Erasing a decadent past

I'm seeing more and more essays like this one, asking a question which won't go away: Is Islam Evil?

Why is Islam exempt from critical analysis? In Western society, there is no shortage of critics of Christianity. Indeed, on many college campuses it is open season on anything that has the faint odor of Western Civilization -- Christianity included -- even though Christianity, like Islam, originated in the Middle East . One might wonder why Islam, which sees itself as a continuation or fulfillment of Judeo-Christianity, is not subject to the same intense criticism. Instead, multi-culturalism treats Islam as a protected species -- an indigenous ethos inseparable from a people. Consequently, self-appointed Politically Correct thought-police stifle debate on Islam by shamelessly playing the race card -- even though Islam is not a race.

We Americans are incredulous to hear the vilification of our country, our traditions and our principles. Yet, we hesitate to publicly condemn Islam as evil when that is far more plausible. Or even raise the question! Yet, it is clearly on people's mind. So much so that it is often answered in a pre-emptive manner. "Don't blame Islam for the acts of a few", we are told. "Islam has been hijacked by militants," say our leaders. No discussion. No one explicitly asks the question. No one dares. We must not allow ourselves to be deterred by this intimidation. The question is both legitimate and important: "Is Islam evil?"

While I am certainly no apologist for Islam, I find myself unable to take the position that Islam is evil. To do that requires seeing Islam as a single monolithic force -- something akin to Communism. While it might be possible to regard Wahhabist Islam in this manner, to so regard all Islam requires a deliberate disregard or distortion of history.

Unlike Communism, Islam has a long history. Seen geopolitically, the largest chunk of this history consisted of the Ottoman Empire. Because it lasted from the 13th to the 20th centuries, it is tough to engage in generalizations about the Ottoman Empire. Certainly, there were many ruthless conquests and slaughters, invasions of peaceful areas, but I don't think most historians would dispute that under Ottoman rule, there existed for centuries a well-established phenomenon which can only be called moderate Islam.

Despite history, many people decry the existence of such a thing as moderate Islam. Ironically, it still exists right where it existed for centuries and where it once held sway over most of the Islamic world -- in the former center of power of the Ottoman Empire. (Turkey.)

Unfortunately, Turkey is more and more isolated as a voice of Islamic moderation. I'm worried that it's becoming a lost or endangered relic of a once moderate past.

As lost as this once endangered Ottoman citadel?


It's no longer endangered. It's gone! But it stood there for centuries overlooking Mecca, where the Ottomans built it to guard the place. In 2002, ignoring international protests, the Saudi government tore it down. Reason? They hate the idea that their religious places were once ruled by forces of moderate Islam.

Here's Sadik H. Kassim, writing about the recently demolished al-Ajyad Palace pictured above:

During our ride out of Medina Airport my uncle queried our Wahabbi driver about why people in Saudi Arabia do not wear seatbelts. Our driver immediately went into a grand bit of histrionics declaring the seatbelt to be a bid’ah (religious innovation) and therefore impermissible for all true Muslims to use. He continued his tangent by suggesting the seatbelt to be an American/Israeli invention intended to subvert basic Islamic principles. Our driver’s fatwa, although not legally binding, serves to illustrate the paranoid and irrational world outlook of the Wahabbi school of thought. This worldview, in addition to contributing to the intellectual retardation of the Ummah, has been used to justify the destruction of some of Islam’s most sacred and important historical and cultural sites. This decimation remains an ongoing process scarcely reported in either western media outlets or the media of countries with a Muslim majority population.
Well, I'll report it. We heard all about the Buddhist statues, probably because people are less afraid to defend Buddhism than moderate Islam.

I shouldn't say that no one in the West reported this. A Texas art historian specializing in Ottoman art was most upset at the time:

The al-Ajyad castle stood on a hill overlooking the grand Mosque and was built in 1780 by the ruling Ottomans to keep the Wahhabi Islamic sect out of Mecca. Carel Bertram, a historian of Ottoman art at the University of Texas described the demolition as a “very sectarian move”. Denouncing Saudi plans as an “erasure of the past” she said the demolition was part of a wider effort by Saudi Arabia’s dominant Wahhabi elite to expunge the Islamic world of any remaining element of cultural and religious diversity. “It is a way for the Wahhabi sect to show that there is no form of Islam—on the ground, in the past, or in people’s memories—other than their own”.

