In 1998 a CNN team interviewed Osama bin Ladin in Afghanistan. Syed Rahmatullah Hashimi, Afghanistan's young roving ambassador, who was visiting the US when the statue crisis erupted, was there during the interview. The cameras were rolling as they talked about a variety of subjects for almost three hours. "Then they raised a question regarding sanctions against Iraq." At one point Osama said, "If all the Americans and all the Britons support killing the Iraqi civilians through the application of sanctions, then they deserve the same. In that case, the American and the Briton must also be killed." A few hours later CNN announced to the world that Osama bin Ladin has decreed that all Americans and the Britons must be killed, period. That is all that was selected from the three hours of footage. Honest mistake?
We are dealing with the world's finest propaganda machine, the mainstream media. Very efficient, extremely fascinating, dangerously cunning. Unfortunately, it remains the source for our daily news, gossip, and propaganda --- all mixed in the same slick package.
The "statue crisis" would not be possible without this propaganda machine. This machine has the power of making the demolition of some abandoned stone artifacts in a faraway place, the biggest issue in the world; bigger than the demolition of homes in Palestine, bigger than the destruction of mosques in India and the Balkans, even bigger than the sufferings and killings of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Palestine, and Kashmir.
It would be interesting to imagine the handling of the issue by the same media machine had it existed in the 19th century when British army used these statues for target practice during its unsuccessful incursions into Afghanistan. The British army, to our dismay, did not have powerful enough weapons to finish the job. History does not record any laments for the British attempts that did cause the most damage to these statues before the Taliban completely obliterated them. (It is interesting how many people have argued that these statues had survived centuries of Islamic rule with little damage. Do they suppose what could not be done in the 19th century could have been done earlier?)
Of course, with the Taliban on the scene, the issue immediately became one of religious tolerance. It was for the first time in history that a country had been accused of being intolerant to a minority that did not exist in the country! Not only that no Buddhists have lived in Afghanistan for fourteen centuries, the statues have not been a destination for Buddhist pilgrims, either. In fact the Buddhist government and people did not care what shape these statues were in, which may be in line with Buddhist teaching that everything is impermanent. In 1969, when the then secular Afghan government decided to repair these statues because it wanted to make the place a tourist attraction, no Buddhist country was involved in the project!
Those Muslim leaders and intellectuals who hastily declared the Taliban act violated Islam's teachings on religious tolerance, probably had no time for reflection or study. They also failed to notice that the issue of religious freedom had been turned on its head. For the real question to ask was, why the Muslims in Afghanistan must endure the statues they abhor? Why the whole world must gang up on them if they trash in their own home what they consider trash?
Statues and Idols
This is not a rhetorical question. This is the core of the matter. To fully realize its import we need to revisit Islamic teachings regarding idols and statues. The Qur'an calls the idols an abomination, "So shun the abomination of idols, and shun the word that is false." [Al-Hajj 22:30]. It also warns the believers: "O you who believe save yourselves and your families from a Fire whose fuel is men and stones" [At-Tahreem 66:6] Abdullah Yusuf Ali writes in his comments on this verse, "This Fire will have for its fuel men who do wrong and are as hard hearted as stones, or stone idols as symbolical of all the unbending Falsehoods in life."
At another place the Qur'an says, "Verily, you unbelievers and the false gods that you worship besides Allah are but fuel for Hell! To it will you surely come!" [Al-Anbiyaa 21:98]. It is amazing that anyone can read "cultural treasure" here.
We also know that upon the conquest of Makkah, Prophet Muhammad Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, entered the Kabah and personally struck all the 360 idols that were housed there. As he struck each one of them, he recited the verse, "And say Truth has now arrived and falsehood perished: for falsehood by its nature is bound to perish." [Al-Israa 17:81]. He also sent the companions on missions to destroy idols all across Arabia and commanded that the believers should not leave any idols unbroken.
In commentary on this verse, Mufti Muhammad Shafi, the late Grand Mufti of Pakistan, writes, "According to Imam Qurtabi, this verse shows that to destroy the idols and other icons of paganism is Wajib (mandatory). Ibn Munzir said that pictures and statues made of wood or metal, etc. are also to be treated as idols." (Maariful Qur'an, vol. 5, p 509).
Sheikh Yusuf Qardawi On Statues
This commentary informs us that those who are relying on the argument that these were statues not idols, and no body worshipped them, are making a distinction that does not exist in Shariah. Sheikh Yusuf Qardawi is more explicit on this subject. A lengthy quote from him (taken from his fatwa on Islam On Line) is appropriate here. He notes,
"Islam has prohibited the keeping of statues in the Muslim home. According to the commentary of scholars, a person who keeps statues in his house is similar to unbelievers, whose practice it is to keep and venerate idols in their homes. The angels are repelled by this; they do not enter such a house and abandon it. It is also forbidden to the Muslim to engage in manufacturing statues, even if he makes them for non-Muslims.
One of the reasons for this prohibition, although not the only one, as some people may suppose, is to safeguard the belief in the Oneness of God and to be far-removed from the practices of idolaters, who fashion statues and idols with their own hands and then sanctify them, standing before them in adoration. Islam's sensitivity in safeguarding the belief in the Unity of God is very acute, and assuredly this caution and concern is quite justified.
the worship of idols originated when people began making statues of their dead or pious ancestors in order to remember them. Gradually they began to venerate them, adding to this veneration little by little until they had made the statues into gods, worshipping them besides God, asking them for help, fearing their anger, and imploring them for blessings. This is what happened, among earlier communities such as the people of Wadd, Suwwa' Yaghuth, Ya'uq, and Nasra. (Names of pagan deities of antiquity who are mentioned in the Qur'an (71:23). For an explanation, see for example, the commentary in Yusuf 'All's translation of the Holy Qur'an, Appendix XIII, following Surah Nuh (71). (Trans.))
