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Breivik, Afghanistan and What Academics Are For

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I'm an academic, but for a year or so I've been trying to market a popular book. I haven't managed to shift many copies, to be honest, but it's been a fascinating experience and, generally speaking, a lot of fun. There's a downside to escaping the ivory tower of academia, though. When you write about a topic as controversial as Afghanistan, in particular, the brickbats start to fly. I've found myself being called a Hinduphobe by a self-proclaimed expert on Hindu history, and a racist and Islamophobe by a self-appointed representative of Muslims in the UK (who's also a Huffpost blogger--hiya, Mo!). There I was thinking that I was a pretty common-or-garden liberal, maybe even slightly more attuned to interracial fairness and injustice than average given my Welsh ancestry. Ho hum.

As far as I'm concerned I've never maligned any Muslims or hated any Hindus, and I'm not planning to start today. What I am going to do, and do unashamedly, is act like an academic. Because we academics sometimes feel a bit undervalued in contemporary society, but if there's one thing I've learned in this whole process it's the crucial importance of the thing that academics are trained to do above all others, meticulous research.

I can pinpoint the moment when the value of old-fashioned, unglamorous factchecking really came home to me. I was reading 2083--A European Declaration of Independence, the manifesto composed and distributed by Anders Behring Breivik in advance of the atrocities he committed on July 22 2011 in Oslo and on Utøya island. In it Breivik collects together the information necessary for activists engaged in what Breivik was confident would result from his terrorism: a Europe-wide war to expel Islam from the continent.

My book was about the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two gigantic statues carved from a cliff face in central Afghanistan, demolished by the Taliban in 2001. I was reading Breivik, among other reasons, because he's very interested in the Hindu Kush, the band of mountains that sweeps across Afghanistan from the North-East to the West: Bamiyan sits in a valley in the heart of those mountains. The focus of Breivik's interest is a very esoteric question indeed, the origin of the name "Hindu Kush". On the web Breivik had found the argument that "Hindu Kush" means "Hindu Killer", and that the name of the range commemorates the death of thousands of Hindu slaves transported over the high passes by Muslim slavers. Breivik refers repeatedly in his 1,500-word manifesto to a "genocide" of Hindus by Muslims immortalized in the name of the mountain range: the "Hindu Kush, the largest Genocide in the history of man", "Hindu/Buddhist genocides--Hindu Kush, the largest Genocides in the history of man", "the Hindu Kush genocides (80 million massacred Hindus, 100 million enslaved)". For Breivik, "Hindu Kush" becomes shorthand for the brutality he regards as intrinsic to the religion of Islam. That conviction in turn motivated him to commit mass murder.

Let's take a closer look at this idea. First of all, Breivik can only get to the spectacular numbers he throws about by confusing this story of the slave trade over the Hindu Kush with Hindu-Muslim conflicts more generally, and even so he's wildly exaggerating the death toll. But the "Hindu-Killer" theory itself is just as dubious. It goes back to a prolific Hindu-nationalistic blogger named Koenraad Elst, as it happens the man who called me a Hinduphobe over the summer. He in turn had got it from the great Arabic traveller Ibn Battuta, who crossed the Hindu Kush on his way to Delhi way back in the winter of 1333:
"Another reason for our halt was fear of the snow. For upon this road there is a mountain called Hindukush, which means 'the slayer of the Indians', because the slave boys and girls who are brought from the land of India die there in large numbers as a result of the extreme cold and the great quantity of snow. The passage of it extends for a whole day's march."

Now, it's perfectly true that "Hindu Kush" seems to a Persian speaker to mean "Hindu-Killer", on the analogy of a Persian word like ādam-kush, "man-killer, murderer." On the other hand, even if his explanation of the name of the mountains were correct, Ibn Battuta isn't describing anything that can justify the term genocide. But in actual fact Ibn Battuta, a truly remarkable man but no expert in historical linguistics, is obviously just repeating a local folktale he'd heard. Names, even apparently very meaningful names like "Hindu Kush", aren't some kind of magic key to the history of a place. Let's consider a parallel. In the leafy Cotswolds of England there are two picturesque villages called Upper and Lower Slaughter. If I were Koenraad Elst I might speculate that their names commemorated the brutal treatment of my ancestors by the invading Anglo-Saxons, elevated and less elevated sites of Celtic genocide. But if we follow reputable linguistic analysis, rather than relying on folklore, we discover that "Slaughter" is a derivation of Old English *slōhtre, "muddy place": compare "slough" (or "Slough").

