy art and cultural heritage. The destruction of the huge statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan, the savage looting of the National Museum of Afghanistan, and the vandalism of Buddhist sites such as Mes Aynak were followed by a series of terrorist attacks, the worst of which were the attacks of September 11th 2001.

But some may argue that, even without Wahhabism, Islam posed a threat to civilisation from its very beginning. The Islamic conquest of Iran could be considered the most obvious proof of this. Precisely no written records, no scientific texts, no literature, very little art, and very few books survived the Arab conquest in the seventh century. According to the tenth-century Muslim historian Tabari, when the Arab commander Abu Waqqas had conquered Iran, the Caliph Omar ordered him to destroy all Persian books on the ground that they were either blasphemous, and therefore bad, or because they contained the same information as the Quran, and therefore redundant. What followed was what Iranian historian Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub has called Iran’s ‘two centuries of silence’ during which indigenous Iranian religion, culture, philosophy, and statecraft were utterly degraded and nearly destroyed. It was a great triumph of Iranian civilisation that it was eventually able to revive its culture and language in a somewhat modified form, and at least the more mystical parts of its ancient religion which carry on in Shiite doctrine. Every other place in the Middle East touched by the armies of Islam has lost its ancient heritage forever.

But don’t take my word for it. Many of the first generation of Persian scholars after the Arab conquest had a very dim view of Islam and Arabs, and scholars such as Dinawari (a ninth-century historian of Iran) may have conformed outwardly to Islamic norms, but made a point of proving their own civilisation’s superiority to what they saw as barbarism brought in by the first Muslims. Ferdowsi, the greatest Iranian poet and author of the Iranian National Epic in the year 1010, had no illusions about how Islam had changed his country. He extols the virtues of pre-Islamic Iran throughout his epic poem, avoids Arabic words and Muslim doctrine, and adopts a plainly pro-Zoroastrian bias. He laments the destruction of more than a thousand years of Iranian monarchy and religion when he reflects on the Arab conquest (my translation):

They shall make the prayer-niche one with the throne, and

They shall make all names Abu Bakar and Omar.

Then shall our long labours be ruined.

There shall be a long decline from this lofty height...

Then the coveneant with truth shall be broken,

And crookedness and lies shall be dear.

The first onslaught of militant Islam almost totally destroyed Iranian and Near-Eastern civilisation, and a second wave seems to be back to finish the job now. Both East and West must unite to defeat the evil of jihadism because it is plainly an equal threat to both. But jihadists must be beaten not only on the battlefield, but also in intellectual and moral terms. A military victory will not be hard provided the political will is there to do what needs to be done. But will we win the intellectual and moral victory? This would mean standing up for ourselves and for the past and future of human civilisation in all its forms. The very worst we can do is lose confidence in our own civilisation and its achievements, and view it as something that isn’t worth preserving and defending. But it seems that many of us have already given up.