Wednesday, May 30, 2007

On violence

Some people understand that responding to fanatical violence with violence only makes for more violence.

Back in March, 2001 Taliban rule in Afghanistan first moved into the forefront of my dim awareness of the world when that regime destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. These giant statues, 121 and 180 feet tall, dating from the 6th century C.E., were carved into niches in sandstone cliffs. Buddhism had long been superceded by Islam; there were no local Buddhists. The statues were historical relics. Successive Muslim rulers had treated them as part of the area's heritage, not blasphemous idols. Even the Taliban at first promised to preserve them; Bamiyan was a recognized UNESCO World Heritage site. For reasons about which there is controversy, in March 2001 the Taliban changed their minds: the Islamists claimed the statues had been worshipped as idols by non-believers and must not be allowed to survive.

The whole world, including all 54 states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, protested their destruction. What struck me as a very distant observer was that the folks who seemed least exercised by this act of cultural violence were contemporary Buddhists. Yes, there were popular, peaceful protests in Buddhist countries. But the following sentiment was also expressed in many forms:

I'm a Buddhist. It's a real shame that any ancient art, Buddhist or otherwise is ever destroyed by anybody. The consequences of any action based on greed, hatred or delusion will inevitably be bad. It doesn't look good for the Taliban. But I think that the suffering of humanity is far more important than any art. So we should respond with kindness to the Taliban, try not to be too judgmental as we too have our own faults.

Sion Williams, UK
BBC Talking Point (a call in show)
March 12, 2001

Just the other day, somebody in Iraq, most likely fundamentalist Islamist insurgents, set off a huge bomb outside the shrine of Shaikh Abdul Qadir al-Gilani (d. 1166 A.D.) a great mystic who founded the vast Qadiriya Sufi order. Juan Cole used this unhappy occasion to explain the place of Sufi mysticism as a current within Sunni Islam and asserted a hope that the attack would not set off retaliation. According to Cole,

One saving grace is that Sufis are oriented toward symbolic meaning, and physical places are therefore not central to their worship. One famous medieval Sufi, al-Hallaj, famously thought that it was better to visit God in your heart truly than to undertake a perfunctory pilgrimage to Mecca. (The orthodox were outraged.) It is a little unlikely, therefore, that there will be a backlash from this bombing in Nigeria or Senegal or India. For Iraqi Sunnis, likewise, it seems a little unlikely to produce further violence, since the imam himself blamed the radical Salafis (takfiris), themselves Sunni.

He goes on to report

Muhammad al-Isawi, the prayer leader and preacher at the mosque attached to the shrine, said, "I send condolences not only to myself but to all Iraqis for what befell this mosque for everyone, for Sunni and Shiite, for Turkmen and Kurd. Who benefits from blowing it up? We must be patient and resigned and deny any opportunity to the enemies, the Takfiri terrorists."

Some people understand that responding to fanatical violence with violence only makes for more violence. Can we learn from them?

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