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18 Mar, 2001

Blowing up of Bamiyan Statues Leads to Islamic Soul-Searching

Originally Published: 18 March 2001

The destruction of the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan has led to a torrent of soul-searching in the Islamic world. The Internet has hummed with reactions and counter-reactions to this low-intelligence action by the Taleban, most of it against with the odd one or two in favour.

One self-professed Muslim religious leader emailed me after my last anti-Taleban column to say he was going to circulate it to his friends all over the world and ask them to boycott travel to Thailand in protest. My reaction was that if he loved the Taleban and their policies so much, why not move to Afghanistan and live there instead of in a country where Muslims could go about their lives in peace, as he no doubt was doing.

Former Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, the first Thai-Muslim to hold that post, also joined in the ultimately vain efforts to stop the destruction. He had personally written to various foreign ministers of Islamic countries whom he had got to know well during his tenure to get them to lean on the Taleban. At his behest, former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai also appealed to various Muslim heads of state, all to no avail.

Dr Surin wrote me to say: “I am afraid the incident will do irreparable damage to Islam. As Muslim minorities, we realise how important religious tolerance is. And it must be a two-way traffic. Religious tolerance must be reciprocated.”

He added, “Think about “secularism” in a new way. Maybe secularism is what we need in the modern day of Islam. Because it gives us a space, a room and an opportunity to be ourselves. Not in the traditional dichotomy of “secularism” vs. “religiosity” as in the past.”

The exchanges over the Internet have brought out streams of very erudite and scholarly thinking among the Islamic groups world-wide, many of whom have been deeply embarrassed by the actions of this hard-core group. Quotations from the Qur’an have flown thick and fast as both sides have sought divine authority to justify their positions.

While, sadly, the twain will never meet, neither side made any effort to judge the action by its results based on the practical question: What good did it do?

As far as the Taleban were concerned, they had no use for the statues and destroyed them because they thought they were acting as per God’s orders. Whether or not they are rewarded with a place in heaven will be known after they die, but here on earth, they have made life potentially hell for a lot of Muslims. For example:

— The action is now forever etched in history and will certainly have a profound effect on the psyche of Buddhist people for generations to come.

— It has given a carte blanche to non-Muslims in countries where Muslims are a minority to pulverise Muslim monuments on the grounds that Islam is against their religion. As Muslim conquerors no longer rule India, should Hindus now go around destroying all mosques? And if they do, what will the Taleban do? Invade India?

— Another few million people have joined the ranks of those opposing Islam. Already in some ways involved in conflicts with the fundamentalist fringe among Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and Christians, the Muslims so far had no argument with the Buddhists. That has now changed, forever.

— Indirectly, it may cost Muslims jobs and opportunities for progress and advancement. Why risk hiring someone who could be a potential trouble-maker? Why not take revenge against these people who have destroyed another’s objects of worship?

— It has shown Islam to be an intolerant and irrational faith, which it isn’t. The actions of various Islamic “liberation” fronts have already conveyed the impression of a religion steeped in violence. If perception is reality, this has just underscored that.

The Prophet Mohammed was a thinking man. It is inconceivable that he, had he been around and weighed the options of destroying the statues on the issue of moral principle against the practical damage it would have done to his people, would have decided to go ahead with it.

Another school of thought has focussed on the reaction to the Taleban’s action. Islamic scholars, while denouncing the destruction of the statues, have pointed to the contrast between the hypercritical denunciation of the Taleban and reactions to other violations of international law and standards of conduct.

Said one Pakistani writer, “The condemnation of the Taleban far exceeds than the criticism levelled against Israel for its continued rape of Palestine and its people…Before, asking others to civilise themselves, those who demand civility need to become civilised.”

In a way, this is what this is all about: Civility. Not ideology, not spirituality, but civility. One side sticks to what it assumes to be the letter of God’s law which it feels must be abided by, come what may. Another side tries to put things into a larger perspective and note that as the statues were harming no-one, they could just as well have been left alone, which would have been the civil thing to do.

The Qur’an exhorts Muslims to “seek knowledge” because understanding the sensible, rational approach of religion is naught without a good education. In many Islamic communities world-wide, “education” only means religious education which, laudable though it may be, does little to help them get jobs and advance in their careers.

Somewhere along the way, this has to change. The Qur’an also refers to the fact that God made Man in the most perfect of designs, and then plunged him to the lowest of the low. This is happening today as humanity spirals further into the “lowest of the low” abyss of crime, disease, social upheavals, environmental problems, cloning, genetically modified foods, ethnic cleansing and numerous other coming catastrophes.

If there is one thing that is stark obvious today, it is that humanity’s ability to produce a daily slew of new problems far outstrips its ability to solve them. Are religions, preoccupied with internecine fights for turf and market-share, just another part of that problem-producing process? Or can the rational, sensible and well-educated among them come up with new approaches to help turn the tide?