Archive for January 30th, 2013

Book Burning in Timbucktu

January 30, 2013
English: Image of Timbuktu manuscripts.

English: Image of Timbuktu manuscripts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a child, Timbuktu generally seemed to mean the farthest possible place it was possible to travel to while still remaining on the planet, an almost mystical city, not one you who expect to travel to. It actually came a something of a shock to me when I saw Timbuktu on a map. I didn’t really think it was a real city.

Well, Timbuktu is real enough and not nearly far from the troubles of the world as the inhabitants might wish. Timbuktu has been in the news quite a lot recently as a battleground in Mali‘s civil war. Recently, Malian and French soldiers captured the city from the Islamic militants who had seized the city ten months ago. The terrorists did not show much respect for the historical or cultural legacy of Timbuktu, and even less respect for the rights and well being of the people there. I read this report from the Associated Press.

Timbuktu, a city of mud-walled buildings and 50,000 people, was for centuries a seat of Islamic learning and a major trading center along the North African caravan routes that carried slaves, gold and salt. In Europe, legend had it that it was a city of gold. Today, its name is synonymous to many with the ends of the earth.

It has been home to some 20,000 irreplaceable manuscripts, some dating to the 12th century. It was not immediately known how many were destroyed in the blaze that was set in recent days in an act of vengeance by the Islamists before they withdrew.

Michael Covitt, chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation, called the arson a “desecration to humanity.”

“These manuscripts are irreplaceable. They have the wisdom of the ages and it’s the most important find since the Dead Sea Scrolls,” he said.

The militants seized Timbuktu last April and began imposing a strict Islamic version of Shariah, or religious law, across northern Mali, carrying out amputations and public executions. Women could be whipped for going out in public without wearing veils, while men could be lashed for having cigarettes.

During their rule in Timbuktu, the militants systematically destroyed cultural sites, including the ancient tombs of Sufi saints, which they denounced as contrary to Islam because they encouraged Muslims to venerate saints instead of God.

The mayor said the Islamists burned his office as well as the Ahmed Baba institute, a library rich in historical documents.

“It’s truly alarming that this has happened,” Mayor Ousmane Halle told The Associated Press by telephone from Bamako. “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”

This is unfortunate, but not unexpected. There is something of a tradition of iconoclasm among the more fanatic Muslim sects. Muslims generally regard the pre-Muslim past as the time of Jahiliyyah or ignorance. This often leads Muslims to denigrate the pre-Islamic history and culture of a nation and more devout or fanatic Muslims can even systematically destroy artifacts from the past, especially art that is considered pagan or idolatrous. The worst offenders in this regard are probably the members of the Wahhabi sect, prominent in Saudi Arabia. In their zeal to purify the Islamic faith and to ensure that Allah alone is worshiped, the Wahhabi have often attacked long standing customs and traditions of less strict Muslim sects, such as the veneration of saints, Sufi mysticism, and the Shi’ites whom they regard as heretics. The Wahhabi dominated government of Saudi Arabia has been destroying historical sites in Mecca and Medina that are associated with the beginnings and early history of Islam.

I am not certain to what extent the militants in Mali have been influenced by Wahhabism. The story said that they were linked to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Ladin was, of course, from Saudi Arabia. It seems likely that their ignorant destruction of historical manuscripts is derived from the same sort of fanaticism that drives the Saudis to destroy houses and mosques associated with Mohammed and other figures from early Islam.

 

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Jews in Europe

January 30, 2013

In his article in The Daily Beast, British writer Jonathan Freedland presents a more optimistic appraisal of the state of the Jews in Europe than is usually the case with America writers. He argues that anti-Semitism is not nearly as pervasive in Europe as Americans choose to believe.

My inbox is giving me a queasy sensation of déjà vu. It’s filling up with anguished claims that British schools are banning the teaching of Hebrew. As it happens, no such thing has occurred. The government has simply proposed that elementary schools be required to teach one of a list of seven officially recommended languages: French, Spanish, German, Italian, Mandarin, ancient Latin, or Greek. Hebrew is no more about to be banned than is Arabic or Russian. Jewish schools will still be able to teach Hebrew. It’s just that, if the move goes ahead, they’ll also have to teach French, Spanish, or one of the other approved seven languages.

