Blow Up the Pyramids? U.S. Pundits Fall for a Hoax
Let's hope an article in today's New York Times puts an end to a ludicrous rumor that has been floating around the Internet for weeks: That "radical Islamists" have called for the demolition of the Egyptian pyramids.
The myth wouldn't merit mention if it had only popped up on the fringes of the Internet. But those sounding the Islamist alarm included a Pulitzer Prize winner, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, all in positions to shape U.S. public opinion.
The Times article details the origins of the rumor in a tweet published June 24 by someone claiming to be a prominent Bahraini sheik, Abdellatif al-Mahmoud. The Egyptian magazine Rose el-Youssef picked up the rumor, and an array of right-wing blogs and news sites ran with it. The rumor gained new traction on Friday when syndicated columnists Joel Brinkley and Victor Davis Hanson weighed in.
Brinkley, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for international reporting, wrote:
Mohammad Morsi has been Egypt's president for less than a month, and already senior clerics in his country and around the Islamic world are loudly calling for the demolition of the pyramids, Egypt's most important tourist attraction and among the Seven Wonders of the World. None of this should be too surprising. Islamic extremists are now destroying 15th century tombs in Timbuktu, world heritage sites, because they are considered "idolatrous." And remember in 2001, when the Taliban fired heavy artillery at two huge Buddha statutes carved into a rock face about 1,700 years ago. Taliban leader Mullah Omar had issued an edict against un-Islamic graven images. Numerous other examples exist, contemporary and ancient.
Brinkley didn't believe Sheik Mahmoud's tweet was fake. "After the Bahraini sheikh's remarks went viral, he improbably denied making them," he wrote. Yet the description of the Twitter account in question, @amahmood2011, states in Arabic that it is an "official parody account."
In the Arabic media, there are reports that Muslim clerics -- energized by the sudden emergence of Egypt's new president, Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood -- are now agitating to demolish the Egyptian pyramids. According to agitated imams, the Pharaohs' monuments represent "symbols of paganism" from Egypt's pre-Islamic past and therefore must vanish. Don't dismiss such insanity so easily.
The problem with such commentary is the Muslim Brotherhood are hardly the Taliban.
After capturing Kabul in September 1996, the Taliban "launched a theatrical and bloody campaign to impose their vision of Islamic discipline on Kabul's residents," wrote scholars Robert Crews and Amin Tarzi in "The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan." "Traveling by Toyota trucks and wielding guns and whips made of radio antennas, the Taliban strung television sets as well as audio and videotapes, along with the bodies of their political opponents, on lampposts and trees in a spectacular assault on the modern world."
In sharp contrast, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s and has committed itself to civil politics. It has been providing social services across Egypt since the 1930s, often in the absence of state services. Brotherhood-run programs are available to all Egyptians, regardless of political or religious orientation. Under the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, Brotherhood members of Parliament pushed back against the emergency law that curbed freedom of assembly, dissent and political activity.
Since taking power, President Morsi has said he plans to appoint a woman and a Coptic Christian as his deputies. Morsi, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California, vowed repeatedly in his acceptance speech to be "a president for all Egyptians." Two of his five children are U.S. citizens.
Sound like the Taliban? Not quite.
Michael Rubin, the American Enterprise Institute scholar, was a bit more measured than Brinkley and Hanson in his analysis of the pyramid story, but was still troubled that the rumor gained traction in the Arabic media. "The calls to destroy the Pyramids are certainly fringe, and do not represent the vast majority of the Egyptian public or the Egyptian leadership, even amongst the Muslim Brotherhood," Rubin wrote in Commentary Magazine on July 11. "Still, that such a fringe and wacky idea gains any voice in Arabic media or on Islamist websites should be cause for concern, given precedent."
No, the real cause for concern here is that such nonsense was taken seriously by the Western news media.
(Joshua Falk, an intern at Bloomberg View, recently graduated from Stanford with a degree in Middle Eastern history. Follow him on Twitter @joshuasfalk.)
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