Statues, The Propaganda Machine, and The
Ummah: The Day After
By Khalid Baig
Posted: 20 Zul-Hijjah 1421, 16 March 2001
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.
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
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-Allah
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, Yaûq, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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