The burning of the Institute d’Egypte, and what it means

The 200 year old Institute d’Egypte, housing 200,000 volumes, was destroyed by a fire-wielding Cairo mob on December 17. The feckless Daniel Pipes, who last winter and spring supported the “pro-democracy” overthrow of the Mubarak regime on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays (he dismissed the prospects for Muslim democracy on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and on Sundays he wasn’t sure), is unhappy about the destruction of the library, where he hung out when he was imbibing his romantic love of Islam back in the ’70s. Of course he does not derive any lessons from the event, except to note that it fits a pattern of destructiveness of non-Muslim cultural artifacts that has extended throughout Muslim history. But from this pattern of destruction he derives no lesson. Remember, Pipes wrote just five year ago that the way to end Islamic radicalism was for Islam to regain its historic power and confidence, so that (in the words of Wilfred Smith which Pipes approvingly quoted) “Islamic society may once again flourish as a divinely guided society should and must.” Sounds like an endorsement of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Leaving aside the terminally confused Pipes (and I remain the only writer in the world who has pointed out his massive contradictions, no one else seems to care), let us turn to columnist Michael Walsh. Writing in today’s New York Post, Walsh repeats and expands on Pipes’s point about Islam’s destructiveness toward the cultures of the countries it dominates, and he does derive a lesson: that militant Islam’s “cultural jihad against the West will advance until we stop it,” that “in addition to the mortal threat militant Islam poses to the Western political system, it poses an even greater danger to our cultural history and that of non-Western cultures,” and that “Only a clear and unmistakable declaration by civilized nations—backed up with force, if necessary—can stem the tide of destructiveness.”

A declaration of what , backed by force directed to what end? Walsh does not say. He could have said that we must stop and reverse Muslim immigration into the West, so as to stop and reverse the growth of Muslim numbers and power in the West, but he does not say that, or remotely hint at that. Evidently he would sooner have us invade and make war on Muslim countries than peacefully prevent Muslims from coming here. But wait—isn’t making war on Muslim countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya), plus using our influence to topple the ruling regimes of Muslim countries (Egypt) in the name of democracy the very thing we’ve already been doing, the very thing that has helped liberate and empower the militant Islam that Walsh fears? Walsh is still intellectually asleep. Let me know when he shows a sign of consciousness.

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Paul T. writes:

I’m no happier than most people about the burning of a 200-year-old library, but Walsh’s proposed response, apart from being inadequate in the ways you pointed out, also seems to overlook the fact that if the Egyptian mobs want to burn down every library in their country, it’s not really our problem. (Rather hard on the Copts, whom I imagine were statistically disproportionate users of the library, but they should be probably be thinking about getting out of the country as soon as possible in any case, if they’ve somewhere better to go). Am I missing something?

The harder case is the one involving those ancient statues that the Taliban destroyed—I suppose this too was an internal Afghani matter, but it seems worse, since the statues were unique (probably not the case with most items in the Institute d’Egypte) and could be said to ‘belong to the whole world’ in some sense—though of course I’d still be against sending in the troops to prevent another country from pulverizing its own ancient heritage.

Which brings to mind a third (fortunately still hypothetical) case—what if the Egyptian mobs next turn on the Cairo Museum with the intention of destroying all artifacts of the country’s pre-Islamic period? That would truly be a horrific cultural loss, but I’m still thinking we’d be wrong to intervene to prevent it. Though if some far-seeing colonial administrator of long ago had anticipated that the country would one day be under Islamic control, and for that reason had removed every moveable artifact of the Pharoahs to the West, that would in retrospect have been best.

LA replies:

What if an Islamic Egyptian regime set about destroying, or rather defacing (since outright destruction would be impossible) the ancient Egyptian monuments? Ancient Egypt is a heritage belonging to the entire world. I think we would have to take some action to stop that.

Ken Hechtman writes:

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a Pakistani Talib ten years ago. He wanted to know why “you people” (meaning Westerners) cared so much about the Bamiyan Buddhas. I answered that we don’t really, not that much, but we care a whole lot about the Pyramids and the Sphinx and Abu Simbel and our reaction to the destruction of the Buddhas was taken with Egypt very much in mind. If anyone in Egypt was thinking about destroying those sites, we’d want them to know now how personally we’d take it. Every grade school in the West teaches that ancient Egypt is the beginning of “our” history. We all learn the progression—Egypt, Greece, Rome, Medieval Europe, England, America … So even if Egyptian Muslims don’t want to acknowledge the Pyramids as their heritage and the people who built them as their ancestors, we do. Too few Egyptian Muslims understand that. They know that the Pyramids are a major tourist attraction. They don’t really know why.

Here’s the thing Westerners don’t know: it really gets under Egyptian Muslims’ skin how much the whole world cares about ancient pagan Egypt and how little it cares about modern Muslim Egypt.

This column is typical of that attitude.

He [The Emir of Sharjah] has promised to contribute to the restoration of the Institut d’Egypt building, together with providing it with rare manuscripts and other original versions of the books recording Egypt’s heritage, including the monumental Description de l’Egypte. However, who could calm the nation for the great loss of our young people we continue to suffer? Those who are weeping at the loss of our rare books should know that the actual heritage and indispensable wealth of Egypt is her young people.

The great January revolution was intended to end our dependence on our ancient heritage and enhance our hopes for Egypt’s future and development.

Thus, the military council and all those that continue to charge the revolutionaries with this crime, should know that Egypt does not want her heritage to be protected at the cost of the lives of her sons and daughters.

Paul T. writes:

You wrote: “What if an Islamic Egyptian regime set about destroying, or rather defacing (since outright destruction would be impossible) the ancient Egyptian monuments? Ancient Egypt is a heritage belonging to the entire world. I think we would have to take some action to stop that.”

I’m not unsympathetic to that, but it all seems very complicated. If we’d intervene to stop the destruction of the Pyramids, why not intervene to stop the destruction of King Tut’s treasures and suchlike in the Cairo Museum? Then again, could you really sell a war to the people on behalf of a collection of antiques? (Not denying their great significance as part of our cultural history, but still…. ). Also, while the Pyramids are, in a sense, a “heritage belonging to the entire world,” it seems equally true to say that, like it or not, they’re under the jurisdiction of the sovereign Egyptian government of the day. If the Egyptians try to blow up Westminster Abbey, that’s one thing, but the Pyramids really are their property. If we’re to have as little as possible to do with the Muslim world, if that’s to be our guiding principle, then we might have to accept Islamic icon-breaking within their own territory. If the British decided to level Westminster Abbey—that standing rebuke to progressivism/atheism/modernity—would another country be justified in taking military action to prevent it?

By the by, I was going to mention the wonderful portrait bust of Queen Nefertiti, but it turns out it’s not in Cairo but in Berlin. Thank God for that, at least. Wikipedia notes that the bust has “been the subject of an intense argument between Egypt and Germany over the Egyptian demands for its repatriation.” Gee, should have thought about that before torching the Institute d’Egypte, boys! Fat chance you’ll be getting it back now. :)

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 29, 2011 09:02 AM | Send

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