The Konformist

December 2001

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Killing Modern-Day Maccabees

Diana Ralph


As I light the Chanukah candles, I am struck by the parallels between the Maccabees and the Taliban. Both of them organized to overthrow brutal, corrupt, and sacriligious governments. For both, their unwavering goal was to defend what they interpreted as the holy character of their countries. Both armies started with only a few untrained, almost weaponless pious men (taliban means Islamic students) who won impressive battles against overwhelming odds. Both believed those victories reflected God’s support for their cause. Both inspired thousands of young, idealistic men to join them.


Mullah Mohammed Omar is the Judah Maccabeus of Afghanistan. Omar was chosen as Taliban leader, not for his political or military ability, but for his piety. Some even believe he was chosen by God. Like Mattatias, Omar’s father was a religious activist who died when Omar was a young man. And like Judah, Omar chose to interrupt his religious studies to fight for religious integrity (first against the Soviets, then against the corrupt Mujaheddin, and most recently against the US). He was a courageous soldier, wounded four times. In the words of the old Chanukah song, he has been “strong, and brave and bold.”


I realize that you may well react with outrage at any such musings. “How dare you compare the Maccabees to brutal, sexist, terrorists like the Taliban?” you’re probably saying. Please bear with me. I’m writing this piece precisely because I believe the lynch-mob, anti-terrorist rhetoric makes it hard to see the commonalities among us, and to challenge our media-driven assumptions.


The Taliban have been cast in the role of ultimate villains. But only a couple of years ago they were hailed as heroes. The war against the Soviet Union had left 1.5 million Afghanis dead, the country’s economy shattered, and millions of people starving and terrorized by corrupt warlords. Mujahaddin routinely kidnapped and raped women, girls and boys. So, many Afhanis welcomed the Taliban as pious rescuers from decades of chaos.

Pakistan and Saudia Arabia also strongly supported the Taliban, both out of Islamic solidarity and for their own self-serving political motives. Even the United States and Britain supported the Taliban, courting them for rights to construct oil and gas pipelines through their territory, and seeing them as bringing enough peace to allow corporate investment in the region.


As we now know, these “heroes” immediately established the most rigidly fundamentalist Islamic regime in the world, virtually imprisoning all its women, closing schools, destroying Buddahs, attacking Buddists and Christians, publicly executing homosexuals, cutting off the hands of thieves, and so on. I don’t in any way condone those activities.


But it was not for those crimes that the US turned against the Taliban in 1998 and, this fall, declared a war of extermination against them. Officially it was because of Taliban support for Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks. However, this rationale is suspect. It was the US who created and funded the terrorist training camps where bin Laden learned his skills and forged the roots of Al Quaeda. In 1996, the US refused a Saudi offer to extradite bin Laden, and instead suggested that he be deported to Afghanistan. Once there, bin Laden’s forces grew stronger than the Taliban’s. The US knew they had little control over him. Last August, five weeks before the September 11 attacks, President Bush announced he was building “an international alliance to strangle the Taliban leadership.” And after September 11, the US rejected out of hand the Taliban offer to turn bin Laden over to a neutral country for trial. In other words, the bin Laden excuse for the attack on the Taliban doesn’t hold water.


Neither does the “terrorist” label. The Taliban, though brutal warriors, were more concerned with restoring Islam in Afghanistan and with getting recognition from the US as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, than with promoting terrorism abroad. Their association with bin Laden was largely based on his unfulfilled promises to finance significant infrastracture projects in Afghanistan-roads, hospitals, and the like.


Most Taliban members are uneducated, barely literate boys, mostly 14 to 24 year olds, many of whom grew up in refugee camps. They were drawn by the invitation to do something meaningful at great personal risk. The Taliban’s extreme fundamentalist policies, their brutal massacres of Uzbeks and Tajiks, and their lack of connections with the main ethnic groups in Afghanistan had already generated a great deal of domestic opposition to them. They were on their way out, but the US wanted to assure they left on US terms.


The US war on the Taliban has far more to do with its own greed for oil and power. For at least the last four years, the US has been maneuvering for control of the Central Asian region. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bush Senior’s Secretary of State, wrote in 1997, “For America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia. ...America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained”. The Taliban had grown increasingly anti-American, and “unreasonable” because they were not giving the US Unocal oil company free access to construct a gas pipeline through Afghanistan. “At one moment during the negotiations, the US representatives told the Taliban, ‘either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.” And so, from the US perspective, they had to die.


How to get the US public to agree to this power grab? As Brzezinski points out: “the pursuit of power is not a goal that commands popular passion, except in conditions of a sudden threat or challenge to the public’s sense of domestic well-being.” There is growing evidence that the September 11 attacks may well have been engineered by the US to create just such a crisis. (For example, the US got advance notice of a plan to hijack commercial airlines and target the World Trade Center. But the National Command Authority failed to scramble aircraft to counter the attacks until over an hour after the first attack. And Pakistani ISI Chief, General Mahmud (with strong CIA links) ordered an aide to wire transfer $100,000 to Mohammed Atta, the lead terrorist in the suicide hijackings. ) If this shocking news is so, there is absolutely no justification for the genocidal war on the Taliban.


I raise these parallels between the Maccabees and the Taliban to highlight the need for clear thinking in this post-September 11 era. This past week’s headlines cheered the US victories in killing people associated with the Taliban, including their wives and children. (Is this how we protect the women of Afghanistan?) Far more serious is the threatened death by starvation, freezing, land mines, and “collateral damage” of many millions of Afghani people, most of whom have nothing to do with the Taliban.


It seems to me that the parallels between the Maccabees and the Taliban raise several important questions. First of all, we need to challenge our own assumptions about who is a divinely appointed hero and who a terrorist. The Maccabee victory was one of the few Jews ever had. As a people, we have far too much experience with genocidal attacks by power-hungry people eager for scapegoats. As we celebrate Chanukah, we should also stand up against the genocidal assault on the Taliban, a group much like the Maccabees.


That doesn’t mean that we passively condone their zealous excesses. But UN and international sanctions, as well as internal Afghani opposition to the Taliban’s policies would have reversed them with far less destitution than Bush’s brutal war. I pray that this week, we commit to remember the humanity, courage, and godliness of all Muslim people, including the Taliban.

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