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Page last edited on 12 March, 2003


[By Dr. Munir El-Kassem]

As expected, the "civilized" world is up in arms against the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan in their attempt to destroy two statues of the Buddha carved into a mountain in Bamiyan Province. This seems like the pot calling the kettle black. It is flagrant hypocrisy on the part of countries like the U.S., Russia, India, Britain, and France, among many others, to condemn Afghanistan for a fault of their own.

Afghanistan has been suffering and bleeding after 22 years of devastating war. Instead of lending a helping hand, the U.S. was enraged by Afghanistan's sheltering of Osama Bin Laden. After failing to extract Bin Laden out of Afghanistan, the U.S. did what it does best: imposed sanctions on this already shattered nation.

Syed Rahmatullah Hashemi, the Taliban's roving ambassador, expressed the sentiments of the Afghan government in saying, "When the world destroys the future of our children with economic sanctions, they have no right to worry about our past." Another Taliban spokesperson said that the decision to destroy the statues had been made out of anger and frustration. International agencies were spending hefty amounts of money to repair the Buddhist statues, while nothing was being done to address the plight of Afghan children ravaged by malnutrition. He added that the statues were tolerated for 1500 years. Now, they had turned into a hated symbol of Western preference for rock over Afghan lives.

It is hypocritical of a country like Russia, for example, to voice its condemnation of the Taliban over the destruction of the Buddhas. It was reported that since the Russian invasion of 1979, "thousands of Hellenistic, Persian and Indian artifacts from Afghanistan's many-layered past have been smuggled out to the voracious and amoral Western art market."

If the West claims to be the guardian of cultural heritage, how come no one moved a pen to condemn the destruction of the historical Babri Mosque in India? The world cannot quickly erase from its memory what happened in 1992. In tearing down the Babri Mosque, Indian mobs threatened to "cleanse" India of all Islamic shrines, palaces and artifacts. Two-hundred million Indian Muslims were attached to the Babri Mosque, while there is not a single Buddhist living in Afghanistan. Minorities continue to be threatened in India, whereas not a single non-Muslim was deliberately killed in Afghanistan. The Associated Press reported that in Kabul there is one old Jewish rabbi who stayed to protect a synagogue in the centre of the city. The Taliban did not prevent him from practicing his religion.

Where were the guardians of cultural heritage when mosques, libraries, historic buildings, and museums were destroyed in Bosnia, Kosovo and Palestine? The real culprits who displayed "medieval barbarianism" and
committed a "great crime against humanity" were not the Taliban, but those who killed Imams and civilians while destroying historic monuments.

The world has to wake up to the fact that the Taliban cannot be branded as destroyers of religious art. During the 13 centuries of Muslim rule in Afghanistan, layers of cultural heritage were preserved. One has to remember that the Taliban are not destroying any place of worship or anything belonging to a place of worship. In contrast, the most widespread destruction of religious art in modern times occurred under Chairman Mao during China's Cultural Revolution.

Let us examine the record of the "culturally advanced" nations. When France occupied Algeria, it tried to destroy its Islamic way of life by turning Algeria into a major producer of wine. Can anyone defend this as preservation of culture? Cultural heritage is not only statues and monuments, but also traditions that run deep in people's lives.

Over 3000 Cambodian Buddhist temples were destroyed in bombings by the U.S. and the Pol Pot regime during the Indochina War. Cambodians themselves (who are Buddhists) have sawed off heads and busts of numerous temple statues and sold them to Western smugglers. This wanton destruction is clearly evident to visitors of such world famous Buddhist cultural centres as Ankor Wat.

The "culturally advanced" U.S. sent 24 American long-range missiles streaking over Pakistani air space and destroyed the beautiful "people's mosque" in Afghanistan while attempting to murder Osama Bin Laden. Many innocent worshippers were killed in the process. This mosque, though not towering like the Buddha statues, or as imposing as the Pharaonic pyramids of Egypt, was not built by slave labour. Our veneration of cultural landmarks should not blind us to the fact that many human lives were sacrificed during the building of such famous monuments.

I have in my files a picture of an ancient Qur'an with beautiful calligraphy being desecrated by the Soviets in their campaign against Chechnya. Ripped into two pieces, it is lying in the mud with tank treads over it. Does this show any respect for culture?

In 1945, the British and U.S. air forces bombed Dresden, Germany, even though it had been declared an open city. 100,000 civilians, including large numbers of children, were killed. Dozens of exquisite churches, museums and works of art were destroyed.

How could the world community care more about the destruction of two statues than about 100,000 refugees who have been starving and freezing to death near Herat, a few hundred miles away?

The point of my article is not to justify the destruction of statues in Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, I seem to agree with the Grand Mufti of Pakistan who said, "there could be disagreement among the scholars regarding the priorities and the methods. Some might question whether the action (destroying the statues) would alienate the Buddhist nations in Southeast Asia at a critical time for Afghanistan."

The Qur'an tells us, "We have not set you as a keeper over them, nor are you responsible for them. Abuse not those whom they worship besides God, lest they out of spite abuse God in their ignorance."

Muslims are supposed to carry the message of God to humanity. They are not supposed to force people to accept Islam or destroy other people's sacred symbols and places of worship. However, as mentioned earlier, what the Taliban did in Afghanistan was not triggered by contempt towards another religion, but rather, by the hypocrisy of some members of the world community. Justice demands that condemnation should not only be directed at the weak, but also at the strong.

[Dr. Munir El-Kassem is a dentist in London, Ontario, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Canadian Islamic Congress. This piece is based on an article published by the London Free Press, London, Ontario.]

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Last updated on 12 March, 2003

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