Jihad Watch Board Vice President Hugh Fitzgerald expands on his evisceration of the Saidist pretensions of Zainab Bahrani and her ilk:
Near Eastern artifacts are safe from depredation and deliberate vandalism only when within the safekeeping of Western (i.e. non-Muslim) museums. Both the Cairo Museum (founded by a Frenchman) and the Baghdad Museum are not so much museums in the Western sense, devoted to gathering, preserving, classifying, and studying at a high level the artifacts of the past; they are more like warehouses, stacked with stuff, with a few locals, some of them Western-trained. Yet of course they are presented to the world (and to themselves) as fully the equals of Western-style museums.
But even here they are looted, and not only during times of obvious trouble (as during the American invasion in the late spring of 2003).
As for destruction of artifacts, there are many reasons for this:
1) Statuary is itself a violation of Islam, and should be destroyed or at least vandalized, as Al-Qaradawi’s handbook on the Halal and the Haram suggests, so that it cannot be an object of veneration — religious or otherwise. Allah wouldn’t like it.
2) Anything from the pre-Islamic period is a matter of indifference or outright contempt to the local Muslims, except for two considerations:
a) attracting Western tourists and hence Western money; and
b) here and there, an advanced part of the population may take pride in the pre-Islamic stuff and even try to enroll it in some longer narrative, the way the Turks did, claiming that “Turks” had been in Anatolia since the time of the Hittites — every damn thing in the area, including Byzantium, somehow came back to the Turks.
In Egypt, the most fanatical Muslims used to talk about destroying the Pyramids. That talk has died down — what about all those people dependent on tourism? — but one never knows when it will start up again.
It should be kept in mind that the discovery and recovery of the artifacts of the ancient Near East, and the diligent study of their civilizations, is entirely a product of Westerners. From Champollion to Lepsius to Sir Howard Carter exploring the tomb of Tutankhmen, Egyptology was a Western enterprise. The pretensions of the occasional Zaki Hawass do not change this history. In Mesopotamia and Syria it was no different. Austen Henry Layard discovers the antiquities of Assyria; Leonard Woolley arrives at Ur to see scholarly justice done; and Henri Frankfort and others perform analysis and study in Europe or the United States.
The absurd cult of “authenticity” is merely a jobs program, self-serving and transparent. It goes something like this: Only authentic Middle Easterners, Muslims and Arabs, can authentically study with real authenticness the products of civilizations that existed a few thousand years before Islam or the Arabs ever arrived on the scene.
So Zainab Bahrani is a fit student of Near Eastern civilization, whereas Layard, Woolley, Frankfort, Moscati, Oppenheim, Kramer, Bottero, Gibson, and others — all those quiet scholars who labored for nearly two centuries in Berlin, or Leipzig, or St. Petersburg, or Oxford, or Paris, or the Oriental Institute in Chicago — they were inauthentic. They could not possibly pluck out the heart of the mystery. No matter how hard they tried, they could not possibly understand the essence, the quidditas, of ancient Mesopotamia, distant Babylon. For they weren’t Arabs. They weren’t Muslims. They weren’t, you see, born in Baghdad or Basra or somewhere. How could they possibly understand, understand “from within,” the way that Zainab Bahrani does, the true spirit, and real meaning, of what was created by non-Arabs and non-Muslims (but given honorary, backdated status as Arab Muslims)? It can only be understood by the likes of — well, by the likes of her.
She and her ilk can’t really claim that these artifacts and these civilizations had the slightest thing to do with Islam and the Arabs. They wish to somehow divert attention from the embarrassing fact that the archeologists in the field, and the linguists and scholars who subsequently organized, classified, preserved, studied, analyzed, and reconstructed it all as intelligently as they could were all Westeners — Europeans and Americans — not the locals. They had no interest, save for a handful who, being made aware of the significance attached to those civilizations of the ancient Near East, began to get the idea that they should not share the general indifference to such things. Yet that indifference, of course, was a natural result of the attitudes that Islam inculcates toward all pre-Islamic and non-Islamic civilizations, artifacts, anything and everything at all — save of course for what is considered really useful from that non-Muslim, such as weapons technology and electronic gewgaws.
