Wednesday, 15 March 2017

QK Archives: Smashing statues, erasing history

Saturday, March 03, 2001 published by The Nation Pakistan

Smashing statues, erasing history
Husain Haqqani
Afghanistan's Taliban regime is facing international condemnation once again, this time for its decision to smash all statues in the country. Afghanistan was once part of the ancient Kushan empire. It is the site of historic Buddhist remains, some of which are two thousand years old. In fact, the world's tallest Buddha image is located in Afghanistan. Two soaring statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan were hewn from 125 and 174 feet high solid cliffs, most probably by bare hands and primitive construction tools. These statues are fascinating remains of a civilisation devoted to the Buddha and are no longer the object of anyone's worship. To almost everyone else in the world, except the Taliban, these statues represent history.
The Taliban, however, see the destruction of statues as enforcement of the Islamic injunction against idols or human likenesses of divinity. Indiscriminate as they are in imposing their beliefs, the Taliban seem unable to make the distinction between "Aasaar" (historic remains) and "Asnaam" (idols to which unbelievers pray), even though such a distinction can be clearly found in the Holy Quran. They have refused to respect the historic, cultural or archaeological significance of statues from Afghnaistan's pre-Islamic past.
Reuters reported Taliban Information and Culture Minister Mullah Qudratullah Jamal as saying, "All statues will be destroyed." He also said, "Whatever means of destruction are needed to demolish the statues will be used.'' The official Bakhtar news agency quoted Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil as telling U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan Francesc Vendrell, "The abandoned relics are not our pride. Destroying them would not mean that the freedom of the minorities would cease.'' Vendrell had arrived in Kabul with an appeal from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to save the historic statues. The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news service quoted Jamal as saying statues had been destroyed at museums in Kabul, the southern city of Ghazni, the western city of Herat and at Farm Hadda near the main eastern town of Jalalabad.
Russia, Germany, India and Pakistan have condemned the destruction and appealed to the Taliban to think again. Buddhist countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka also have expressed alarm at the Taliban's focus on eradicating reminders of the centuries before Islam when Afghanistan was a centre of Buddhist learning and pilgrimage. But the Taliban are unlikely to be moved by international concerns about protecting humanity's historic and cultural heritage. What might appeal to them is an Islamic argument against erasing remains of past civilisations.
Egyptian Muslim intellectual Fahmi Howeidy has pointed out that the Taliban edict runs contrary to Islam. "Islam respects other cultures even if they include rituals that are against Islamic law,'' he says. I will go one step further than Howeidy. Relics of the past are mentioned in the Quran distinctly, with the injunction that lessons be learnt from them. In Sura Aal-e-Imran (translated as 'The family of Imran' by Marmaduke Pickthall), ayat 137 reads : "Systems have passed away before you. Do but travel in the land and see the nature of the consequence for those who did deny (the messengers)" (Quran 3: 137). How would believers be able to travel to the land of Afghanistan and see the consequence of disbelief of an earlier civilisation if the Taliban erase all signs of that civilisation? Further, in Sura Al-Rum ('The Romans') ayat 42 it is explicitly stated: " Say (O Muhammad, to the disbelievers), travel in the land, and see the nature of the consequence for those who were before you! Most of them were idolaters" (Quran 30: 42). It is perhaps for this reason that most scholars in the Ummah did not advocate destruction of ancient remains, including statues.
Had the Taliban's narrower interpretation regarding destruction of idols been implemented by earlier generations of Muslims, the sphinx in Egypt and the archaeological sites of Babylon and Mesopotamia, among others, would not have survived to this day. Quite clearly, early Muslim conquerors distinguished between "Aasaar" (relics and historic remains), which they spared and "Asnaam" (idols), which they destroyed. In a modern, tolerant, inter-dependent world it is unfortunate that the Taliban have opted for an interpretation of Islam that was not the norm in earlier times.
The destruction of artefacts has inflicted new damage to the Taliban's already-poor ties with most countries. The Taliban are already heavily criticized for their restrictions on women and for their poor human rights record. The three states recognising their regime-- Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia-are seen by other nations as being under obligation to influence Taliban policy.
It is apparent to all but the most na‹ve that Pakistan should not risk tension with the entire world in return for friendship with the Taliban. This is especially so in view of our continuing hostility with India. Pakistan's armed forces, above all, must be concerned at what is happening to the country's international image on account of the Taliban's attitude. Pakistan's traditional friend Iran is among the states concerned about the Taliban's whimsical and often narrow-minded decisions. As a result, Pakistan is losing the strategic depth it secured from a friendly Iran, while Afghanistan remains unsettled. If the influence over the Taliban is to cause Iran-Pakistan relations to deteriorate, then ties with the Taliban (rather than Iran) must be reviewed. In any case, the Taliban have consistently proven to be a liability rather than an asset for Pakistan.
Everyone in the world believes that Pakistan is responsible for encouraging the Taliban, official protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. By recognising the Taliban government before any other country, Pakistan made it clear where it stood in relation to this group from another century. Although they control much of Afghan territory, the Taliban have failed to secure international recognition and remain a pariah to most of the world. One need not be a foreign policy expert to understand that losing the friendship of states which are part of the international community to please a pariah can only damage Pakistan's credibility.
It is a positive sign that Pakistan has refused to act as an apologist for the Taliban on their statue-smashing policy. Their rise is attributed by most of the world to Pakistani support, or at least acquiescence. Their brutal regime would not be able to survive if Pakistan joined the rest of the world in pressuring them into accepting the basic norms of civilisation and of Islam as practised by the overwhelming majority of the Ummah. The unenlightened sectarian interpretation of Islam being offered by the Taliban is creating problems for Muslims the world over. The Iranian revolution has settled down and even at its height, revolutionary fervour in Iran did not lend itself to such universal condemnation as is being faced by the Taliban. Another Islamist regime, that in Sudan, has conducted itself by-and-large in accordance with international norms. Western criticism of its conduct can be rebutted with some validity as reflections of prejudice. But the same cannot be said of the Taliban. Their behaviour, in many instances, is violent. They have failed to establish the concept of due process of law even under Islamic rules. Their attitude to women and modern communication technology will set Afghanistan back even further than this tribal backwater has always been. The Taliban must reverse their decision on historic remains and relics. If they do not, the world will be justified in thinking ignorance, rather than pursuit of Islamic learning, is the Taliban's motivation.