Farouk Hosni, Egypt’s cultural minister, is a controversial nominee to serve as Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the global institution concerned with preservation of humanity’s cultural heritage. He has been criticised for his unbridled hatred of Jews - stated in a pledge that he would burn any books printed in Israel that he found in Egyptian government libraries.
He assailed U.S. UNESCO ambassador David T. Killion, claiming that Killion’s criticism of Hosni’s candidacy was motivated by Killion being Jewish. Killion is not Jewish, but even if he were, Hosni has no right to base his reply to Killion’s opposition to him on such a fact. Notwithstanding Middle East political conflicts, Muslims are commanded to respect Jews as sharers in the revelation of One God. Conspiracy theory is common in the Muslim world, but does not befit a culture minister.
Commentators in various countries have pointed out the abhorrent nature of Hosni’s outbursts, and questioned whether an admitted proponent of book-burning is an appropriate individual to lead UNESCO. Some of his partisans allege that his election to the UNESCO position might improve global relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. But some Muslims will be aware of other problems with the campaign in Hosni’s favor.
The first is that the Saudi kingdom, the world’s most influential Muslim country and a member of UNESCO, has long maintained policies, based on the capricious dictates of Wahhabism, against preservation of the cultural legacy of the Arabian peninsula. Many others and I have documented, and many have protested, the long chronicle of Wahhabi devastation wherever the Wahhabi cult gains influence. Their attacks on Mecca and Medina, as well as the Shia holy sites in Mesopotamia, began in the 19th century. The Wahhabi fanatics and their political enablers, the house of Sa’ud, are infamous for their destruction at Jannat al-Baqi, the cemetery in Medina that shelters the graves of the Prophet’s companions. The Wahhabis continue to agitate for closing of the Prophet’s shrine in Medina and razing its distinctive green dome.
More such outrages against culture could be cited. The 2001 demolition of the Bamyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, by the Taliban and Al-Qaida, did not take place in a vacuum. The Taliban represent a variant of Wahhabi fundamentalism, known as Deobandism - more volatile in Pakistan and Afghanistan than in India, where Deobandism began, but notorious around the world for its radicalism. The Bamyan crime was ‘justified’ by the statues’ being pre-Islamic idols. A similar Wahhabi-Deobandi proclivity for bombing sites - as well as innocent people - has led to more recent terrorist blasts at Sufi and Shia shrines in Iraq, Pakistan, and India.
With no credit due Farouk Hosni, Egypt has maintained a different attitude toward its pre-Islamic cultural legacy, to say nothing of its Muslim heritage. While some fringe elements in the Egyptian radical Muslim milieu have called for removal of the monuments of pre-Islamic Egypt, few heed them. Egypt is not anxious to dynamite the Sphinx; so far, Egypt preserves its past, as do other Muslim countries, including some with anti-Western regimes.
But the Saudi problem remains: little in the way of such a policy exists in Riyadh. Arabia is often described as ‘the cradle of Islam,’ but for that very reason the Saudi authorities should have a greater moral responsibility to protect its Islamic and pre-Islamic monuments. Thus, a Muslim blogger, Moid Ansari at http://reviewandanalysis.blogspot.com/2009/09/saudi-arabia-digs-around-makkah-and.html, comments ‘It’s no wonder that the largest Islamic Museum is in London.’
Recent mainstream reportage has disclosed that Saudi Arabia does run an archaeological program. Donna Abu-Nasr of the Associated Press disclosed at the end of August that Saudi Arabia has its first UNESCO World Heritage Site: Mada’in Saleh near Medina, which is two millennia old, was so designated in 2008. Its builders, the Nabataeans, also carved their wondrous capital out of pink stone cliffs at Petra in Jordan. But the Saudis barred visits to Mada’in Saleh for years.
The prince responsible for the opening of Mada’in Saleh to tourists, Sultan bin Salman, is now secretary general of the governmental Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. Sultan bin Salman could be considered a pioneer of modern knowledge in the kingdom. In 1985 he served with the crew on the American space shuttle Discovery, and observed the curvature of the earth. He then telephoned Abd Al-Aziz Bin Baz, a Wahhabi cleric promoted as a supreme religious authority by the regime, who in 1969 issued a fatwa affirming his belief that the earth is a flat disk, that the sun revolves around it, and that anybody arguing otherwise was a heretic worthy of severe punishment. Saudi high school teachers were flogged for telling their pupils the earth is round. Sultan bin Salman told Bin Baz he had seen the earth’s globular shape himself, and Bin Baz issued a correction to his fatwa, though some who know him doubt he did so sincerely.
Abu-Nasr also wrote that Christian remains found on Saudi territory have been hidden, and that while some foreign archaeologists are now at work there, they keep a low profile for fear of Wahhabi censure, which, many worry, could easily turn into physical attacks on them and new wrecking raids. The justifications for keeping Saudi Arabia’s cultural heritage away from public eyes range from the argument that the excavated structures are not Islamic to the declaration that since Muslims do not accept that Jesus was crucified (rather, he was lifted into heaven), crosses should not be visible on newly-uncovered ancient churches. Although many experts say there are significant Jewish remains in some areas of Saudi Arabia, this is still a prohibited topic of discussion. Yet in a modern country, all of the architecture and art of the past should be worth protecting.
In addition to his primitive views on international and interreligious relations, it should be expected that Farouk Hosni would do nothing to reverse the Wahhabi-Deobandi onslaught against heritage resources. If he is elected as a token “Muslim” or “Arab,” obedient to the influence of Saudi Arabia, his accession to the UNESCO general directorate could spell a disaster for the Muslims, and the inauguration of a new, darker period for the Islamic intellect.
Dr. Irfan Al-Alawi, Centre for Islamic Pluralism and Executive Director, Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, www.islamicpluralism.org