Saturday, December 27, 2008

Does Growing Islamism Bode Ill for Pre-Islamic Antquities in Islamic Lands?

The New York Times recently ran an interesting article about the Islamic youth movement in Jordan. For more, see:

In her book, "Loot," Sharon Waxman has already commented on the lack of connection that people even in moderate Islamic countries, like Turkey, feel towards pre-Islamic monuments. In particular, she pointed out that Turkey's magnificent cultural sites relating to its Greek and Roman history are mostly visited by foreign tourists. In contrast, Turks are far more likely to visit sites associated with Turkey's Ottoman past. Of course, foreign tourists can only support relatively few easily accessible monuments. In contrast, sites "off the beaten path" are likely to by ignored by tourists. In turn, this makes it much less likely that the authorities will take any active efforts to preserve them. Thus, it becomes more likely that such sites will not only suffer from neglect, but also looting or even outright destruction in the name of "progress."

To the extent secular Middle Eastern Governments are replaced by "Islamic" ones, one wonders about impact of such changes in government on the long term health of pre-Islamic monuments. Already, cultural heritage bureaucracies in many Middle Eastern countries are grossly underfunded. And, as Waxman also has pointed out, once an Islamic- leaning party took control in Turkey, the already abysmal level of funding for cultural sites was cut even further in favor of other priorities.

One thing should be increasingly clear. The old nationalist model of associating the state with the glories of a pre-Islamic past, complete with absolute governmental control over anything "old," does little to encourage the local populace to respect ancient artifacts. Indeed, as the wanton destruction of the Iraq Museum by a populace that associated it with the hated nationalistic Baathist regime has shown, this bankrupt, old model may actually encourage the active destruction or looting of ancient artifacts.

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