If genocide is a term to use for an attempt to destroy an entire population and ethnocide to get rid of an indigenous culture, what term shall we use to describe the current spate of mosque and shrine destruction in the Middle East?
Given the targeting of mosques and shrines in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, I propose “mosquecide” as a current addition to the spiritual suicide now inflicting many Muslims. In the Middle East right now this is not an uncivilized clash-of-civilization act nor an Islamophobic attack, but rather the bitter result of an inflamed sectarian assault that has turned the entire region into a political and humanitarian nightmare. Let’s be clear from the start: the ideological mantra that there is only one correct religious view and this justifies killing and destruction of those who do not agree is one of the most damnable doctrines in human history. This mischievous and deliberately political making of a sectarian enemy, which can be documented back to the age of the Pharaohs and Akkadian overlords, is inhumane to the core. Nor need it be fundamental to any of the major religious faiths that evolved over the centuries.
The list of mosques targeted in recent years includes the 2006 al-Qaeda bombing of the famous al-Askari mosque of Samarra, built over a millennium ago and housing the remains of the 10th and 11th Shi’a imams. Within days thousands of people were killed and it is reported that 168 Sunni mosques in Iraq were attacked. Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque was badly damaged, as was much of historic Aleppo, in 2013 with the heavy fighting between forces rebelling against the regime and Asad’s troops. ISIS has continued this monumental mayhem by destroying Shi’a mosques and shrines in areas they have captured in northern Iraq and Syria. There are times when mosques have been targeted when worshippers were gathered to pray.
In the current nightmare of Decisive Storm a number of historic mosques in Yemen have been targeted and destroyed by both the Saudi bombing campaign and the AQAP/Ansar Shariah/ISIS hell that has been unleashed in Yemen’s south. In May the historic Zaydi mosque of al-Hadi, the first Zaydi imam in Yemen, was laid waste by Saudi planes because it was said to harbor Huthis. An ISIS suicide attack on a Friday in May on two Shi’a mosques in Sanaa killed over 100 people and injured many others. In August, after the takeover of Aden by anti-Huthi sources, the 700 year old mosque of Shaykh Umar ibn Ali al-Saqqaf was demolished by AQAP because it was identified as Sufi. Nor is it only during war and civil strife that historic religious monuments are destroyed, as has been the case of the Wahhabi replacing of sacred sites in Mecca and Medina with boutique shopping malls and elite hotels. The list could go on and will go on.
Deadly rivalry within the religion is nothing new in the history of Islam. It is telling that the first imam and fourth rightly-guided caliph ‘Ali, also the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, was assassinated with a poison-laced sword during the morning prayer in a mosque in Kufa. ‘Ali is also said to be the first male convert to Islam, but it is his death that triggered the long-standing bitterness and sectarian rivalry that was further expanded with the murder of his son Husayn in Kerbala. The subsequent sad story of infighting among Muslims is not limited to the Sunni/Shi’a binary plaguing Muslims today. Like any religion there have been many views that others have considered heretical, invariably laced with political motivation. Christianity has faced this internal hate-mongering as well, despite the pacifism of Jesus and the mantra that God is love.
Blowing up a mosque or a church or a synagogue has both a material and symbolic intent. The material loss is tragic, but it is only a building and a new building can be built, as has happened throughout history. Such a material loss is an obvious message of hate that supposedly is meant to wipe out the faith that was carried out in the building. But here is where the symbolic level intervenes; demolishing a mosque no more destroys the faith of a set of believers than burning a book denies the meaning of that which is written in it. It is not the same as killing a person, where the death of the physical body also kills the mind. Ideas and beliefs can survive all material destruction; they will pass on only if new and better ideas come along to replace them. The Islamic heritage, like Christianity, Judaism and other thriving religious faiths, has much of value to preserve and build on. But those iconoclasts who would attempt to destroy rather than to build are destined to fail, no matter how much wealth they have to carry out their damage. Mosquecide, like genocide and ethnocide, is an evil the world can do without, but it is doomed to failure.