An Egyptian Islamist and jihadi leader with self-professed links to the Taliban has called for the “destruction of the Sphinx and the Giza Pyramids in Egypt,” Al Arabiya reported this week.
Murgan Salem al-Gohary — sentenced twice during the leadership of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for advocating violence — condemned the government for allowing the ancient monuments to remain.
“All Muslims are charged with applying the teachings of Islam to remove such idols, as we did in Afghanistan when we destroyed the Buddha statues,” al-Gohary said on Saturday during a television interview on an Egyptian private channel that is widely watched by Egyptian and Arab audiences.
“God ordered [the] prophet Muhammad to destroy idols,” Gohary added. “When I was with the Taliban, we destroyed the statue of Buddha — something the government failed to do.”
The vice president of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, Sheikh Abdel Fattah Moro, called the live program and challenged Gohary’s claims, according to Al Arabiya.
Moro noted that famous historic military commander Amr ibn al-Aas did not destroy statues when he conquered Egypt.
“So who are you to do it?” Moro asked. “The prophet destroyed the idols because people worshiped them, but the Sphinx and the Pyramids are not worshiped.”
“He was sentenced twice, one of the two sentences being life imprisonment. He subsequently fled Egypt to Afghanistan, where he was badly injured in the American invasion. In 2007, he traveled from Pakistan to Syria, which then handed him over to Egypt. After Mubarak’s fall in early 2011, he was released from prison by a judicial ruling,” the newspaper added.
In recent months, fears have surfaced that the Salafist jihadis and political parties will seek to implement new guidelines governing Egyptian antiquities.
Islamists have swept the recent presidential and parliamentary elections in the country’s post-revolutionary stage, with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Islamists rising to political power.
“The fundamental Salafis have demanded to cover Pharaonic statues, because they regard them to be idols,” Egyptian author on ancient history Ahmed Osman told Al Arabiya.
“But so far, the government has done nothing to indicate what is the future of Egyptian antiquities,” adds Osman.
“I don’t know whether this threat to Egypt’s cultural heritage — and the world’s — has wider support among Islamists in Egypt or not,” said Charles Lipson, Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
“Given the Taliban’s destruction of treasured Buddhist monuments in 2001, one has to take such threats seriously,” Lipson told The Daily Caller. “One important signal to watch for: Does Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi openly reject such calls from Islamic extremists?”
According to a source in the Interior Ministry, “The state is taking a Salafi sheikh’s calls to destroy the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx seriously, particularly as he took part in demolishing a Buddha statue in Afghanistan 10 years ago,” the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported on Monday.
“While high-profile and more mainstream religious relics have been the target in the recent past, it’s not surprising that an Egyptian leader might find a more convenient target in Egypt itself,” Clark told TheDC.
“Given the religious and cultic status of the Sphinx and the Pyramids, they make a convenient target. Of course, no one has been tempted by the Sphinx to worship the sun God Harmakhis for over two millennia.”
“A reactionary like Salem al-Gohary can incite violence by a facile appeal to Islamic tradition, and there are plenty of Sharia-following Muslims who are only too eager to comply,” Clark added.
When asked to predict President Morsi’s response to the apparent threat of archaeological terrorism, Clark said he expected Egypt to ramp up security around its monuments.
A loss of Egypt’s greatest historical monuments “would constitute a huge cultural, economic and political setback,” Clark said. “The cultural loss is obvious. But Egypt depends a lot on the tourist dollar. Take away the pyramids [and] add fear of fundamentalists, and tourists will avoid Egypt.”
President Morsi’s government has not announced an official response to the threat.
However, Clark predicted that Morsi will be “powerless to constrain the minority, subversive elements in Egypt. He has pursued the path of moderation and won’t be deterred by fundamentalist Muslims who comprise a very small percentage of the Egyptian population.”