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  After Bamiyan — 3  

  Looking Back
  Vol II : issue 2

  Amit Chaudhuri
  Cass Sunstein
  Dibyendu Palit
  Vinay Lal
  Only in Print

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The authorised translation of the Holy Quran 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. Yet, despite this lofty conception of jihad, the onus appears to have been placed upon Islam to exonerate itself

Vinay Lal

What interpretative and ethical framework remains, then, for understanding the madness that has transpired to efface the gentle colossi that stood at Bamiyan? One has heard the phrase ‘brotherhood of fundamentalists’: the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the Bamiyan Buddhas can be distinguished in some respects, but fervent secularists do not doubt that the advocates of Hindutva, the Taliban, Zionists and the evangelical Christians in Kansas who succeeded in having creationism placed alongside evolutionism as an account of the origins of the universe in school textbooks, are all moulded from the same clay. They see in the tragic events of Bamiyan the insistent and maniacal unfolding of fundamentalism. Though the gross inadequacies of this view are all too evident, just as secularism remains impenitent about its own intolerance for competing world-views, the comparison between the Hindutva advocates and the Taliban is illuminating in some respects. Traditionally, one mark of distinction between religion and politics was to describe the former as ‘self-regarding’ and the latter as ‘other-regarding’, but what is striking is how far the Taliban and Hindutvavadis are concerned with the religion of others rather than with their own faith. Many of the most zealous spokespersons for Hindutva give the distinct impression of being less interested in Hinduism than in Islam, and the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas betrays a similar anxiety. It is not so much the admixture of religion and politics, of which no less a person than Gandhi was a firm proponent, that is problematic as much as the transformation of religion into ‘other-regarding’ and politics into ‘self-regarding’.

What the Taliban have disowned is the pluralistic pasts of both Afghanistan and Islam. It can reasonably be argued that Afghanistan is much more than its present Islamic existence, though perhaps the more arresting formulation is that the Islam of Afghanistan (not to mention neighbouring Pakistan) has, woven into it, all the previous strands of Afghanistan’s history. Islam in Pakistan and Afghanistan is afflicted with profoundly disabling anxieties about authenticity, cosmology, and identity; it persists, not always self-consciously, in seeing itself as a second-hand, inferior version of the Prophet’s religion as it is housed in Mecca and Medina. This Islam has almost none of the confidence of Indonesian (and especially Javanese) Muslims, who have embraced the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as their own and have interwoven Islamic practices into ‘Hindu’ cosmologies. Java has no Hindus, and yet a massive statue of Arjuna’s chariot being driven by Krishna adorns one of the central thoroughfares in Jakarta. Such a dialectic of presence and absence is perhaps itself the source of anxiety: commentators point to the absence of Buddhists in Afghanistan to express their bewilderment that the Bamiyan Buddhas should have been construed as a threat, but it is possible to imagine that even a faint Buddhist presence might have been more reassuring to the Taliban and helped to save the Buddhas.

Ironically, much as the Taliban would be loath to admit it, their most eloquent spokesman is the hyper-rational Naipaul, who has stated with supreme confidence that all non-Arab Muslims are mere converts and consequently imperfect specimens of their faith. This suggests that the pathology of rationality is at least as interesting a discursive field as the pathology of irrationality; self-hatred is by no means a prerogative of those whom we wish to condemn as irrational. Previously Naipaul, writing in the pages of the New York Review of Books the vehicle of the secular, liberal intelligentsia of the United States and some wider worlds spoke of the destiny of humankind to embrace what he calls our universal civilisation, a civilisation predictably rooted in the values of the modern, secular, liberal West. Taken together, Naipaul’s pronouncements point to no conclusion but this: either the peoples of the non-West can choose to enter into the universal civilisation or, by their defiance, they can place themselves outside the pale of the community of the civilised. Even Samuel Huntington’s hysterical framework of the clash of civilisations seems charitable by contrast, since many are inclined to see in the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas a clash between the civilised and the uncivilised. Such an impoverished view of the Taliban must be unequivocally rejected not only because it is deeply injurious to an entire people, but because discursive views, strengthened by the vast paraphernalia of modernity, from media in its various manifestations to the force of sanctions, have the power to create the very object of their inquiry.

When the other becomes so radically other in our sensibility, it is an ineradicable sign of our unwillingness to adhere to a vision of a communicative universe; it points to the moral defeat of all humankind. When the Bamiyan Buddhas were reduced to rubble, it was not Islam that was degraded; it was not even Buddhism which was demeaned. To admit as much is not only to take solace in the observation that the Buddha is much larger than his statues, and that the actions of the Taliban cannot dint the armour of the Buddha’s supreme intelligence, benevolence and compassion. The Buddha’s teachings have always stressed the impermanence of the material world, and it is not for nothing that the monks blow away the sand mandalas over which they have laboured with such care. Other sensibilities, however, demand a more political reading. Had the Indian media, for instance, been less parochial in its intellectual disposition, it might have been more careful in lavishing its sole attention upon acts of cultural desecration in South Asia, while ignoring the numerous tragic events with which the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the Bamiyan Buddhas share a family resemblance, stretching from the destruction of Sarajevo, the callous (and much worse) representation of war victims as collateral damage, the exceedingly modern massacres in Rwanda carried out with primitive weapons, and the genocidal elimination of Iraqis through the purported non-violence of a sanctions regime. Politics has for long been a zero-sum game, but the categories of contemporary political knowledge and practice ‘rogue states’, sanctions, ‘the international community’, among others have tightened the noose around the powerless. That is one aspect of the politics of knowledge surrounding the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Bamiyan compels us to ask: what are the conditions of the soul’s survival and well-being in modernity? That, however, is the subject for another meditation.

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)