It is regrettable that the Taliban have irreparably damaged their country’s cultural heritage by destroying two giant 1,500-year-old stone statues of Buddha. But to me, as a Muslim, it is just as bad that they used Islam as a pretext for justifying this wanton savagery against ancient religious art.
Most Canadians understand the basics of political thought and methodology. They understand that no competent politician of any party would claim, for example, that a given action would benefit only him/her, or a close circle of supporters. The astute politician invests time, effort and experience in developing a “policy” to achieve specific goals. And such policies nearly always include the rationale that they are presented “in the public interest” or “for the common good.”
Because persuasion lies at the heart of politics, the reasons a politician decides upon a policy are nearly always categorically distinct from the reasons by which he or she publicly defends it. The two sets of reasoning may overlap, or they may not. Some may call this behaviour dishonesty in the extreme, but it’s reality.
As well, politicians usually concern themselves with the “practicality” of their favored policy. Will it have the desired effect? What are its costs and possible long or short-term consequences? If it fails, there may be demands that the policy be pursued even further, rather than being abandoned. What effect would that have on the promoter’s career and credibility?
If — for better or for worse — we North Americans accept such an understanding about our politics and politicians, why are we surprised (and even outraged) that this behavior is also common to Third World countries?
Take the Taliban. They are religious students turned politicians, mostly in their 20s and 30s, and they now control large parts of Afghanistan. To justify their policies (to say nothing of their collective governmental inexperience), they use Islam.
Operating on the power of religion — as distinct from its truths and teachings — they recently ordered soldiers armed with anti-aircraft weapons to blast apart two ancient statues of Buddha. Their purge has also expanded to ravage other statues and pre-Islamic art throughout the territory they control — much of it as old, or older than the 1,500-year-old figures whose demise has captured world headlines.
The Talibans’ justification for turning rockets, tanks and ground explosives upon Afghanistan’s unique historic artifacts was the premise that Islam is against the worship of idols. Their mission is to rid the country of any reminders that it has a pre-Islamic past.
Muslim leaders and scholars, including those in Canada, are outraged at the Taliban government’s disastrous misuse of their faith. A delegation of prominent Islamic scholars, led by Prof. Youssef al- Qaradawi, went to Afghanistan to meet with Taliban leader Mulla Mohamed Omar, with an urgent plea to halt the wholesale demolitions. Their efforts were doomed to failure.
Al-Qaradawi, Dean of Religious Studies at Qatar University, even issued an official “fatwa” (religious ruling) documenting that Afghanistan’s statues are not idols, do not threaten Muslim beliefs, and do not contradict Islamic doctrine.
But his efforts were undermined by a number of anti-Islam editorials published in Canada and elsewhere, which said, in effect: “This is not Taliban Islam, this is *the* Islam. This is what Mohamed taught. It is in the Qur’an.”
What most of these last-minute analysts ignored is that the Taliban are, first and foremost, politicians. Yes, they took over the country by military force, but now they are politicians and behaving like them. They develop policies to gain them popular support among rank and file Afghanis. They know that their country is one of the poorest in the world, internationally isolated, and that their people badly lack basics such as education and health care. And they also know that these are tough issues to address.
They’ve also figured out, however, that most Afghanis who practice Islam are barely literate and largely ignorant of its teachings, and would therefore cheer them on for destroying some “old statues.” Thus they can achieve political points against their opponents, not only the many within Afghanistan, but also those on the international scene.
As the Taliban defied the call of the U.N. and wider global community to stop the destruction of these statues, they became national heroes in the eyes of their uncritical supporters. As for Muslims abroad and the respected scholars who tried to convince them that this is against Islam, they have been indiscriminately labeled as hypocrites. The Muslim world, along with the West, has been perceived as having abandoned Afghanistan after it ousted the Russian occupation. For the Taliban, therefore, it seems that international revenge has been sweet; and religion made it convenient.
But what about their timing? What could have possibly triggered the act of destroying the statues? Many analysts feel this is an easy question to answer: it all stems from the U.N. sanctions on Afghanistan, provoked by the United States over its refusal to extradite Osama Bin Laden. The Taliban have repeatedly insisted that if the U.S. has evidence proving Bin Laden’s guilt, they themselves will prosecute and punish him.
Instead of offering evidence, however, the United States successfully pressed the Security Council to sanction Afghanistan, a collective punishment that can only result in widespread deprivation and death for the most vulnerable among Afghanis — the very young, the elderly, the ill, and the poor — Muslim or not. (Afghanistan has a sizable minority of Hindus and Sikhs who practice their religions freely.)
The reasons that Afghanistan would want to lash out at the world for allowing its children to starve are understandable, but doing it behind a facade of devout Islam is wholly unacceptable.
No doubt the Taliban are politicians, and should be treated as such. Religion has tragically little to do with it.
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.