Desecration, In The Name Of God
Walking through the rubble of Lebanon's once glorious national museum is now like entering a funeral vault.
ebanon's National Museum,
a vast neoclassical structure
built in the monumental,
fascistic style of the 1930s, had
the misfortune to be situated on
a hilltop that straddled a ma-
jor highway dividing East, or
Christian, Beirut from West, or
Muslim, Beirut. Before the war,
many neighborhoods had been
integrated, but militiamen de-
liberately had pushed each sect
into its own psychological and
geographic ghetto. Those who
resisted sectarian segregation
were killed or bombed into sub-
mission. Because of its strategic
location, the museum had closed
in 1975, just after the war erupt-
ed. But it had not been spared.
The repository of Lebanon's cul-
tural history had been fought
over by most militias. In April of
1994 the museum, like Beirut
itself, was a wreck.
Maurice Shehab, its dedicat-
ed curator, a Maronite descen-
dant of the family that had run
Mount Lebanon under Ottoman
rule for 250 years, had sensed
that the conflict would be long known only as a metaphor for
and bloody. So he had hidden fear.
many of the smaller, precious
A Mosaic Massacre
objects or sent them out of the
Ms. Asmar, who had worked
country. And he had encased
the statues, stelae (stone mon- at the museum throughout the
uments), and sarcophagi (stone war, escorted me through the
coffins) that were too heavy to burned and leaking building. Al-
move in huge blocks of cement. , most every window was gone; so
He had died without seeing the was much of the staircase lead-
restoration of his museum or his ing to the second floor. A giant
shell hole in the roof provided
In November 1993 the mu- the only illumination. Mr. She-
seum had opened for 10 days for hab's concrete blocks still stood
the first time in 18 years to raise like massive tombs in the de-
money for its reconstruction. serted halls; the museum itself
Lebanon's Prime Minister felt like a funeral vault.
I froze as we entered the hall
Hariri himself had given $1 mil-
lion to the campaign. Camille that had once featured the mu-
Asmar, the new director, said seum's breathtaking mosaics.
that some Lebanese had wept There was little that the imagi-
when they saw the devastated native Maurice Shehab could
building and its pathetic exhi- have done to protect them. But
bition of photographs of I still was not prepared for what
Lebanon before, during and af- I saw. In the lower left-hand cor-
ter the war. Some 20,000 ner of a fifth-century mosaic of
Lebanese, many of them chil- Christ as a shepherd tending a
dren who had never been to a flock of exotic animals was a
museum before, were taken on jagged sniper hole the size of a
tours of the place they had watermelon. One of the militi-
essary spiritual and legal stand- World Trade Center by brand-
ing to publish such edicts," he ing the targets "anti-Islamic" or
said in a display of Islamic mod- "traitors to Islam" and, hence,
esty, placing his ascendancy in legitimate targets of attack.
the mouths of unnamed others.
But, he added, such rulings A Political Evolution?
were "unnecessary" because
Sheikh Fadlallah appeared
Lebanese-Israeli contacts had to have read my mind. That he
been banned in fatwas ever had not issued such rulings, he
since the bloody Israeli-Shiite said, did not necessarily mean
confrontation in Nabatiye in that he disapproved of the at-
tacks. While he had condemned
Had he ever issued a fatwa the hijacking of airliners and
authorizing a suicide mission kidnapping of foreigners in
against Israel or a Western tar- Lebanon since the mid-1980s,
get in Lebanon? I asked. No, he he added, "any means of self-de-
had not, he said. Was the sheikh fense is acceptable in war." Any
also engaging in taqiyya? Many means? I asked. "Yes," he de-
Lebanese thought so. "He lies clared. Self-martyrdom, Sheikh
the way we breathe," Prime Fadlallah said, was "certainly
Minister Hariri had once said less abhorrent than the atomic
of his bitter rival.
bombs the United States
Western intelligence officials dropped on Japan or what it did
agreed with Mr. Hariri. Some to Iraqi soldiers during the Gulf
asserted that Sheikh Fadlallah War. You buried them alive in
had explicitly sanctioned early their bunkers."
kidnappings and the bombing
I was fascinated by the con-
of the U.S. Marine compound in trast between Sheikh Fadlal-
Lebanon. Others, however, lah's words and his tone. Had
likened Sheikh Fadlallah's role I not been following his words,
to that of Sheikh Omar Abdel the sheikh could have passed for
Rahman, the Egyptian cleric Santa Claus. A plump man with
who had obliquely blessed An- a bushy white beard, twinkling,
war Sadat's assassination and bright eyes, and a broad smile,
the 1993 attack on New York's Sheikh Fadlallah was usually
are forced to accept
the existence of Israel,
we do not
have to succumb
to such pressure."