The truth is that nobody really knows why the Hindu Kush has the name it does, but the experts are pretty confident that it's nothing to do with anybody getting slaughtered. Anyway, the reality of the conversion of the Hindu Kush to Islam is much more complicated than the bloodbaths Elst and Breivik are so keen to imagine. To take just one solitary example, the most vivid account we have of Buddhist worship at Bamiyan is to be found in a tenth-century Arabic text composed in Baghdad, cultural centre of the Islamic world. In other words, a Muslim witnessed and recorded Buddhist observance at Bamiyan, and other Muslims avidly consumed what he wrote. What Breivik believes, and found evidence in Elst's work to support, was that Islam is an inherently violent religion incapable of tolerating the existence of non-Muslims. The evidence suggests that it was always much more a process of compromise, coexistence and give-and-take.

Conjuring historical events out of thin air like this is batty, but more than that: bad history can exert a very bad influence. Marko Attila Hoare has also studied Breivik's manifesto, and concludes that "Breivik's actions are exceptional, but his views are not." In other words, what Breivik ended up doing was unparalleled, and let's pray it will remain so. But Breivik shares his analysis of the world situation with a terrifyingly large number of people. Breivik's sources have been mapped by Andrew Brown in The Guardian, and centre on a close network of "counter-jihad" sites run by figures such as the American activists Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. In these circles prejudiced versions of history are common currency, a way of lending a patina of academic authority to their opinions. Now, we cannot blame Geller, Spencer or Elst for Breivik's massacres, but we can ask what lurid historical concoctions like slave transports through the Hindu Kush (not to mention emotive use of the word "genocide") are designed to do, if not provoke fear and anger against Muslims. What is it for otherwise?

The truth about the history of the Hindu Kush is that it has always been a space where different cultures encountered each other. Sometimes there was violence, but that doesn't mean it was a place where cultures simply fought, pillaged and raped, and reinforced their irreconcilable differences. In Bamiyan Iranians followed an Indian religion, Buddhism, and hundreds of years before the Buddhas were carved Greek kings of the Hindu Kush minted coins depicting an elephant, symbol of India, and the staff of the god Hermes, god of communication and interaction. Those Greek kings, successors of Alexander the Great, became patrons of Buddhism. Recent discoveries confirm the existence of a large Jewish community in the area. The Hindu Kush was a crossroads, and an infinitely varied melting pot of religions and ethnicities.

I've made the point before that the (real) Islamophobes like Geller, Spencer and Raymond Ibrahim have a lot in common with Islamic extremists. Both extremes agree that the fundamentalist accounts of Islam from figures like Bin Laden are the true Islam, and that no accommodation is possible between non-Muslim and Muslim cultures. As such, and this is an important point, the "counter-jihadists" are the jihadists' very best friends, working to ensure what jihadists aspire to most, an unbridgeable gulf between Islam and the rest of the world. Of course, the millions of Muslims living in the West give the lie to this, but they are poorly served by many of those who claim to speak for them, in the UK especially. The man who called me an Islamophobe for querying his (uncompromising) formulations of Islam is in his own way contributing to the view, worryingly prevalent among both Muslims and non-Muslims, that the secular systems prevailing in the West are incompatible with a proper observance of Islam.

For the Hindu Kush, at any rate, historical simplifications and black-and-white ideologies, on both sides, have had melancholy consequences. It is a place of stunning natural beauty and archaeological riches, alongside an impoverished people who have suffered more than anyone else in Afghanistan's recent conflicts. The Buddhas of Bamiyan, in the middle of the mountains, were demolished for being monuments incompatible with "true" Islam, and the Hazara people, whose homeland is the highlands of the Hindu Kush, the Hazarajat, have been massacred, and continue to be massacred for being Shi'a, a form of Islam incompatible, according to Sunni purists, with true Islam. The word genocide has been used of the Hazaras' plight, this time with some justice. Meanwhile the mountains around Bamiyan have been transformed by Hindu extremists and their sympathizers into a monument of Islam's alleged inhumanity, the "Hindu-killer".

The academic just repeats the most valuable thing an academic can ever say. History tells a much more nuanced story. Study a thing meticulously and disinterestedly and it's always more complicated than a simple Them versus Us.