So, today, there are a few Muslim Arabs interested in archeology and the pre-Islamic past, but as a result of being exposed first to Western interest, Western studies, and Western examples of how to do it. For the entire enterprise is most un-Islamic in spirit. If Islam is everything, contains everything, who cares about the lions of Babylon and the Ishtar Gate? Who cares about the Code of Hammurabi, or what happened in the time of Ashburnipal I or Ashburnipal II? There is one exception: the Persians, who managed to stave off arabization (famously, so the story goes, through the work of its poets in Persian, particularly Firdowsi with the Shahnameh) and, in the process, managed not to forget their pre-Islamic civilization. It is fun to divide those Iranians between the elite that bears, hands down, such names as Cyrus and Darius or local, non-Arab names (e.g. Kaveh) from the general run-of-the-mill Mohammeds. (In the same way, the Maronite-detector for foreigners in Lebanon is to look for such names as Antoine and Charles and Georges and Franck and Brigitte; among them, you are most likely to be in safe — in every sense — company).
The fact that the discovery and study of the civilizations of the Near East was entirely the product of the non-Muslim West was something that Edward Said, and his many tenured epigones, simply couldn’t admit, and cannot possibly allow themselves to comprehend. The very idea that you might study another society or language or civilization simply out of disinterested curiosity was beyond his primitive view of things. Bahrani, like many of her fellows, relies as part of the jobs-program that certain notions promote, on Saidism. The premise is that Western archeologists, Western curators, Western scholars, are involved, necessarily, with the “colonialist” enterprise or “project” (the word “project” is a dead giveaway), and that therefore their studies, their discoveries, are tainted, are suspect — suspect in their motivation, and suspect in how and what they study. This is on its face absurd. How could the study of civilizations that lived and died two thousand years before the arrival of Arabs and of Islam have anything to do with the “colonialist project” that somehow, in the eyes of the bahranis of this world, define the Western connection to Mespotamia? In the Bahrani word, since it is no longer possible to keep thrusting down everyone’s throat the anachronistic word “colonialist” its successor, the word “postcolonialist” — which is never quite explained — is now used with abandon. The word is useful for tendentious purposes. It bears no sell-by date, no scadenza, but is the perfect ideological excuse-gift that keeps on giving. It is just the thing to give to your girlfriend if she is essentially unable to produce real scholarship but needs a job (oh, and since there are nepotism rules, if you happened to have married her, quickly unmarry her so that you can be instrumental in having her hired by the department of which you are the head — a little reference meant entirely for the cognoscenti).
And if you are among those whose scholarship must forever be tainted by that “postcolonialist” project of which, because of their birth, they must necessarily be a part, so that they suffer from an Original Sin that cannot leave them, there is a corollary to this whole idea.
And that is this: Geography is Destiny. Or rather, destiny in the sense that if you, or any of your relatives, are Arab and Muslim, born or raised in the very places where the civilizations of the ancient Near East arose, not only are you of course permanently exempt from any hint of “colonialism” or “post-colonialism” which would vitiate your scholarship, but you and those like you are the only ones fully qualified to study those areas. This is because the spirit or geist, geographically rather than civilizationally conceived, of civilizations that had nothing to do with Islam or Arabs, nonetheless is, as if by magic, accessible to you. Curiously, however, if you are an Arab or Muslim from Baghdad, your ability to comprehend, say, the civilization of the Assyrians, is not in turn surpassed by the even greater comprehension of either Jews from Iraq or by present-day Assyrians. This is true even though both of those groups can trace their ancestry back in Mesopotamia to a thousand or two thousand years before the arrival of Muslim Arabs. One would think, if one is going to pretend to believe any of this nonsense, that surely the Christian or Jew with Mesopotamian roots has the greatest claim to “insight” into the civilization of Mesopotamia, just as Copts, rather than Muslim Arabs in Egypt, should be the ones who, untainted by the later imperialist ideology of Islam and Arab supremacism, should make the best Egyptologists.
Well, you get the idea. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the…
In other words, two can play this game. Or rather, any number can play.