The feeling of déjà vu arises because six years ago I received an email titled “In Memoriam.” It announced that British schools had banned the teaching of the Holocaust, lest Muslim pupils be offended. The email declared this to be “a frightening portent of the fear that is gripping the world and how easily each country is giving into it.” Spurred into action, the New York Post published a lament by Barry Rubin, denouncing “UK Schools’ Sickening Silence.”

Sickening it would indeed have been. Except not a word of the accusation was true. The teaching of the Holocaust was and remains compulsory in English schools. (Indeed, a long-running scheme in operation then and now ensures two seniors from every high school in the country visit Auschwitz on trips subsidized by the U.K. government.) The story was a fabrication, arising from a research study that had found—and criticized—a single teacher in a single English school who had avoided selecting the Shoah for specialist coursework because she suspected a resistance to the topic among some Muslim pupils. Government ministers condemned the action of that single teacher and reiterated that the subject was a mandatory part of the curriculum.

Forgive all the detail, but this is becoming a regular task for a British Jew: reassuring our American friends that, no, we are not living in a new dark age and, no, the lights are not going out all over Europe. We are getting used to the fact that U.S. Jews seem ready to believe the worst of this part of the world. In the two cases I’ve mentioned, many Americans were all too willing to accept that British Jews were about to become latter-day Marranos, driven underground by an anti-Semitic government and its jihadist allies, huddling together to teach their children about the Holocaust in Hebrew whispers.

He has a point. It is possible that the Muslim population of Europe does not have quite the numbers or power that we in America believe them to have, at least not yet. Still, it is hard to imagine that all of the reports of “Londonistan” or “Eurabia” are exaggerations. Freedland does allow that there is often harsh criticism of Israel throughout Europe, but that has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

Which brings us to another crucial distinction. Episodes that Americans see as evidence of growing European hostility to Jews are often understood by European Jews to be criticism of Israel—in fact, not even criticism of Israel itself, but rather of a specific strain of Israeli policy: what we might call the Greater Israel project of continuing and expanding settlement of the West Bank. When European governments either abstained or voted for the Palestinian upgrade to semi-statehood at the U.N. in November, plenty in Israel and the U.S. saw that as yet another example of age-old European hostility to the Jews. But very few Jews here saw it the same way. We understood it for what it was, an attempt by governments avowedly sympathetic to Israel’s right to security to revive the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their calculation might have been wrong, but it was not anti-Semitic. Yet one regular on the academic anti-Semitism studies circuit tells me that U.S. speakers repeatedly cite examples of anti-Israel discourse as if they were synonymous with instances of anti-Jewish racism. A scholar in his own right, he is infuriated that

his colleagues fail to make this critical distinction.

We can be certain anti-Semitism is not a factor since they hold Israel’s enemies to the same high standard as they do Israel. Oh wait…

More importantly, they fail to notice the intriguing paradox of European Jews’ current position—that there are dangers, but also great triumphs. Take Britain. Jews here can feel unease at the tenor of the national conversation on Israel—a newspaper cartoon here, a politician’s turn of phrase there—but they also enjoy a Jewish life that is in many ways richer than ever before. Limmud, the annual festival of Jewish learning that has gone global, began here, while Jewish Book Week has become London’s biggest literary festival. The Booker Prize for 2011 was won by a novel about Jews, The Finkler Question, written by a man who has chronicled the British-Jewish sensibility better than anyone, Howard Jacobson. British TV currently airs not one but two highly rated sitcoms depicting Jewish family life. Meanwhile, if the current polls hold till 2015, Britain’s next prime minister is set to be the first Jewish leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband—who repeatedly stresses the pride he takes in his Jewish roots. Not bad for a Jewish community that, according to the latest census, numbers just over 260,000, less than 0.5 percent of the British population.

 

This is why the Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Jewish racism, opens its report with an insistence that “British Jewry should be defined by its success and vibrancy rather than by anti-Semitism.” That is true of Britain but also beyond. Mark Gardner, director of communications for the CST, used to compare the European-Jewish situation to a glass that some will see as half full, others as half empty. Now he says, “There are two glasses, one half full, one half empty, and they stand side by side.” That sounds sufficiently nuanced to be correct. But don’t expect anyone to be putting that message in an email.

I am neither Jewish nor European, so I don’t really know whether Freedland, or those spreading scare stories tells a more accurate account. I do, however, have a strange feeling that an article like this could have been written in Weimar Germany.

Auschwitz concentration camp, arrival of Hunga...

It couldn’t happen again, could it? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 


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