“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” This, as you may recall, was the slogan of the totalitarian state imagined by George Orwell in 1984, his classic novel.
Today, various groups of Islamists — which we can define as those committed to Islamic supremacism — are operationalizing this concept, attempting to alter the historical record in support of their totalitarian ambitions.
Six months before the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of Afghanistan’s ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan. Why? Because those monumental statues were reminders of a time when the country was not Islamic.
In 2012, Ansar Dine, a jihadi group affiliated with al Qaeda, destroyed ancient shrines, tombs and mosques in Timbuktu. Why? Because they represented a version of Islam marinated in African culture — and were therefore seen as heretical.
Most infamously, the Islamic State has been demolishing the religious and historical heritage of Syria and Iraq, turning into rubble such sites as a temple in Palmyra dedicated to the Canaanite god Baal, Christian churches in Nineveh and shrines built by Muslims whose interpretation of scripture differs from that of the would-be caliphate builders.
UNESCO, a United Nations agency whose ostensible mission is to advance world culture, has been taking a less kinetic — but perhaps no less effective — approach to this war on history. The intention is to establish that Jerusalem’s holiest sites belong to Muslims and that Jews and Christians have no valid religious or historical claims in that ancient city — never had, never will.
A resolution to this effect, backed by seven Muslim-majority nations on behalf of Palestinian leaders, was passed by UNESCO members last month. Only the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Estonia voted against it. Twenty-six countries chose to abstain — as if they didn’t know the truth or as if the truth were a matter of no consequence.
Some prominent individuals have been speaking out. Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s own director-general, said that the vote violated the organization’s responsibility to “bridge the divisions that harm the multifaith character” of Jerusalem.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that “the shared heritage of the three monotheistic religions of the holy sites should not be put into question.”
More than three-dozen members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, deplored the resolution. “World bodies do not have the right to rewrite history,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings, Florida Democrat. Rep. Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, called the resolution “a dangerous effort to erase history.” Rep. Ted Lieu, California Democrat, labeled it “rabidly anti-Semitic and anti-Christian.” Rep. Peter Roskam, Illinois Republican, recognized it as a “drastic violation of international religious freedom.”
Last month, Palestinian Authority officials also announced the “Balfour Apology Campaign,” a separate but related attempt at historical manipulation. To jog your memory: The Balfour Declaration was a letter written 99 years ago this month by British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour recognizing the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in part of their ancient homeland.
It was adopted by the League of Nations, the international community of that era. The Palestinian Authority and its allies are now charging that the Balfour Declaration was “a crime” — and demanding an apology.
In truth, the Balfour Declaration expressed progressive views. For centuries, most of the Middle East had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire. But the Turkish Sultan, Mehmed VI, made the mistake of allying with the Germans in World War I. Not long after the conclusion of that conflict, his once-powerful empire would be dismantled by the victorious British and the French.
They were hardly saints but they were prepared to grant autonomy to peoples who had long been Ottoman subjects. The Balfour Declaration also spoke of the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Three years later, the League of Nations gave Britain a mandate to govern Palestine. The eastern three-fourths of that territory became what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Other new Arab nations on territories formerly under the Ottoman yoke include Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
In 1947, the U.N. proposed the founding of two states in western Palestine — one Arab and one Jewish. Palestinian Jewish leaders accepted this “two-state solution.” Palestinian Arab leaders (they had not yet appropriated the name “Palestinian” as theirs and theirs alone) rejected it. The following year, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq attacked the fledgling Jewish state.
The conflict ended not with a peace agreement and borders but only a truce and armistice lines — lines that held from 1949 until 1967 when Israel fought another defensive war against its neighbors, one that ended with Israel taking Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, from Jordan.
This should not be forgotten: During the years of Jordanian occupation, Jews were banned from Jerusalem’s Old City and prohibited from praying at the Western Wall. Numerous Jewish religious sites in Jerusalem were desecrated or destroyed.
And now a U.N. agency is endorsing a falsified version of that city’s past while the Palestinian Authority portrays the Balfour Declaration — a statement in support of a diverse Middle East — as a criminal act.
It doesn’t end there: The Palestinians are now also reportedly considering asking UNESCO to demand that the Israelis turn over to them the Dead Sea Scrolls, nearly 1,000 religious texts, most in Hebrew and Aramaic, dating back to the time of the Second Temple.
One is tempted to say “you can’t make this stuff up.” But, of course, you can. Orwell did. The question is whether we’ve learned anything since.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.