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Signpost
Iconoclasm as a tool of diplomacy
By M. Zeyaul Haque

Taliban’s desperate posturing is like the tantrums thrown by a bad-tempered brat

On March 4, a section of the press in India reported that a Taliban leader had said the Bamiyan Buddhas’ proposed demolition was an answer to the Babri Masjid demolition. At first it sounded like a half-witted statement, but the next day editorial writers in Jansatta and The Times of India noted that what the Taliban were doing was not much different from what the Sangh had already done in Ayodhya. Another writer, Soumitra Chatterji, noted the similarity in his article in The Statesman.

What many failed to take note of was that the enormity of the Ayodhya mischief was greater in scale: 23 mosques and mazars were demolished or damaged in Ayodhya alone, and Ayodhya-related violence claimed 10,000 lives.

Look at the irony of it: mortar and rockets being fired at the statue of someone who preached love and peace. The scene of the tragi-comedy is famine-hit Afghanistan. Three successive droughts in the country have reduced the peasantry to starvation. Instead of doing something about it, the Taliban have decided to demolish the giant Buddha statues that stand there for the last two millennia.

The Taliban say they would not allow the un-Islamic relics to stay in their country where they have stood during the reign of equally good, if not better, Muslims. It is also interesting to note that Egypt, which came under Islamic rule centuries before Afghanistan, within the early decades of Islam, never touched its Sphynx or other monuments.

The 3200-year-old Abu Simbel Temples were there with their 20-metre high statues when Islam came under the Prophet’s (PBUH) close companion Hazrat Omar. When the Aswan High Dam reservoir threatened to sink the temples in the 1960s, the Egyptian government with the assistance of the UNESCO and 50 other countries, dug away the entire mountain cliff and disassembled the temples under a massive project. In one of the rarest engineering feats, the temples were reassembled and relocated at a height of 200 feet above the Nile riverbed.

Not only Hazrat Omar left things as they were, the 1000-year-old Islamic university in Cairo, Al Azhar, whose opinion is regarded seriously in the Islamic world, did not deem it un-Islamic either. The semi-literate Taliban’s iconoclastic enthusiasm is yet to find support anywhere else, including Pakistan and Iran, two Islamic states in the neighbourhood.

Leader writers have opined that this could be Taliban’s way of drawing attention to their isolation and their economically desperate situation. If it is so, it is a more unpleasant way of attracting attention than a spoilt brat throwing nasty tantrums. That it could very well be what the learned leader writers are saying it is, becomes evident when one considers a Taliban leader’s grand declaration that the world seems to be more interested in saving ‘stones’ than the dying Afghan men, women and children who have been pushed to the wall by the U.S.-led sanctions.

As a world treated to this latest horror show broods about how to save the Buddha statues, comforting but nihilistic observation from the Dalai Lama confers on the vandalistic deed the status of a fait accompli. This widely respected sage of our times remarks that such acts are part of the ongoing process of construction and destruction in a transient world where the Buddha himself came only to go away. ‘What is the point in holding on to his image when he himself passed on?’, seems to be the gist of what the Dalai Lama has to offer. Which, in sum, is no great consolation.

The point here is whether the world can do something at this late hour (they are yet to destroy the statues completely)? Sadly, there is nothing much that can be done. We can only argue, and argue some more. The Taliban Foreign Minister says that he is prepared to listen to the world, but the Taliban would do what they think is proper, that is, go ahead with the iconoclastic plans.

In India quite a lot of people are concerned for obvious reasons. As a rule Indians don’t generally appreciate attacks on symbols of other people’s faith. The Buddha’s Indian roots too are an enduring element in our consciousness. However, when a BJP leader professes outrage, he fails to carry any great conviction because senior functionaries of the present government at Centre are implicated in the Babri Masjid demolition, another heritage site and one of the rare remaining works of Saracene architecture.

In fact, the Ayodhya analogy of the Bamiyan outrage is too familiar to be missed easily. The Taliban are supposed to be followers of the Deoband school of thought. The ulema of Deoband have already asked the Taliban to refrain from zealotry, to no avail, of course. So has the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), without success. Again, this is like kar sevaks going ahead with their mission in Ayodhya despite the Supreme Court, Parliament and National Integration Council (NIC). The point here is that no one can argue with a fanatic.

This brings us to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s profound remarks at the Millennium World Peace Summit: ‘Where religions and their adherents are persecuted, defamed or denied due process, we are all diminished, our societies undermined.’
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