When the Taleban took power in Afghanistan, they embarked on a cultural agenda that we in the West mocked. As it turns out, they appreciated sensitivities that we did not recognise at the time: the threat that cultural history poses to the present. At a time of natural disaster and general upheaval, when out-of-touch elites prioritised cultural protection over basic needs, Mullah Omar’s logic in 2001 was impeccable. The Bamiyan Buddhas needed to be blown up.
In our own time of crisis, as statues of Churchill, Gandhi, Queen Victoria, and even Lincoln have been defaced by men with beards (albeit better-trimmed) it is now clear that Mullah Omar was not just a fanatic pursuing a daft fantasy of cultural purity. He was modernising his country’s cultural inventory, a process which Britain had not recognised the need for. Until now.
The Taleban worked out – in a way that Britain was slow to – that public statues are not politically neutral. They are statements about who and what we honour as a society. They carry the power structures of one age into another. Every collective generation has the right to ensure their values are reflected in the statues they pass. Modernity means that the aperture narrows. Five years ago it was Rhodes must fall. Today it is Churchill must fall. It turns out there was a slippery slope—to utopia. There is a map of the statues that campaigners want torn down, in which we see such ghouls as Robert Peel (inventor of modern policing) William Gladstone (inherited slaveowning money), and Thomas Guy (investor in the South Sea Company).
The Taleban banned musical instruments and dancing in the 1990s because they encouraged “moral corruption.” They would not have tolerated the mention of Fawlty Towers.