Independent - March 14, 2001
By Raffique Shah
THE evil that men (or governments, or superpowers) do, lives after them, it is said. Ever so often, though, it returns to haunt them while they are alive, and in the melee, adversely affect others. In the specific case I wish to deal with today, priceless historical artifacts, fell victims to Cold War crimes that were committed in the distant past.
Last week, when news broke that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was blasting ancient statues of Buddha to smithereens, a sense of outrage erupted in the Western World. While the tears were genuine among those who value history and recognise ancient civilisations for their cultural advances, there were many hypocrites who, having helped the Taliban gain control of the mountainous country, are today shedding crocodile tears.
For the records, the statues that were destroyed included the biggest rock-hewn image of Gautama Buddha—a towering 53-metre structure in the Bamiyan district, part of the great Hindu Kush mountain range that virtually bisects Afghanistan. Another statue was 35 metres tall, and there were yet others that were not described in the news reports. Afghanistan served as a gateway to India for European explorers and conquerors, and from the famous Silk Road, titans like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan could see the towering statues that were probably carved for Buddhists to pay homage to their deity from afar.
They must be masterpieces, these giant figures hewn out of solid rock. I was fortunate to have visited the Ajanta caves near Aurangabad in India, as well as Elephanta island, an archeological treasure just off the coast from Bombay. At Ajanta, I saw entire temples that were hewn out of the mountains. Some of them were expansive, and contained not only altars and images of various Hindu or Buddhist deities, but also stone quarters with stone beds for the ascetic monks who lived there however many years ago. There was no statue anywhere close to 53-metres tall, but I still found the Ajanta caves the most memorable sites I visited when I was in India in 1983.
Having seen rock-hewn temples and statues, I can only imagine the the great statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. I mean, magnificence of standing at more than 150 feet tall, and having been restored in the 1970s in a joint Afghanistan-Indian exercise, they must have been something to behold, mattered not whether one was Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or agnostic. ‘Was' is the operative word here. Last week, after months of threatening to demolish the ancient treasures, the Taliban chief, Mullah Muhammad Omar, gave the order for the highly militarized regime to use explosives and heavy artillery to destroy them.
By the time United Nations General Secretary Kofi Anan and a delegation of Islamic chiefs arrived in Kabul, Omar arrogantly boasted that they were too late. The statues were already consigned to dust. Some 2000 years of history obliterated in a flash by men who are so steeped in their fundamentalist beliefs, nothing but their version of Islam must exist. Indeed, ever since they took Kabul amidst heavy fighting a few years ago, the Taliban set out to form the "world's purest Islamic nation". It's as if Ayatollah Khomeni and Iranians are pagans, or Muslims all around them, including Pakistanis, lack in their devotion to Allah.
Of course there was an international outcry against the Taliban's acts of gross vandalism. But ironically, those who were strongest in their condemnation of the destruction of the statues were the same people who helped install the Taliban in power. We need to go back to the Cold War between the then Soviet Union and the West, to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 (ostensibly at the invitation of President Babrak Karmal). Afghanistan was always a country torn by internecine strife, with tribal warfare being the norm and central governments in Kabul having little control over huge areas.
Karmal made a bid to put an end to this divisiveness by using Russian muscle, but he was doomed to fail before he even started.
Foremost among those opposed to the atheist Russians were Islamic fundamentalists who had fled to Pakistan, from where they waged war against Karmal and the Russians. It was the very Arab governments that are today crying out against the atrocities of the Taliban who financed their war. It was the US government that supplied them with the most modern weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to enable them to fight the Russians. It was Pakistan that hosted them, provided the training ground. It was the CIA that gave them ground support, including intelligence reports about Russian troop movements.
It took them quite a number of years for the Taliban fighters to move from the Khyber Pass to Kabul, and even now they still do not control the North of the country. But they were able to assert their power. Initially, when they attacked corruption and dealt with those who exploited the poor, they received much goodwill from Afghans who had grown tired of wars. But in a short time they were rounding up men who did not sport beards, they prohibited women from working (which robbed the country on almost all its teachers and most of its health sector workers), and ordered that girls should not be educated.
By then the West and the other Islamic countries that had supported the Taliban realised they had made a grave error. In the case of the USA, it was particularly embarrassing, since Bin Laden, an Egyptian business tycoon turned terrorist, had set up his base there. So that American weapons and American training were returning to haunt the US and its citizens. The Taliban's radical and forced transformation of Afghanistan from a Muslim country into a puritan Islamic hell-hole had created one more problem for the world, including the Muslim world that helped create it.
The destruction of the Buddha statues was only one more atrocity that the world will have to accept as the Taliban tighten their grip on Afghanistan. But in their irrational actions lie several lessons. The first is that blinded by power politics, we often create our own monsters. In this case, it was the CIA that helped make the Taliban into a fighting force. Secondly, religious fundamentalists of any hue are a danger not only to the societies in which they live, but to the world at large. They respect nothing but their own convoluted views of the world, of God, of religion. Culture, art, music and technology (except in weaponry) mean nothing to them.
Finally, for those who believe the activities of the Taliban are of no concern to us since most Trinis do not even know where the damn place is, let me warn them that they don't have to go to the Hindu Kush mountains to find fundamentalists. They exist right here, and contrary to public perception, they do not reside only at Mucurapo Road. Many can be found among Hindus and Christians who are also intolerant of other people's beliefs. It is for us to ensure that they do not fragment this multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, and even more important, they do not resort to wide-scale desecration a la Taliban.
Copyright © Raffique Shah