A mosque with a cross on top

December 06, 2003 12:00 AM

A truce reached between the Crusaders and the prince of Aleppo, in the late eleventh-early twelfth century, forced the Muslim prince to raise a huge cross over his city’s grand mosque.

The prince of Aleppo must have argued that erecting the cross over the mosque was the most prudent thing to do, given the fact that he did not have any resources with which to fend off the invaders and that it was not at all wise to expect any help from the neighboring Muslim princedoms drowning in their own conspiracies and intrigues.

After all, a mosque with a cross on top was different from, and better than, a mosque turned into a church. Those two perpendicular pieces of wood on top of the minaret, the prince must have thought, would save the lives of many men, women and children in his city. For if he had not reached the truce, warriors of the cross would have raged in the streets of Aleppo killing men and raping women. Putting a cross over the mosque then saved the city’s life and most importantly, its honor! Of course, it was not long before callers were roaming the streets of Aleppo declaring that the prince was murdered, he had been torn to pieces by one of his servants.

Since the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada and especially after Sept. 11, 2001, the US administration stepped up pressure on many Arab and Muslim states including Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to change their school text books. The US wanted to make sure that all Koranic verses hostile to the Jews be omitted from school curricula.

Not only that, American advisors wanted any historical event that could cause Arab students to dislike Israel omitted or told differently. Instead of a whole chapter in high school history text books on the Palestinian question focusing on the rights of Arabs and the Palestinian people, the whole issue should be reduced to one or two pages. Either that or the texts should focus, almost exclusively, on the peace process. One history text book for the first year at high school in Egypt, for example, has a whole chapter on the Palestinian question. Almost the whole chapter is about the various treaties, protocols and addenda signed by the Palestinians and the Israelis from 1993 to 2000 yet nothing is mentioned in the whole book about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, or the 15 years civil war therein. The Israeli attacks on Iraq, Tunisia, and Syria are also absent.

Nevertheless, contrary to what US planners might expect, anti-Israeli feelings might now be higher in Egypt. Access to satellite TV and the internet, among those who can afford them, as well as simple family education at home for those who cannot, quickly substitute for the lack of information in high school text books. To change that, the US will have to appoint a policeman in every Egyptian house.

The issue becomes even more sensitive when it comes to religious education. Since the beginning of the war on terror the US administration has been exerting enormous pressures on the Pakistani government to close down or re-organize the religious education institutions usually known as madrasahs. Other than being a religious school, the madrasah is the institution through which the social historical consciousness is transferred from one generation to another independently from political changes that affect the policies of the ministries of education.

Cracking down or redefining the madrasah is an attempt to redefine the Pakistani society and culture. Far from achieving that goal, abolishing these institutions will simply shift the process to the people’s homes. The experience of shutting them down would add to the collective historical experience of the Pakistanis, and the aggressive attack on their culture at school would result in that culture being more assertive and aggressive at home.

In Saudi Arabia, the problem takes catastrophic dimensions; the state of Saudi Arabia always legitimized itself in terms of Wahhabism. Mohammed Ibn Abdel al-Wahhab, the late eighteenth century scholar, argued that the reason behind the weakness of the Islamic world lay in the many popular practices that clustered around the origin of pure Sunni Islam during the three centuries since the end of the Crusades and the first fall of Baghdad.

He argued that the return to pure understanding of the faith, ridding it from superstitious beliefs and amoral licenses, would guarantee the welfare of the whole umma (community of Muslims). As any Islamic thinker, his ideology was based on an interpretation of the religious text. Since the text was common to all Muslims, so should the interpretation be common to all Muslims. Thus Wahhabi Saudi Arabia is legitimized by some claim to be a stronghold of Islam and, one way or another, responsible for propagating the true interpretation of the holy texts to all Muslims. In fact this argument of being the guardian of true Islam has been the backbone of Saudi legitimizing discourse

Changing how Saudis understand their religion, then, might have fatal repercussions on the system’s legitimacy. The Saudi state has been basing its legitimacy on its understanding of Islam, when it allows that understanding to be altered by the dictations of a non-Muslim power, it is risking too much, already. When that non-Muslim power is the US, ally of Israel and occupier of Iraq, The Saudi state is risking everything.

Such US dictations amount to actual occupation of the countries concerned. For independence is not the mere preservation of a society’s physical existence; nations under occupation survive, and sometimes even relatively prosper; before the intifada the GDP per-capita in the occupied West Bank was higher than that of independent Egypt. However independence is the preservation of the abstract identity of the society. When the prince of Aleppo allowed the enemy to construct the cross over the grand mosque, he was committing political suicide. It is true that he was protecting the city from occupation, yet this kind of protection is worse than occupation itself.

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