– Sheik Fadlallah
amen who had slept, eaten, uri-
nated, and fought from here had
desecrated the holiest site, I
thought, in Beirut.
My eyes filled with tears — of
rage. Ms. Asmar looked away.
"The mosaic came from Jenah,
a suburb of Beirut," she said qui-
etly. "There was nothing quite
like it in all the Middle East."
Had the militiaman not un-
derstood? Was he so ignorant, so
frenzied, so filled with hate and
fear, that he had failed to notice
what he had destroyed? Couldn't
he have knocked his hole a foot
or two away from the mosaic?
And then I noticed the graf-
fiti in Arabic just above the mo-
sale: Bismillah al rahman al
rahim (In the Name of God the
Merciful), the Islamic inscription
began. So the young sniper had
known what he was doing, after
all. Jesus would mean nothing
to him. A mosaic from the
jahiliyya, the era before the
Prophet Muhammad, the pre-
seventh-century era of "igno-
rance," was probably worse than
nothing:The mosaic depicted a
man, and this was haram, for-
bidden by Islam. That the mo-
saic should be revered not for its
subject but for its beauty, rarity
and age would never have oc-
curred to him.
I asked Ms. Asmar about the
graffiti. `There is scribbling like
this all over the building, left by
all the sects," she said with a
sigh. "There are crosses and cres-
cents, Islamic and Phalangist
slogans. They even left us their
names and addresses. They
wanted to be remembered."
The fate of Lebanon's Na-
tional Museum was like that of
Lebanon, a country so divided
and atomized by its competing
religions and sects, so filled with
rage, envy, petty resentments
and ancient grievances that suc-
cessions of militiamen had
thought nothing about using the
shrine of their common heritage
as a killing field.
— Judith Miller
referred to as "moderate" by or media. Parliament represents
Western students of Islam. He an advanced propaganda podi- •
was said to be an impressive urn for the Islamists."
Moreover, he noted, being in
scholar — a poet, essayist and
stirring orator. He was the au- Parliament enabled the Party
thor of many books; few of them of God to persuade others "to
had been translated from Ara- support some of what you want.
bic, but they were hotly debat- In this way, you can pass a law
for Islam here and secure a po-
ed among Arabs.
Many analysts believed that sition for Islam there."
Thus, Lebanon would not be
Hezbollah's evolution into a po-
litical player, albeit an exotic "Islamized"; Hezbollah would
one, meant that the group even- be "Lebanized."
tually would moderate its
rhetoric, actions and goals to
ebanon had never been an
protect conventional interests:
society: it had
parliamentary seats, con-
always made up in energy
what it lacked in depth. Be-
jobs and benefits. Hezbollah
cause it contained so
had tasted power and liked it.
In the fall of 1993, a Hezbollah many different sects and ide-
parliamentary delegation had ologies, Lebanon had always en-
gone to Brazil — the first such couraged superficiality. People
overseas visit — and been roy- with so many differences who
ally received. Even Sheikh Fad- sought harmony and democra-
lallah admitted the advantages cy could not afford to look at
of political respectability. "When themselves or their society
you are a parliamentary deputy, deeply.
This "cultural amnesia" was a
the newspapers and media re-
port your words," Sheikh Fad- theme that Elias Khoury, a
lallah had said. "Just try, if you • Lebanese writer, repeatedly had
don't have a seat in the politi- revisited in his essays and plays.
cal club, even if you're well- Before leaving Lebanon, I went
known, and you won't even get to see him. His new play about
a little corner in the newspaper the disappearance of some 20,000