President Biden and Afghan President
will have plenty to talk about when they meet on Friday. With the withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan only weeks away—and the security situation deteriorating by the day—Mr. Biden is expected to offer humanitarian and economic assistance. The country’s tiny Sikh and Hindu populations might seem insignificant, but they deserve attention as well.
The nearly 700 Sikhs and Hindus left in Afghanistan constitute a vibrant component of the country’s cultural traditions. The history of Afghan Hindus is debated, but significant Brahminical artwork began appearing in the country during the seventh-century Turk Shahi period. The Afghan Sikh community has existed since Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak, traveled to Afghanistan during the 16th century to spread his philosophies. Over the centuries the two groups have worshiped in shared spaces, a unique cultural phenomenon rendering artwork significant to both communities.
The pieces not only hold sentimental value for their respective religious groups, but also yield insights into early religious development in the region. This important historical material helps explain how religions spread far outside Afghanistan. For example, figurines of the Hindu goddess Durga found within a Buddhist complex in Ghazni, Afghanistan, point toward early incorporation of the Hindu pantheon in early Central Asian Buddhist tradition.
Under previous Taliban rule, many non-Islamic art pieces were smashed in accordance with decrees against representations of human form ostensibly forbidden by Islam. Many more were trafficked in an illegal art trade, which could have been used to fund terrorism. Unless religious art preservation is worked into the security agreements for a postwithdrawal from Afghanistan, religious minority artwork remains in jeopardy. Even then, the Taliban can’t be trusted.
Most famously, the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed in March 2001. At the time, a Taliban envoy characterized the bombing of this Unesco World Heritage Site as a demonstration against the West’s misappropriated concern: “When your children are dying in front of you, then you don’t care about a piece of art.” There’s no reason to believe the group has changed.
Yet hope isn’t lost: The White House still can assist in transporting at-risk artifacts—and the people whose ancestors produced them—out of the country and to the U.S. This may seem like an extreme step, but it’s the best option in a difficult situation.
Private galleries and religious institutions can agree to hold such pieces temporarily until their preservation can be guaranteed. There are several examples of Afghan religious artifacts—some previously looted—that have been restored or returned from abroad. In one possible model of ethical art holding, Japan recently returned a looted set of Buddhist antiquities to Afghanistan. Thanks to the preservation efforts behind these historic pieces, including the Kashyapa Brothers’ Adoration of the Buddha relief, living Buddhist communities can honor these pieces.
The same could be said of Afghan Sikh and Hindu artwork if the U.S. intervenes to facilitate their preservation. Given that Afghan Sikh and Hindu refugee communities have created their own iterations of Kabuli temples in the U.S., there are existing institutions for the transferred pieces to be stored for safekeeping.
An alternative art-holding site closer to Afghanistan is probably infeasible. Most of South Asia lacks the resources to ensure these communities’ art remains in good condition. For India, another drawback is the Citizenship Amendment Act, which grants a path to citizenship only for refugees who arrived before 2014.
Washington also can provide asylum visas with relative ease for these endangered religious minorities, who have borne a disproportionate brunt of the violence in the country. In 2020, Islamic State bombed a Sikh gurdwara and killed 25 Afghan Sikhs in Kabul—a devastating loss for a population already well below 1,000 people. Given Mr. Biden’s newly elevated refugee cap of 62,500, this transfer process is achievable within the current constraints.
This moment calls for the U.S. to make good on its long and questionable involvement in Afghanistan. The threats are severe, and the continuance of two richly historic cultures is at stake.
Ms. Hundal is a Global Future Council fellow at the World Economic Forum. Mr. Rajagopal is a South Asian Studies researcher at the University of Oxford.
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