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Cultural Terrorism and Wahhabi Islam

Author: Helena Kane Finn
October 8, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations


The destruction of the gigantic twin Buddha statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan was an act of cultural terrorism. The local Muslim inhabitants of the region follow a tolerant tradition of Islam, as do pious Muslims in Egypt and Iran, long content to live alongside the Sphinx and the ancient statues of Persepolis. Islamic radicals, who scorn both tradition and art, blew up the great Buddhas. There is speculation that Saudi engineers, more skilled than Afghan tribesmen in the use of high explosives, assisted the Taliban in the obliteration of these historic cultural treasures. It is the undisputed case that the Taliban justification for this travesty can be traced to the Wahhabi indoctrination program prevalent in the Afghan refugee camps and Saudi-funded Islamic schools (madrasas) in Pakistan that produced the Taliban.

Wahhabism, a movement founded by Muhammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, is a fanatical branch of Islam supported by the enormous oil wealth of Saudi Arabia where its adherents include the House of Saud. Near Eastern Studies Professor Bernard Lewis, a leading scholar of Islam, has noted that the Wahhabis are to Islam what the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity. They can be accused of hijacking Islam. Among those who tried to prevail upon the Taliban regime to change its mind were moderate Muslim clerics and government leaders from dozens of Islamic countries. Notable for its silence on this matter was Saudi Arabia, the Taliban’s principal source of ideological and financial support.

While the destruction of the twin Buddhas did attract world attention, what has gone unnoticed beyond a small circle of archaeologists, cultural historians and art experts, is that this iconoclastic assault on the world’s cultural heritage has not been limited to Afghanistan, and that it has targeted Islam’s own splendid and multifaceted architecture and art. Wahhabis regard most of the world’s Muslims as little better than idolaters and make use of Saudi oil wealth and state resources to propagate the Wahhabi message (da’wa) in the Muslim world and beyond.

In Saudi Arabia itself, the destruction has focused on the architectural heritage of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, where Wahhabi religious foundations, with state support, have systematically demolished centuries-old mosques and mausolea, as well as hundreds of traditional Hijazi mansions and palaces. The Turkish people, themselves predominantly Muslim, were distressed when Wahhabis perpetrated the destruction of an important Ottoman fort that overlooked and protected the sanctuary in Mecca.

During the Bosnian War, Serb nationalist forces, intent upon eradicating traces of the Ottoman Turkish past from Bosnia, destroyed hundreds of mosques, depriving the local people of their places of worship and family histories as part of the effort to ethnically cleanse Bosnia. After the war, however, it was the Wahhabi aid organizations that moved in to complete the desecration of some of these war-damaged monuments. Islamic calligraphy is extraordinarily beautiful and the proud adornment of many a Balkan Muslim tombstone. Wahhabis forced desperate Balkan Muslim townspeople to destroy their own graveyards, often all that was left of their heritage, in exchange for badly needed assistance after the war. Wherever indigent Muslim communities are to be found, Wahhabi aid comes with a steep price for people too vulnerable to resist.

From the Philippines to the Balkans, Saudi money has built hundreds of new mosques. In the process, quite deliberately, hundreds of historic mosques and shrines, many of them masterworks of Islamic architecture, have been bulldozed or transformed beyond recognition. Although Islam had its birthplace in Saudi Arabia, it flourished elsewhere – in Lucknow and Isfahan and Istanbul. Its great monuments were built by Moghuls and Safavids and Ottoman Turks. Its contribution to the field of architecture is perhaps greater than that of any other civilization in history. Many consider the Taj Mahal the most beautiful building in the world.

There is a struggle going on in the Muslim world today between those who would reject all indigenous (non-Wahhabi) forms of expression, and those who would move Muslims out of isolation and onto the global stage as real participants in the intricate fabric of world society. It is the work of cultural diplomacy to counteract cultural terrorism. In the recent discussions about “winning hearts and minds,” cultural diplomacy has been virtually omitted. Yet, in the societies we would like to reach, there are rich oral poetic traditions, exquisite architectural motifs, and magnificent handicrafts. It is very important that the United States, in devising its strategies for communicating with the many millions of moderate Muslims around the world, indicate that we are interested not only in spreading our own culture, but in learning about the unique treasures of theirs. By encouraging cultural endeavors in the Muslim world, we provide support to those who would challenge the suffocating monochromatic tendencies of the Wahhabis. Years ago in Pakistan, a leading intellectual noted after participating in a program at the American Center, “we can see you, but you can not see us.” We must find ways to celebrate the rich heritage of the Muslim world by inviting its poets and writers, artists, musicians and scholars to come to the United States, and by making grants to its cultural institutions to encourage those who would explore and preserve its rich heritage.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect any official position of the U.S. government.