In the Arabic media, there are reports that Muslim clerics -- energized by the sudden emergence of Egypt's new president, Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood -- are now agitating to demolish the Egyptian pyramids. According to agitated imams, the Pharaohs' monuments represent "symbols of paganism" from Egypt's pre-Islamic past and therefore must vanish.
Don't dismiss such insanity so easily. Mali Islamists are currently destroying the centuries-old mausoleums of Sufi-Muslim saints in the city of Timbuktu, the historic site of early Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence. But perhaps the most recent regrettable Islamist attack on the past was the Taliban's 2001 dynamiting and shelling of the huge twin 6th-century A.D. statues of Buddha carved into a cliff at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. "We are destroying the statues," Taliban spokesmen at the time bragged, "in accordance with Islamic law, and it is purely a religious issue."
Ideologically driven and historically ignorant violence is not just an Islamist monopoly. Sometimes postmodern, politically correct Westerners can be every bit as zealous -- and as potentially destructive of the past -- as premodern Islamists. One of the joys of visiting California's Yosemite Valley is a series of historic arched bridges that span the Merced River on the valley floor. One, the 80-year-old Stoneman Bridge, is an architectural masterpiece and a tribute to Depression-era ingenuity and artistic elegance, while the sister Ahwahnee Bridge and the Sugar Pine Bridge were likewise designed to combine functionalism and beauty. All are used daily, appreciated by thousands of visitors each summer, and now are listed as endangered treasures by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Environmental zealots in the National Park Service are now proposing to demolish all three bridges, motivated by their pie-in-the-sky dreams of allowing the flood-prone Merced River to be freed to find its original course, without human contamination. To paraphrase the Taliban, these green fundamentalists would probably believe that the bridges are "symbols of humanism" and their destruction is "purely an environmental issue."