Motivated by religious zealotry the Saudi authorities carried out enormous demolition campaigns in Mecca and the nearby port city of Medina after coming to power in the 1920s, and again in the 1970s. In 1924, they demolished the majority of historical mosques and monuments in Mecca and Medina. Despite protests from other Muslim countries and UNESCO they even destroyed the Prophet Mohammed’s house in Mecca and hundreds of mausoleums belonging to his companions. The al-Ajyad castle survived those decades of mass demolition, until now.

This latest act of cultural vandalism by Riyadh follows a similar pattern of destruction by Saudi-funded charities and aid agencies in the Balkans, not to mention the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Saudi-backed Taliban. In Bosnia and Kosovo “humanitarian” agencies funded and financed by the Saudi royal family are demolishing Ottoman-era mosques and other monuments to promote their Wahhabi vision of Islam.

Turkey protested, but for the most part, the world didn't care. I don't even know how widely this was reported in the West. On the ruins of the Ottoman citadel, there is now a hotel for wealthy, Wahhabi-approved pilgrims.

While I hate to see historic buildings destroyed, the goal here is not merely to eradicate buildings. It is to eliminate an idea.

That idea, I believe, is that there ever was such a thing as moderate Islam. I'm a bit concerned that the "Islam is evil" meme fits right in with the campaign against moderate Islam, because if enough people believe there is no such thing as moderate Islam, and the guys in charge of Islam believe the same thing, well, pretty soon there will be near-unanimous agreement that there is no such thing as moderate Islam.

The very history of Wahhabism is a war waged by radical Islam against moderate Islam, and in particular it involved a struggle to the death between the virulently Wahhabist Saud dynasty and the Ottoman rulers. This began in earnest in the late 18th century, and was aided and abetted by clueless Europeans often guided by the principle that idealism (often taking the form of support for "nationalities") is better than imperial decadence.

Couple this facade of idealism with the very real presence of huge oil deposits, and it's not surprising that moderate Islam would tend to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Radical Wahhabi Islam, of course, is not only the leading enemy of the West, but the number one enemy of moderate Islam. That's because moderate Muslims are infidels too -- every bit as much we in the West. Back to Mr. Kassim:

In 1801, the Saudis-Wahabbis waged a campaign against the Muslim “polytheists” and “heretics”. The outcomes of the campaign “shocked the entire Muslim world…by brutally destroying and defacing the sacred tomb of the martyr Hussein Bin Ali (Prophet Mohammad's grandson) in Karbala, Iraq, a particularly holy shrine to Shia Muslims1.” It was during this raid that the Saudis-Wahabbis “mercilessly slaughtered over 4,000 people in Karbala and stole anything that was not nailed down. It took over 4,000 camels to carry the huge loot (1).”

Later, in 1810 during a pillaging campaign that swept the Arabian Peninsula the Saudis-Wahabbis “attacked and desecrated Prophet Mohammad’s Mosque, opened his grave, and sold and distributed its valuable relics and expensive jewels (1)”. The Wahabbis had intended to raze the green dome of the Prophet’s Mosque in pursuit of the golden globes and crescents surmounting it in those days. Yet, as Sir Richard Burton notes in his Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, “an accident prevented any further desecration of the building…Two of their number [Wahabbis], it is said, were killed by falling from the slippery roof, and the rest, struck by superstitious fears, abandoned the work of destruction.” The siege of the Prophet’s Mosque did however injure “the prosperity of the place [Madinah] by taxing the inhabitants, by interrupting the annual remittances, and by forbidding visitors to approach the tomb (2).”

(More here, plus a petition.)

Wouldn't want anyone to think that the prophet or any of his descendants might have ever been buried in a heretical manner, would we? That might mean that moderate Muslims once existed -- or even that the Prophet himself wasn't entirely the way the Wahhabists want him depicted. But history is written by the victors, and the fact is that the Ottoman Empire lost Hejaz Arabia in the 1920s, and the House of Saud (with lots of help) has ruled since.

It's tough to make the case for moderation in anything, much less Islam. Especially when anything moderate is increasingly seen as decadent. And decadence is evil, isn't it? Culturally rich empires like the Ottoman Empire would seem to epitomize it. Who the hell am I to maintain that their Islamic moderation was a virtue?

Besides, if Islam is evil, there is no such thing as moderation in evil, so moderate Islam would still be evil. (Unless you're a moderately evil pragmatist.)

