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  After Bamiyan — 2  

  Looking Back
  Vol II : issue 2

  Amit Chaudhuri
  Cass Sunstein
  Dibyendu Palit
  Vinay Lal
  Only in Print

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The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas brings with astonishing ease to many lips the epithet, ‘Islamic medievalism’. If the dominant stereotypical conception of Islamic fundamentalism is to be believed, ‘medieval Islam’ is a wholly belaboured idea: Islam was always medieval. The ‘modern West’ and ‘medieval Islam’ are supposed to stand in natural and diametrical opposition to each other

Vinay Lal

For all the wide acceptance of the twin ideas of ingrained Islamic fundamentalism and feudal or medieval rage as the two most constituent elements of the narrative which seeks to explain the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, it is heartening to note that some commentators have dismissed these gross reductionisms. One strategy is to take recourse to other strands of political commentary: for instance, it is scarcely irrelevant that the Taliban are under strict sanctions mandated by the American-dominated Security Council, though many member states of the UN rightly took the view that the only productive way to engage with the Taliban is to enter into a dialogue with the regime. These sanctions have doubtless compounded the Taliban’s difficulties, and are seen as particularly onerous and unjustified at a time when Mullah Omar is credited with having helped to destroy the poppy crop (the raw material for manufacturing heroin) whose eradication was sought as a precondition for the restoration of normal relations between the Taliban and the West. Indeed, the area of Afghanistan under Taliban rule has recently been certified by a UN inspection team as poppy-free. Thus, the destruction of the statues is construed as an expression not only of the Taliban’s anger but of its sense of betrayal, its feeling of isolation and its profound disappointment that it should not have been suitably rewarded on the one occasion when it subscribed to some norms of international political engagement. Two decades ago, realpolitik bound together Afghanistan and the United States in a modern variation of the Great Game, and one should not be allowed to forget that Ronald Reagan welcomed the Mujahideen to the White House as freedom fighters; at this juncture in history, it is still the relentless zero-sum of politics which makes the United States and its leading adversary, Afghanistan, look strikingly akin. The fanaticism of the powerful and the fanaticism of the powerless have much in common.

The fanaticism of the Taliban should by no means be allowed to stand forth metonymically for the barbarism of the pre-Enlightenment age or the alleged fanaticism of Islam. In the early seventh century, if the testimony of the Chinese scholar Hiuen Tsang is reliable, Bamiyan was a flourishing centre of Buddhist learning, and it was home to thousands of monks settled in several monasteries. Though Kabul and Kandahar were overrun by the Arabs in the late seventh century, Bamiyan remained under Buddhist rule for at least another century. The conversion to Islam among Bamiyan’s political elite transpired under the Abbasids. Bamiyan’s two gigantic Buddhas, which were installed at least three centuries apart, the latter between 500 and 700 AD, were spared by Mahmud of Ghazni. Subsequent invaders, such as Genghis Khan, appear to have been less indifferent, and there seems to be some evidence that he had cannon fire directed at the Buddhas. Numerous commentators, keen on validating the commonly-held view which ascribes to Aurangzeb a puritanical hatred for the infidels, have noted that he initiated an assault upon Bamiyan, but those who wish to bestow ecumenical credentials upon him point to the fact that notwithstanding his military activity in the Deccan over two decades, he left the Ajanta and Ellora caves untouched. But in all of this there is little to substantiate the view that the medieval mentality is writ large in the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The recent bombardment of the National Library at Sarajevo, and indeed the decimation of nearly the whole city, which was ‘multicultural’ for long before the capitals of Western Europe acquired a semblance of pluralism and tolerance, stands forth as testimony to the fact that modernity has been much less hospitable to diffused, unbounded, and multiple identities than we have commonly supposed. If the idea of cosmopolitan pasts Bamiyan lay on the Silk Route, and here merged multiple ethnic, religious, and linguistic histories is now under assault, and yet ‘universal’ cities appear to be emblematic of late modernity, then the burden is to establish how modern cosmopolitanisms differ from pre-modern cosmopolitanisms. The universalisms of late modernity must be juxtaposed not with the supposed particularisms of the pre-modern era, but rather with the less oppressive universalisms of those times that we mistakenly characterise as pre-Enlightenment.

It is not less significant, since much is often made of Islam’s supposed irrationality, that all the Muslim states have emphatically repudiated the Taliban’s actions, and even Saudi Arabia, which fancies itself as the guardian of an authentic and orthodox Islam, declared itself unequivocally opposed to the destruction of the Buddhas. The Arab group in UNESCO termed the Taliban’s action savage. Nothing in the Sharia, or in the pronouncements of various Islamic schools of law, encourages the destruction of monuments which are not the sites of religious worship and cannot therefore be construed to be ‘idols’. Most poignantly, the call to jihad, which is described by the Taliban as having furnished it with the warrant to take action at Bamiyan, has been stripped of its endearing promise. The authorised translation of the Holy Quran, published by the King Fahd Holy Quran Printing Complex, states that the essence of jihad consists in abiding by a true and sincere faith, which so fixes its gaze on Allah that all selfish or worldly motives seem paltry and fade away. It warns against the vulgarisation of the concept by explicitly opposing mere brutal fighting to the whole spirit of jihad, and calls upon the believer to wage jihad against himself or herself, so that one can learn to listen to the voice of Allah or (in the idiom of Gandhi) to the still inner voice within. Yet, despite this lofty conception of jihad, the onus appears to have been placed upon Islam to exonerate itself. This act of vandalism, editorialised the Times of India (March 4, 2001), is likely to be detrimental to the larger interests of the entire Islamic world unless the governments and clergy of those countries speak out strongly against the Taliban. Well-intentioned as this sentiment is, it is a marvel that Islam should be called upon to demonstrate its innocence. No one took it as axiomatic when the Bosnian Muslims were being butchered and the monuments of their culture were razed to the ground, that Christianity had to endeavour to save its name by publicly and repeatedly disassociating itself from the actions of its self-appointed emissaries. Though the editorial appears to be understandably generous in pronouncing that the Taliban are not defending the true faith; it is grievously undermining it, there is a presupposition that Islam, perhaps more than any other faith, is always on the brink of falling into a fanatical mode.

p. 1 p. 2 p.3 

Vinay Lal teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has edited Dissenting Knowledges, Open Futures: The Multiple Selves and Strange Destinations of Ashis Nandy (OUP, 2000), and his collection of essays on Indian history and culture, The Dialectic of Civilisation and Nation-State, is forthcoming from Seagull (2001)