Advice to the Sphinx: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

11/28/2012 01:03 pm ET | Updated Jan 28, 2013

Sheikh Murgan Salem al-Gohary recently called for the destruction of the Sphinx and Giza Pyramids in Egypt. In a television interview, he said, "Muslims are charged with applying the teachings of Islam, including the elimination of idols, as we did in Afghanistan when we destroyed the Buddha statues."

How seriously should the Sphinx take the sheik?

"God ordered Prophet Mohammed to destroy idols," he continued. "When I was with the Taliban we destroyed the statue of Buddha, something the government failed to do."

My advice to the Sphinx: be afraid, be very afraid.

While no one has been tempted by the Sphinx to worship the sun God Harmakhis for over two millennia, this is a legitimate threat. High-profile and more mainstream religious relics have been a target in the recent past. Salem al-Gohary, a jihadist with links to the Taliban, participated in the destruction of Afghanistan's priceless and irreplaceable Buddha statues. You can construct a new Buddha replacement statue but you can't construct an ancient Buddha. Misdirected religious fervor can destroy priceless relics just about anywhere.

So it's not surprising that an Egyptian sheik would find a convenient target in his own backyard. Given the size and status of the Sphinx and the Pyramids, they afford a convenient target.

And what more could an otherwise unknown imam do to call attention to himself than call for others to destroy Egypt's most important and irreplaceable cultural relics?

Islam has no Pope, no centralized religious authority, so just about anyone can assert himself as a religious authority; and many do. I can't speak for Islam, but, lacking a centralized authority, no one authoritatively can. But because no one can really speak for Islam, just about anyone can. So a reactionary like Salem al-Gohary can incite violence by a misguided appeal to Islamic tradition and there are enough dispossessed Muslims who are only too eager to comply.

One should be wary, though, of generalizing from the proclamation of a single extremist to all Egyptian Muslims. While there are surely jihadists in Egypt eager to topple both pyramids and vestiges of Western cultural imperialism, they are a small minority. Egyptian Muslim attitudes towards extremist groups are way down on the list of fundamentalist sympathizers in the Middle East. For example, only 20 percent of Egyptian Muslims have a favorable view of al-Qaeda. Here's a better way to put it: 80 percent of Egyptian Muslims hold a negative view of al-Qaeda.

Yet, once again, the crazed call of a single extremist will confirm Western prejudices of all Muslims. And should the sheik succeed, the prejudices will be all the more dramatically confirmed.

The Sphinx can sleep in peace tonight. President Morsi has increased security at the Sphinx and pyramids.

Their loss would constitute a huge cultural, economic and political setback. The cultural loss is obvious. But Egypt's economy is deeply dependent on tourist dollars. Take away the pyramids, add fear of fundamentalists, and Egyptian tourism will dry up.

Over 10 percent of Egypt's economy is due to tourism. Subtract tourism as from the economy and the consequences will be disastrous and not just for the pyramids. Egypt cannot afford, pun intended, the loss of tourism dollars.

While one might have thought the so-called Arab Spring simply a demand for freedom, it was equally a cry of the impoverished and dispossessed for jobs. We continually forget: It's the economy, stupid. And since revolutions are not job creators, the economy is still in turmoil. Growth has shrunk from 6 percent pre-revolution, to its current 1.8 percent. Ninety percent of Egypt's unemployed are between ages 15 and 24. Nearly 50 percent of Egyptians live in poverty (on less than $2 per day).

There are political consequences to the Sheik's incitement as well. Morsi, despite many vocal Western critics, has pursued the path of moderation and won't be deterred by fundamentalist Muslims who comprise a very small percentage of the Egyptian population. Now Morsi must concern himself with minority, pyramid-destroying elements in Egypt.

So Morsi needs power. His recent assertions of authority may simply be a reaction to threats to the revolution and to stability. Salem al-Gohary and his ilk surely constitute a threat both to stability and democratic rule.

Has Morsi thereby acquired too much power? His recent rulings seem to place him above judicial correction. Let us take hope in Morsi's brokerage of a ceasefire in Gaza. Let us hope that he is a man of peace and the people.

Egypt's path to democratic rule will be long, slow and painful. Opportunistic extremists will seize on youthful dissatisfaction to derail democracy and assert authoritarian and repressive rule. We must do all we can to protect both the Sphinx and Egypt's fragile democracy.