It is not surprising that a religion which seeks to halt all corruption should block every passage through which shirk (polytheism), either open or hidden, may slip into the minds and hearts of the people. Among such passageways is the imitation of idolaters or of the followers of other religions who have exaggerated respect for their saints.
Moreover, Islam's legislation is not merely intended for one or two generations but is for all mankind for as long as it shall exist on this planet. What may seem unlikely in one environment may become acceptable in another, and what appears impossible at one time may materialize into reality at another."
Religious Tolerance in Islam
Thus it should be clear that Islam not only condemns idol worship, it also prohibits making and keeping of statues. This does raise a serious question. One person's sacred symbols may be another person's abomination. How do we resolve this conflict?
Islamic answers this dilemma by asserting that there is no compulsion in religion. While Muslims abhor the idols and statues, they will not make the demand that the minorities living in their country do the same. The Islamic state guarantees the protection of the places of worship of its non-Muslim minorities as well as object of worship in those places. That is why the Hindu and Sikh temples in Afghanistan have not been touched, a point that was not highlighted in the media coverage as it would have destroyed the myth of intolerance.
Those willing to lecture us on tolerance may do well to realize that while the Western world has made big progress in the area of religious tolerance during the last century (which should be appreciated), it has a long way to go before it can reach the standards established by Islam. Anyone in doubt here only needs to remember that while throughout Europe and America, Muslims are not permitted to make the call to prayer (Adhan) on loud speakers, church bells ring freely in the Muslim world. And while Muslim Personal Law is not recognized in the West, the Personal Law of non-Muslim minorities has always been recognized in the Muslim world. (This also shows that Islam gives the rights to minorities even in the absence of reciprocity.)
But religious tolerance means accommodation to religious minorities. (A minor point: A minority has to be present in the country before one can demand accommodation). It does not mean undermining the majority. That is what the UN did in this case, for it demanded that Muslims must treat those despised artifacts as valuable cultural heritage in their own land!
Beyond Cultural Hegemony
Of course what triggered the Taliban decision was even worse than this cultural hegemony. As Taliban representative Rahmatullah Hashmi described it, UNESCO and some NGOs (they should really be called FGOs for they are Foreign Government Organizations) had the chutzpah to go to the war, droughts, and sanctions devastated country with the project of renovating the statues even as the people were dying. When told that this money should be spent to reduce the sufferings of the people, the champions of art and culture refused. It was as if they really wanted to rub it in! Given this account, we should really be celebrating the Taliban act. For it was not only the destruction of statues that a Muslim country can live without, it was also the demolition of an obscene idea that the world can and must live without.
A Low Point
While the Afghans stood up to the task, the rest of the Muslim world was not ready for it. We have to remember that the same propaganda machine that framed the issue, has also fed a constant diet of misinformation against the Taliban over the years. A large group of rulers and intellectual and political leaders consisted of people who have willingly or unwittingly bought into the anti-Taliban propaganda. They issued the immediate denunciations and condemnations, even called them idiots and monsters. Their angry and condescending statements and witless vitriol against the idol breakers should be recorded as a low point in the life of the Ummah that had been commanded to shun the filth of idols. As an aside, can anyone realize the damage done to the young minds who could have been given a sound grounding in the lessons of tawheed, but instead were led to believe that idols may be cultural treasures? They may grow up wondering why the Prophets broke idols.
An Honest Disagreement
A small group of respected religious scholars saw the problem differently. Their concern was the potential of the issue being exploited against the Muslim minorities everywhere by the same propaganda machine. This argument relies on the verse: "Revile not you those whom they call upon besides Allah lest they out of spite revile Allah in their ignorance." [Al-An'am 6:108]. Mufti Muhammad Shafi notes that this verse establishes the principle that sometimes even good acts should be avoided if they can lead to bigger harm. Then he cautions against the indiscriminate use of that principle, because stretching it too far one could even argue against Jihad, etc. He points out that if an act is necessary, it must be carried out, and one should make the best efforts to minimize the possible negative consequences.
In a given situation, it is the job of the ulema to determine the application of this principle. Apparently, it was here that there was a disagreement between the scholars in Afghanistan and the others (like Sheikh Yusuf Qardawi) who went to persuade them not to undertake the demolition. As the Taliban stated, the visiting scholars argued that this was not the right time while they countered that for them it was. This is a scholarly disagreement and it should be treated as such--- with respect and civility.
Beyond the Statues
With the statues gone, the point is moot. However many people have now come with their own axes to grind. They have started to take aim at their favorite targets; Wahhabis, Salafis, Deobandis, you name it. The theories presented by some are laughable. (Did they know that Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, the chief leader of the Barelvis in Pakistan praised the Taliban and condemned their opponents?)
The Taliban have emerged from this incident as a people who can be trusted to standup for what is right, despite the intimidation. For their heroic act they have won lot of admiration from the grassroots.
The concern of everyone now should be to not let this controversy create permanent rifts in the Ummah. As long as statues were there, people were looking at nothing else. The statues had eclipsed the entire country. With the statues gone we should be able to see the rest of Afghanistan, with its myriad problems caused by war, internal fighting, and international mangling. The sanctions aim at further exacerbating those problems. They need to be demolished too.
The OIC needs to do some soul-searching. Why it has not yet recognized the government that has brought peace and law and order to 95% of the country? Why it has not begun to support on a massive scale the urgent task of rebuilding the country?
As for the demolitions, another house was just destroyed in Palestine by an occupation army in violation of international law. Did the UN hear that? Did the OIC?