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Hillary Clinton with Saudi Prince Saud Al-Faisal at the Riyadh airport in 2010. (AP)

The West Rightly Condemns Isis Vandalism of Ancient Sites – But Not When the Saudis Do It

Saudi Arabia's grotesque destruction of Muslim history is directly linked to Isis’s own purgation of the past

Robert Fisk

 by The Independent

Explosives pulverize historic sites in the Middle East, bulldozers erase ancient tombs and shrines, historic forts are torn down and Ottoman facades destroyed. The home of the favourite wife of the most revered man in an entire religion is even turned into a block of toilets. How can the world prevent this wicked desecration and extinction of a heritage that belongs to all mankind? I am, of course, referring to those iconoclastic Wahhabi-Salafist Muslim head-choppers … the Saudis!

And the world will do absolutely nothing. It will screech and rage and curse as the iconoclastic Wahhabi-Salafist Muslim head-choppers of Isis blow to bits the Roman ruins of Palmyra, but will never dare – and has never dreamed – of uttering a pussy-cat’s protest against Saudi Arabia’s willful destruction of the ancient graves, homes, shrines and buildings of Islam’s Prophet Mohamed and his closest relatives and companions. Naturally, we could conclude that Roman remains are more valuable than the antiquities of Islam. But this would be about as racist a reaction as suggesting that the Roman empire was more important than the Islamic empire.

No, the real reason we ignore the vandalizing of so many Muslim sites is that we cannot – will not, must not – criticize the Saudis whose grotesque wealth silences all of us to such obscene lengths that our Prime Minister flies our flags at half mast when its autocratic ruler dies. No suggestion must be made – not even the softest whisper must be uttered – that might connect our Saudi friends with the apocalyptic cult called Isis, which follows with absolutist determination the Wahhabi Sunni faith adopted 270 years ago by the ancestors of the present Saudi monarchy.

In the past few days, we have rightly bewailed the pulverization of the magnificent Arch of Triumph at Palmyra, 1,800 years old – probably erected to commemorate the Emperor Aurelius’s victory over Queen Zenobia who was later dragged, Isis-style, through the streets of Rome – and the loss of the entrance to the magnificent and roofless Roman colonnade which, we must all fear, will also be leveled by the time the Syrian army, with its Russian air cover, recaptures the city. The reduction of Palmyra to rubble is a war crime, according to the UN. But when the country with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Isis supporters – and donors – wipes out the Islamic history of Arabia, including 90 per cent of Mecca’s millennium-old sites, we pay as much attention to this mass vandalism as we do to the damage of a nativity window in a Co Kerry church.

Take a glance at what has come to pass in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A library has been built over the dwelling where the Prophet Mohamed was born in Mecca in AD570 – even this may now be replaced by skyscrapers – and the fine Bilal mosque, dating from this same period, has been bulldozed. Mohamed’s first wife, Khadijah, lived in a Mecca house which has been turned into toilets. The Mecca Hilton Hotel was erected over the house of Abu Bakr, Mohamed’s father-in-law, his closest companion and future Caliph. Hundreds of old Ottoman houses have been destroyed in Saudi Arabia and Ottoman architecture around the Great Mosque is being torn down for pilgrimage “expansion” projects. Five of the famous “Seven Mosques”, built by Mohamed’s daughter and four companions, were demolished 90 years ago. And, after the Lebanese (Christian) Professor Kamal Salibi published a book in 1985 suggesting that many Saudi villages bore biblical Jewish place names, the bulldozers arrived to erase them.

This grotesque destruction of Muslim history is directly linked to Isis’s own purgation of the past by the Wahhabi faith, which the Saudis adopted from the teachings of the 18th-century Mohamed ibn Abdul Wahhab – who preached that Islam should return to the purity of its earliest principles. From these ideas came the notion that almost any historical monument represents an excuse for idolatry, a precept adopted with ferocious enthusiasm by the Saudi tribes. When Abdul Aziz ibn Saud moved into Mecca in the 1920s, his first actions included the destruction of the graveyard in which Khadijah was buried, along with the tomb of one of the Prophet’s uncles. The same fate awaited the tombs of Mohamed’s daughter Fatima and his grandson Hasan ibn Ali.

Thus began the vandalism of graveyards, tombs, shrines and historic buildings across south-west Asia: from Shia shrines in Pakistan to the magnificent Buddhas of Bamiyan to the ancient libraries of Timbuktu; from the antiquities of Mecca to the churches of Mosul and the Roman ruins of Palmyra. Even beautiful – though war-damaged – Bosnian mosques hundreds of years old have been torn down in favor of the Saudi-funded concrete monstrosities that are now appearing in the Balkans. This hatred of history is part and parcel of the retrograde Wahhabi belief in which the past has only a spiritual presence, its physical remains a reminder only of imperfection.

It’s not that Saudi Arabia’s self-destruction of history is unknown – The Independent was one of the first Western newspapers to give it publicity in pre-Isis days. Nor, may the saints preserve us from such folly and the kingdom’s lawyers, must we ever suggest that the Saudi regime supports Isis. But if we are to understand just what Isis is – and what it represents and who admires it – then we must study much more carefully the frightening religious habits that connect Isis, the Taliban and al-Qaeda to the people of a country whose king calls himself the “Caretaker of the Two Noble Sanctuaries” of Mecca and Medina.


© 2016 The Independent
Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk (1946-2020) was a writer and journalist who held British and Irish citizenship and was Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper.  He was the author of many books on the region, including "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East" (2007) and "Robert Fisk on Afghanistan: Osama Bin Laden: 9/11 to Death in Pakistan" (2016).

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