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Afghanistan: A Land of Awakened People

In the past, Afghanistan has been home to Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist, as well as Muslim communities. All these traditions flourished in harmony -- until the 20th century.
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The war continues to rage in Afghanistan. The enduring violence and conflict has left the nation, its people and economy in ruins. Over the past nine years, billions of dollars have been spent and army commanders have come and gone. Like many of its neighbours in the Middle East, Afghanistan continues to find its existence challenged by the problem of terrorism, fundamentalism and fanaticism. Why is there so much violence and extremism in Afghanistan? Why are the same Muslims that live in India, Indonesia and Malaysia able to live more peacefully with their neighbours? The answer could lie in an incomplete understanding of the history and culture of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has long stood at the crossroads of a number of cultural and spiritual traditions. Because of its strategic location between the Middle and Far East, it has been an important trading route and meeting place of different cultures for thousands of years. In the past Afghanistan has been home to Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist as well as Muslim communities. All these traditions flourished in harmony -- the country thrived both intellectually and materially because of its openness to various ideas -- until the 20th century. Unfortunately, in this century Afghans have been encouraged or otherwise forced to disown and disrespect their own ancestral heritage, which promoted the values of non-violence and tolerance. Disowning these traditions has resulted in a rise of fanaticism and fundamentalism, which has radicalized an entire generation.

Many people don't realize that the ancient Zoroastrian religion has its roots in present day Afghanistan. Buddhism entered Afghanistan at a very early period, and over the centuries, various rulers, both non-Buddhist and Buddhist, supported the widespread construction of Buddhist monasteries there. Afghanistan was once a centre of Vedic culture. In fact the word Afghanistan comes from the Sanskrit roots, "ahi", "gana", and "sthan", meaning the country of awakened people. A number of Hindu teachers and Buddhists monks of great reputation lived in Afghanistan and founded famous universities and schools of yoga and meditation there. There was a rich tradition of meditation, spirituality, music, dance, and architecture, all of which has been systematically suppressed in recent times and replaced by an aggressive and extremist interpretation of Islam.

When pride becomes associated with aggression in a culture, it can lead youth to believe that theirs is the only right path, and that they have the right to destroy anything that they see as blasphemous and against the will of God. If a person identifies himself primarily with a religion, culture or nationality, he can remain locked in that position, to fight and die for it -- and others will die with him.

Often violence comes with noise. Non-violence happens in silence. People who are violent make huge noise; they make it known. People who are non-violent are quiet. But the time has come for people who are non-violent to make noise so that the violence will quieten down. The message of non-violence has to come loud and clear so that it can be heard from a young age. The way to get rid of fanaticism in Afghanistan and elsewhere is through an education that emphases non-violence and is broad-based, multicultural and multi-religious so that as a child grows up, he or she does not think that only the Bible or the Koran hold the truth. Religious and spiritual leaders in particular need to have a broader understanding of cultures and religions. We have to teach children to embrace non-violence and value human life more than any particular religion or culture.

When we learn to broaden our vision and deepen our roots in this way, people will not fall into a narrow and rigid idea of the will of God; they will not act in aggressive and intolerant ways to defend it. We should encourage the people of Afghanistan to study their own history and to see the value of this broader perspective. Afghanistan thrived for centuries as a centre of learning, commerce and culture. For Afghanistan to survive as both a culture and a country in the present, and to flourish into the future, its youth need to take a look at the wealth of their ancestral history and honour the diversity of their culture.

Only then will the country will be Afghanistan, the Land of the Awakened.

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