BEIRUT A statue of the blind Arab poet Abu al-Ala al-Maari, famed for his 11th-century critiques of Islam and other religions, has been decapitated and toppled from its plinth in his home town in northern Syria.
A picture of al-Maari's headless bust, rusting and abandoned in the town of Maarat al-Noman, circulated on social media on Tuesday, angering many Syrians who accused Islamist rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad of cultural vandalism.
A prolific philosopher, Maari was known for his skeptical writings on religious faith. "Inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains," he wrote.
Maarat al-Noman, where he died in 1058, had been at the centre of battles between government forces and the majority Sunni Muslim rebels seeking Assad's overthrow, who now control the town.
"Your barbarity will not destroy the philosophy of Maari - it lives and you go. Ideas do not die," said a banner pictured in Damascus and posted on Facebook.
An activist called Safi, who described himself as a moderate Muslim, also condemned the attack on Maari's statue. "The war against the regime does not give justification for anyone to destroy the cultural heritage of the country."
The 22-month-old uprising against Assad started as mainly peaceful protests but escalated into an armed insurgency with increasing sectarian dimensions. Mainly Sunni rebels battling the Alawite president have been joined by growing numbers of Islamist fighters.
In a recent sign of the growing Islamist influence, judges at a rebel-run prison in the northern city of Aleppo offered reductions of up to six months' jail terms to people convicted by opposition courts if they memorized sections of the Koran.
"Prison is a place of reform," the head of the city's judicial council said in a statement announcing the incentives.
(Reporting by Mariam Karouny and Dominic Evans; Editing by Will Waterman)