Radio Mullah vs Gandhara Buddha

By Caroline Watson, Asia Times, Dec 19, 2007

"Impermanence or decay is the inherent nature of everything that exists in the universe - whether animate or inanimate." - Buddhist teaching

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- On December 15, President Pervez Musharraf addressed the nation. Pakistan's state of emergency is over, he said, and the country can look ahead to free and fair elections in January. Although Musharraf may have had power-clutching motives for declaring the emergency last month, one key reason he has repeatedly given for the move was the emergence of Pakistan's new pro-Taliban frontline in the Swat Valley.

<< "The Buddha of Jehanabad" defaced

Following the imposition of the emergency, military operations in the Swat Valley began. Swathes of Pakistan's troubled North-West Frontier Province were placed under strict curfew. As pro-Taliban militants fought the military, families in the areas which saw the worst clashes, like Shangla, were forced to leave their homes. Swat found itself amid a war of ideas and beliefs, a war for the imposition of hardline sharia (Islamic) law.

This is where the Swat Valley finds itself now. But, long ago, this area was a capital of the Gandhara civilization. A mighty empire, under a dynasty of Buddhist Kushun kings. At that time these lush alpine valleys must have been filled with thousands of statues and examples of Buddhist art, furnished by the rich civilization that reigned.

Now there is only one such statue left - the Buddha of Jehanabad. A beacon of Gandhara heritage, the Buddha of Jehanabad is the only remaining Buddha of its size and quality carved into the rock in the area. Standing at 23 feet, the 7th-century statue is considered the most important carving of its kind. It is unique, the most complete and priceless remains of Gandhara.

Recently, the Buddha of Jehanabad come into conflict with another famous personality of the region: the cleric-turned-militant who has led the campaign in the Swat Valley, Maulana Fazlullah - the "Radio Mullah".

The Buddha of Jehanabad lost. The statue suffered two attacks by militants led by Maulana Fazlullah. The second attack succeeded in seriously defacing it after explosives were detonated on the Buddha's face.

Quiet outrage has been expressed by a few. Others have grown numb to such acts, for they have happened before: this was a copycat attack, mimicking the destruction in 2001of Afghanistan's Bamyian Buddhas.

In March 2001, the world recoiled as the Taliban began dynamiting the giant statues and continued for several weeks until the Buddhas were destroyed.

As the Taliban ascended to power, they banned all forms of imagery, music and sports, including television. In March 2001 they declared that "all the statues should be destroyed because these statues have been used as idols and deities by the non-believers before". The Swat Valley's Buddha of Jehanabad was considered second in importance after the Buddhas of Bamyian.

The defacement of the Buddha has come to symbolize the changing face of Swat. Swat was once a favorite tourist spot - the "Switzerland of South Asia". Domestic and foreign visitors flocked to the green, peaceful valleys, in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. In winter, they sped down its ski slopes. The region's cultural heritage, fronted by the Buddha of Jehanabad, was a major attraction and a testament to its long and diverse history.

The Swat Valley was famed for its peace, serenity and beauty. But, today, its public image is dominated by another imposing figure. With a taste for the theatric and an eye on his own supremacy, Maulana Fazlullah is holding Swat in an ever-increasing grip.

The attacks on the Buddha of Jehanabad occurred during the holy month of Ramadan - just as Maulana Fazlullah intensified his campaign. It was a battle cry. Iconography and cultural images would be desecrated and destroyed. It seemed that representations of other ways of understanding the world, even if they be from the distant past, would not be allowed to survive.

The Buddha of Jehanabad was attacked by militants from Maulana Fazlullah's extreme religious group Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Sharia Muhammadia (TNSM). Religious leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad from Bajaur Agency, a tribal area close to Afghan province of Kunar, separated from the religious party Jamat-e-Islami and created TNSM in 1992. TNSM quickly gained popularity in the villages and towns of Swat and the surrounding area. Later, after a peace agreement was signed with the Pakistani government in 1995, its activity slowed.

TNSM surfaced again after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and declared jihad against the US. Thousands gathered and left for Afghanistan under the leadership of the TNSM chief. Later, Maulana Sufi Muhammad returned, but many of the lay jihadis did not. Maulana Sufi Muhammad was put in prison, where he remains, and TNSM went dormant once again.

After the devastating earthquake of October 8, 2005, TNSM began preaching that the earthquake was a warning from Allah. If believers failed to mend their ways, they said, they would face even more severe punishments. The rallying cry had begun again. Six months later, in May 2006, hundreds of people could be seen gathering and burning thousands of TV and music players along with CDs and cassettes in Matta and Kanju in the Swat Valley.

At this time the scene was set for the entrance of the son-in-law of imprisoned Sufi Muhammed - a firebrand cleric, based at a madrassa (seminary) in Imam Dheri, a small town outside the larger town of Saidu Sharif. Now an infamous religious personality in the region, locals now call him the Maulai Sahib of Imam Dheri.

Maulana Fazlullah established an illegal FM radio station at Imam Dheri. From here, the "Radio Mullah" delivered sermons and programs of Islamic teachings. He also called for attacks on things "un-Islamic". His broadcasts decried things ranging from modern Bollywood movies to the Buddha of Jehanabad. Girls were advised to only attend school wearing burkha (dress covering the entire body, including the face). Later girls' schools were closed altogether. He outlawed polio vaccinations, claiming they were a ploy by the West to render Muslims impotent.

The station was banned by Pakistan's government. After the operation in Swat, the Radio Mullah fled into hiding, taking his portable broadcast equipment with him. He continued to broadcast long into the operation, evading the authorities and military. When Swat was pronounced calmer last week, a group of journalists were admitted to the area and given a tour - just hours before their arrival Maulana Fazlullah had been broadcasting from an unknown location.

The outlook in Swat's main towns has now improved. Many militants have been captured, and others have fled to far-flung areas. Locals welcomed the army when they entered the area last week. Since then Musharraf has lifted the six-week long state of emergency. But the Radio Mullah remains at liberty and license, and the Buddha of Jehanabad remains irreparably damaged, a permanent scar of the Swat Valley's very recent history.

Caroline Watson is a freelance writer. She has been living in the Hindu Kush over the past 18 months, teaching in a school in North-West Frontier Province.