OFTEN it is said that the Afghans are far more freedom loving than Indians. They never tolerate the presence of foreigners for more than 10 years. During the British colonial rule they fought the British advance and forced it to retreat. In recent years they have forced the Russians out and now the Afghan tribes have once again united against Americans and are giving them a tough fight, whereas we Indians kowtow to the occupying foreign powers for a thousand years, and rarely succeed in throwing them out.
Let me point out one cardinal exception when the Afghans capitulated, and that holds the key to a turning point in history. Between 8th and 10th century AD the Afghans were defeated by the Arab-Islamic invasion and since then the occupation has lasted till today and struck deeper roots. The Afghans have forgotten their pre-Islamic Buddhist identity and aspired to resemble the Arab conqueror more and more. They have forgotten their pre-Islamic script and write all native languages in Arabic script. The languages of Afghanistan, Pashto, Tajik and Uzbek, are all being increasingly Arabized and marginalized. The Arabic language is playing an increasingly central role and will likely become the lingua franca in a few decades. The Taliban leaders who ruled Afghanistan for several years till 2001 were all fluent Arabic speakers. Many of the Madrasahs (religious schools) run by the Taliban use Arabic as the medium. They destroyed the giant mountain-side monolithic Buddha statues of Bamyan valley. The Taliban leaders of Pakistan also destroyed the giant mountain-side Buddha statue of the Swat valley. The Afghans have more or less destroyed their ancestors’ (pre-Islamic) civilization. We Indians have not ’sold our soul’ to that extent. Our Civilization and culture are grievously injured but not destroyed.
How does one explain this historical phenomenon? The clue lies in the mindset of Assyrians, Babylonians and the Jews which passed their DNA to Islam. The Arab-Islamic invasion first captured Iran and then moved on to Afghanistan and the fate of Iranian and Afghan pre-Islamic civilizations are similar. So let us start with Iranian history.
Iran in olden days used to call itself Persia, Parasya in Sanskrit. It had a thriving classical civilization (Achaemenid) with underpinnings of Zoroastrianism, a religion established by Prophet Zarathushtra. One of the early kings was Cyrus the Great. The land of Judea and Samaraia on river Jordan (now Palestine) was then populated by the Jews who had their main temple at Jerusalem. Assyrians and Babylonians, who came from Mesopotamia, the land between rivers Tigris and Euphrates, conquered the Jews between 721 and 587 BC, and destroyed the temple of Jerusalem along with numerous other temples all over the land. The Jewish ruling class, consisting of royals, aristocrats, priests and scholars, was decimated by slaughter and deportation to Mesopotamia. In 538 BC Cyrus thereat conquered Babylon and discovered the displaced Jewish people. He facilitated their return and rehabilitation in their ancestral land. He allocated a large sum from his treasury and appointed a Commissioner to oversee the restoration of the Jews’ temples and culture. The Jerusalem temple was rebuilt to its original grandeur. No other king on earth has spared so much effort for reviving the culture and civilization of an alien people. Jews in their scriptures acknowledge Cyrus with gratitude. But they did not learn the virtue of tolerance from him but lapsed back into their older ways of horrific religious intolerance as described in the Old Testament. They started an intense persecution of the Samaritans, an older more orthodox Abrahamic sect, and eventually destroyed the main Samaritan temple. A small number of Samaritans still precariously exist in Syria.
The historically important question is why did the Assyrians and Babylonians try to destroy Jewish religion and culture, and why did the Jews do the same to the Samaritans? The answer lies in building politico-economic hegemony. In the Judaic-Assyrian-Babylonian tradition religion is an instrument of politics. Religion is used in establishing durable political hegemony by suppressing the identity of the subject race. The conqueror forces the vanquished to abandon his religion and culture. Thereafter the priests employed by the conqueror teach the subjugated people to hate their own ancestral culture. To enforce this the conqueror systematically destroys temples, burns books and slaughters the thinkers, intellectuals, administrators, priests of the of the subject race. (We saw an element of this when Pakistan tried to suppress resurgent Bangladeshi nationalism in 1970-71. The Pakistani army systematically massacred students, teachers, intellectuals and the professional class of lawyers, civil servants etc.) In this scheme of things the state is an expression of religio-body-politic. Upon destruction of his culture the vanquished is absorbed into the religio-body-politic of the conqueror. Thereafter the vanquished does not rebel but aspires to grow closer in identity to his conqueror and develops intense hatred for his own ancestral culture. This proved to be an extremely effective method in establishing permanent hegemony. By altering the world view and cosmic view of the vanquished, who had been rebellious to begin with, he was turned into a loyal soldier of the conquering power. This helped further conquest and Islam marched on by eliminating ancient civilizations one after another. In Egypt it destroyed the original Pharaohnic civilization which had its distinct script and language that had descended from the Hieroglyphic of the Pharaohs’ times. Egyptians no longer speak their original language. They have all become Arabic speakers. This method’s terrific efficacy in building a hegemony explains the rapid progress of Islam from the shores of Arabia to engulf vast tracts of North Africa and West Asia up to the borders of India within a couple of centuries. However, the greatest irony of history is that Cyrus the Great restored Jewish culture and civilization, and several centuries later a daughter-religion of Judaism, Islam, destroyed his civilization.
What happened to Iran has also happened to Afghanistan. The Afghans hate their ancestral culture and that is why they destroy Buddha statues. During the rule of the Taliban regime the Kabul museum lost many of the artifacts of the Buddhist period. India with all her faults has been resisting this onslaught. There is however much room to worry. India’s Muslim converts have become victims of this process and forgotten that they are the descendants of Buddhist-Hindu ancestors. Our leaders and scholars should lose no opportunity to remind them of this fact.
At one time after the advent of Christianity the Europeans too had forgotten about their pre-Christian Greco-Roman-Norse pagan roots. They rediscovered these during the 16th century renaissance. They started to read Greek philosophers/scholars like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and Pythagoras. They renewed their interest in the ancient republican model of Roman politics and law. Classical Greek study became a fashion in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge that originally grew out of Christian seminaries. Present day Europeans are proud of both their Greco-Roman pagan culture and Christian religion. Indian Muslims need such a renaissance. The leaders, scholars and historians of modern India should remind our Muslim brethren that their ancestors were Hindu-Buddhists, their genome is the same as that of the Hindus and Buddhists and they should be proud as much of their pre-Islamic heritage as their Islamic religion.
(The writer is the Professor, Aerospace Engineering Department, IIT Kanpur.)