To correct this “downfall” of Church and society, Savonarola ordered his followers to move door-to-door collecting immoral items like paintings, sculptures, mirrors, cosmetics, chess games, musical instruments, women’s hats, and ‘sinful’ poetry and books. In a moment that would come to be known as the Bonfire of the Vanities, he and his followers then gathered in Florence’s main square and torched the whole lot.
The spirit of Savonarola’s fear and backwardness is still alive and well today in Afghanistan. There the Taliban, a group of religious warriors and tribesmen, threaten the light of culture and artistic expression in that country. The parallels to Savonarola’s Bonfire are startling and challenge recent arguments in favour of cultural understanding towards the Taliban.
The question is: are the Taliban simply a different culture that should be accepted as any other? Or do westerners, far removed from Afghan culture and context, have reason to intervene and stop the cultural rampage of an ancient nation.
Writing in the Guardian last summer, James Fergusson argues for more cultural understanding of the Taliban, “We are wasting our time trying to change their society. . . It might help if we understood the Taliban better. The harshness of the punishments they sometimes mete out only seems incomprehensible to the West. The strict sexual propriety the Taliban insist upon is rooted in ancient Pashtun tribal custom, the over-riding purpose of which is to protect the integrity of the tribe, and nothing threatens the gene pool like extramarital relations.”
In a similar vein, Saleem H. Ali, of Foreign Policy Magazine, argues for a new state he calls Talibanistan: “The United States and NATO shouldn't dismiss out of hand the idea of giving the Taliban and their Islamist sympathizers some measure of political self-rule. There's no denying that the Islamists' brutish and austere vision of justice is foreign to the sensibilities of modern minds in the region and the Western world… Nonetheless, giving the Islamists an autonomous region would force them to prove their political bona fides.”
But this is naïve.
Cultural relativism is the respectable belief that all cultures should be treated equally, and understood on their own terms. It’s a type of thinking particularly helpful cross-culturally when certain practices may seem bizarre to foreigners, but are perfectly acceptable in their native context (like polygamy, for example). Yet when applied to the Taliban, it’s a way of thinking that ignores Afghan history.
The Taliban do not represent of all of Afghan culture. They're a unique group originating from the rural Pashtun areas of Southern Afghanistan, fed by madrassa students in neighbouring Pakistan, and informed by Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia. The Taliban (just like Savonarola) are considered poor students of their theology and are outsiders to the cultural centres they rally to change. According to author and journalist, Ahmed Rashid, “The Taliban are poorly tutored in Islamic and Afghan history, knowledge of Sharia and the Koran and the political and theoretical developments in the Muslim world during the twentieth century” (1).
With this in mind, it’s difficult to argue that the Taliban represent Afghan culture. Much of the movement originates outside Afghanistan and their interpretation of Islam isn’t widely recognized by religious scholars. They’ve also exported these beliefs into regions that were traditionally liberal and tolerant.
The ancient Afghan city of Herat, for example, was once a regional centre of learning, art and poetry. It has a long history of interreligious communities and was home to elegant mosques, libraries, public baths, and palaces. The city was bombed heavily during the war against the Soviet Union, but its residents retained a culture of esteem for high learning and art. After the war, Herat still maintained an effective administration, functioning health care system, and schools for over 150,000 students, half of whom were girls.
When the Taliban captured the city in 1995, however, they promptly closed every school and forbade girls from studying at home.
The capital of Kabul met a similar fate. Once renowned as a liberal and culturally vibrant city, during the 60s and 70s its famous cafes welcomed western hippies on their way to India. Women occupied a quarter of the work force, accounting for all elementary school teachers and most health care workers. Then, within twenty-four hours of Taliban control, seventy thousand female students were taken out of classrooms, and all women were banned from employment, effectively crippling thecity’s education and health systems. In a throwback to Savonarola, the Taliban banned music, impure images, religious icons, women’s fine clothing and cosmetics, chess, football, and even kite-flying. According to Rashid, most Taliban had never even visited a large city, yet in Kabul they found themselves running a “vibrant, semi-modern, multi-ethnic, city of 1.2 million, in which Pashtuns were only a small minority” (2).
Cultural sensitivity does not apply to the Taliban because the Taliban do not represent the culture of the larger Afghan population. The cities they control express Taliban culture by force, not preference.
The Renaissance was the dawn of a new and beautiful cultural age in Western society, but was attacked by a small group with a narrow interpretation of God and morality. Looking back now (and knowing what a catalyst that time was for Western art and culture), it’s easy to see how misguided this view may have been. Similarly, in Afghanistan a backward group of rural, uneducated clerics now exports its own version of Islam and social morality into the cities and cultural centres of a once tolerant society. Viewing Taliban culture as a culture to be respected ignores the rich heritage of an entire region and sacrifices the liberal and the creative for the hyper conservative and destructive.
Comparing Savonarola and the Taliban is revealing because they represent such similar sentiments, yet come from different times, cultures, and religions. Apparently the fear and religious fundamentalism they express is a recurring impulse of resistance in the grand process of human cultural evolution. As such resistance may be necessary at times (3), it’s all the more important that we agree to distinguish between regressive forms of resistance and inspired ones. I believe we can reject regressive forms of religion, for example, without becoming bigots or rejecting religion entirely. We might call such a thing inspired intolerance: intolerance born from an authentic wish to realize the full potential of human capacities and powers in this evolving universe. It would take courage, but could offer a healthy balance to the hard-won relativistic tendencies of postmodernity.
The irony of Savonarola’s end was to be burned at the stake in the very same square in which he torched the treasures of Florence. The question is, will the Taliban meet a similar fate as Afghanis reclaim their stolen culture, and should the West endeavour to help?
(1) Rashid, Ahmed (2001). Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 93.
(2) Ibid, p. 51.
(3) Necessary resistance movements, such as those against the excesses of Wall Street or the environmental degradation of modern production techniques, are laudable because they seek to renew systems that are essentail for human flourishing. And they too should be examined thoroughly. There are, for example, some environmental policies that are quite regressive, but that conversation will have to wait.
Hat tip to Igal M. for his timely history lesson!