It's always tough to make the case for decadence. Might as well try to save the Ottoman citadel.

Pragmatically speaking, however, America might need an evil empire to fight -- which would make it wrong to attempt any resurrection of moderate Islam in history.

That's an awful thought. Because for starters, there's no consensus on whether radical Islam is evil.

(The Danish cartoons are merely one way of posing the question.)

UPDATE: As a counterweight to Saudi influence, Dean Esmay offers a round-the-world view of moderate Muslim countries, reminding us of examples such as Indonesia, and I agree it should be kept in mind that things are not as bleak as this post might make them appear. (Although articles like this worry me.)

Bear in mind that the focus of this post was not on the entire Muslim world today, but on the Ottoman Empire (which represents a pretty large chunk of Islam over time) in contrast to growing Saudi hegemony. Having the holy places plus oil wealth gives the Saudis, in my view, politico-religious leverage beyond their numbers.

posted by Eric on 02.13.06 at 09:59 AM


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The Ajyad (Ecyad) Fortress stood proud on bulbul mountain in Mecca since 1781. Its purpose was to protect the holy city from invaders. As a city landmark, the Ajyad fort was a destination by itself. The image of the castle is still imprinted in [Read More]
Tracked on February 24, 2006 4:16 PM


Great post Eric. I had no idea. That Islam was once more tolerant is a historical fact. Whether they can resurrect their past sophistication is one of the questions of the century.

I had a flash of insight the other night. And yes, it actually did hurt. It went something like this...

If the Mullah's and Imam's fondest dreams came true, and the United States converted to Islam totally and unreservedly (I know, I know, it's unlikely, but work with me here), they would soon come to rue the monster they had created. We would not be controllable.

An Islamic USA would quickly begin to influence its new faith in ways the Wahhabists apparently lack the capacity to visualize. Just consider. Every nation that has adopted the ROP has managed to put their own unique imprint on it. Would we do less? I beg to differ. It's in the American character to tinker in search of improvement.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you...American Turbo-Islam! An Islam transformed by the quest for convenience, comfort and sensible solutions. Oh yeah, and really, really aggressive about it.

The Saudis fancy themselves Lords of the Ummah, based on their monopoly of Mecca. Let me tell you, American Pilgrims making their Hajj will simply not tolerate the wretched conditions and price gouging the Saudis indulge in as a matter of course. The entire experience is ripe for a re-structuring, a streamlining, a rationalized operations model, call it what you will. Certainly a change in management will be called for.

I don't think the Muslim Holy Joes are thinking far enough ahead. They really ought to be worried about "winning" as much as losing.

Just a thought.

J. Case   ·  February 13, 2006 11:44 AM

Where do you find this stuff?

Beck   ·  February 13, 2006 12:08 PM

By submission to acute symptoms of mouse-related tendonitis, I guess. (I wish that was a joke....)

Eric Scheie   ·  February 13, 2006 5:17 PM

While the reasoning here is sharp, I must object on factual grounds. Whatever may be said of Turkey's past, it is hardly the counterweight to Saudi extremism. There are more liberal muslim states, especially Mali, Senegal, and most of all there is the world's largest muslim nation, and one of the more liberal: Indonesia. Indeed, while they have been troubled by a few terrorist attacks, not least of which was Bali, what was their response? A strong crackdown on those who preached terrorism, an aggressive program to find and arrest those responsible, and most of all: a full-court press of greater democratization and liberalization. That's right, their response to terrorism has to fight it on every front, using it not as an excuse to slow down civil rights reforms but as an excuse to accelerate it.

More details right here, if you'll forgive a bit of link-whoring.

I don't argue with the rest, but let's give the world's largest muslim nation a bow of respect why don't we?

Dean Esmay   ·  February 13, 2006 9:09 PM

Dean: thanks for the reminder. I'm getting a bit sick of right-wing blowhards asking "Where are the moderate Muslims?" and totally ignoring them when they speak up to answer the question; then asking the question all over again like they never heard a thing.

Ignoring moderates only helps extremists. And denying the existence of crucial potential allies is just plain stupid, on a moral and strategic level.

Raging Bee   ·  February 16, 2006 9:40 AM

One of the tenants of wahabbi thought is destruction. Destruction of religion, destruction of history, destruction of women and so forth. The sad thing is that such horrendous acts didn’t gather enough steam throughout the Muslim world as the cartoon issue!

Aya   ·  February 22, 2006 9:09 PM

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