Brinkley: In Egypt, Mohammed Morsi's silence speaks volumes
[Editor's note: Since this column was written, The New York Times and others have raised questions about whether there are any plans to destroy the pyramids. Joel Brinkley responds on Newsday's blog.]
Mohammed 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.
Saudi Sheik Ali bin Said al-Rabi'i called them heinous "symbols of paganism." In recent days, similar calls have been echoing through Egypt and the region, including one from a Bahraini sheik who urged Morsi to "destroy the pyramids and accomplish what the Amr bin al-As could not." He was referring to the Prophet Muhammad's companion who conquered Egypt in the seventh century but didn't have the technological wherewithal to accomplish the task.
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.
What's surprising is that Morsi has had nothing to say about this, not a word. Neither has he said anything about numerous "freelance" efforts to enforce other elements of Shariah law across Egypt, even though his new government hasn't said that's his plan.
Well, his extremist allies are already trying to enforce an ancient Koranic commandment that directs Islamists to collect a tax called the jizya from Coptic Christians and other "non-believers." Ahmed Imran, who was a Salafist-party candidate for office, recently declared that "Copts are obligated to pay the jizya." And as Raymond Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American author and columnist of Coptic ancestry, recently wrote: "Increasing numbers of attacks on Christians in Egypt revolve around extorting jizya."
The Koran (9/29) declares: "Fight those who do not believe in Allah" until "they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled." Once again, Morsi has said nothing about this.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Morsi on Saturday but didn't talk about these problems. The State Department sees the unresolved power struggle between Morsi and the Egyptian military as the most important issue right now.
Not surprisingly, Clinton did manage to mention the importance of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. But I wonder if she knew that a few days earlier Mohammed Badi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi's own political party, loudly proclaimed during his weekly sermon that it's the duty of "every Muslim to strive to save Jerusalem from the hands of the rapists and to cleanse Palestine from the clutches of the occupation."
Once again, Morsi had nothing to say.
In Afghanistan this month, a woman accused of adultery crouched in the dirt as a friend handed her husband an AK-47 assault rifle. He shot her multiple times, continuing to fire even after she collapsed, dead, as about 150 men stood on a nearby hillside, applauding. He then posted a video of the repulsive event for the world to see. The Afghan government did nothing.
What does this have to do with Egypt? In Afghanistan, Pakistan and some other states, extremists like the man who shot his wife are free to carry out "justice" as they see fit because the government looks aside. That seems to be the way Egypt is heading, too.
Already, the Washington Post reported, Islamic extremists who have fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan are setting up militant training camps in the Sinai, obviously up to no good, while the government does nothing.
As Ibrahim told me, "People are beginning to connect the dots. Morsi just became president, and we're already seeing changes."
Speaking at Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, Morsi said: "The second Muslim conqueror of Egypt will be Mohammed Morsi," the online newspaper El Bashayer reported. "And history will record it." Morsi has not refuted that report.
So, will extremists actually blow up the pyramids? After the Bahraini sheik's remarks went viral, he improbably denied making them. But Egyptian media reports say Salafist party officials want Egypt's new constitution to demand "the demolition of the Pyramids of Giza as they represent a symbol of unbelief." Already, Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, the Salafist-party spokesman, is advocating at least covering them with wax so all anyone will see "is a big blob," as Ibrahim put it.
But under the hot desert sun, the wax would melt in no time, possibly bringing calls for more extreme measures. If and when that happens, will Morsi, once again, simply look away?
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.