The Taleban's is not so much an austere interpretation of Islam as one that distorts, often violates the words and spirit of the faith. Which is why Muslims everywhere have joined the international chorus of condemnation.
HAD THE Taleban not been isolated from the world by the American-led economic sanctions, starved of resources of which they had few to begin with, rendered too helpless to do anything for their 1 million internally displaced people fleeing drought or civil war, reduced to being mute witnesses to the death of starving and shivering children in winter refugee camps, would the rulers of Afghanistan have been less likely to destroy priceless pre-Islamic treasures?
But of this there is little doubt: We would have had greater credibility in trying to save Afghanistan's historic treasures had we been more helpful in saving its human beings.
While that debate goes on, there is another: What is the Islamic critique of the Taleban rampaging all statues, including two giant 2,000-year-old Buddhas?
Not much different than the secular world's. For these Philistines are ignorant of the theology they invoke to justify their tyrannical rule.
Theirs is not so much an austere interpretation of Islam as one that distorts, often violates the words and spirit of the faith. Which is why Muslims everywhere have joined the international chorus of condemnation.
The Taleban's shaky grip on religious doctrine shows in the confusing edict of their spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Graven images are blasphemous, he ruled. Idols are insulting to Islam. ``They are the gods of the infidels.'' But they could be preserved so long as they were not worshipped. Then changing his mind, he said all statues must be smashed, the way Prophet Muhammad destroyed the idols of Mecca. And he wondered about the worldwide fuss: ``All we are breaking are stones.''
The old Islamic injunction against drawing the human form is similar to the Christian and Jewish prohibition of the Ten Commandments: ``Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.''
Swept aside long ago - with the impeccable logic that if pictures and TV can show and transmit the word of God, how can they be illicit? - the ban is now preserved only by the Luddites who, like those of any faith, fear any innovation.
Citing Muhammad's actions in Mecca 1,400 years ago to justify intolerance today is theologically false, says Islamic scholar Mohammed Zahid of Toronto:
"The Ka'ba was the historic monotheistic centre of worship, established by Abraham, but later filled with idols. The prophet overturned that aggression,'' but went on to establish a multireligious state.
Islam extended to Christians and Jews, whose prophets they shared, full protection of the state, calling them dhimmis, from dhimma, guarantor. Declared Muhammad: ``Whoever oppresses a dhimmi, I shall be his prosecutor on the Day of Judgment.''
The sharia, the governing law of a Muslim state, dictated harmonious relations for the whole millet, multireligious community. The duties of the governor included ensuring that non-Muslims lived free of religious harassment.
The state was to provide non-Muslims even the right to be tried under their own religious laws - a feature not duplicated by any other system, ``legal exclusivism being the very essence of national or political sovereignty,'' in the words of the authoritative Cultural Atlas Of Islam (Macmillan, New York, 1986).
When Muslims conquered Persia, they extended full protection to Zoroastrians.
When they defeated the Byzantines, the caliph signed a treaty granting Christians ``security of their persons and all their properties, their churches and their crosses, large and small.''
When the first Muslim conqueror came to the Indian subcontinent in 711, not far from where the Taleban rule, he had never heard of Hindus or Buddhists. So he sought instructions from head office in Damascus. There the caliph called a synod of senior theologians. They wrote back that minorities ``must remain free to worship their gods as they please, to maintain their temples and to determine their lives by the precepts of their faiths.''
The Taleban would be unaware of all this. Ironically, also most people in the West. They are seeped in the folklore, rooted in the legacy of the Crusaders and replenished daily by the dictates of modern geopolitics, that Islam was spread by the sword and is, inherently, intolerant.
Muslims often ruled empires where the faiths of the non-Muslim majority thrived Some conquerors and rulers, as those of any faith, did invoke religion to spill much blood and destroy many holy places, including Hindu temples in India. But the greater truth remains, to which the Taleban also remain oblivious: that Muslims often ruled empires where the faiths of the non-Muslim majority not only survived but thrived, and their religious relics and monuments were preserved, proof being that we have them today - European churches, the Pyramids, Petra, the temples of India and beyond.
The Taleban - as indeed some other Muslim rulers these days, even if far less obscurantist than they - may read the Quran, the holy book in Arabic, but clearly don't understand and certainly don't follow its clear dictates:
Let there be no compulsion in religion. (2:256)
Whoever wills, let him believe; and whoever does not will, let him disbelieve. (18.29)
Also, an entire short chapter (111):
Say: O ye unbelievers.
I worship not that which ye worship,
And ye do not worship that which I worship;
I shall never worship that which ye worship,
Neither will ye worship that which I worship.
To you be your religion; to me mine.