It isn’t every day that one of the world’s biggest cultural institutions refuses to host a massive digital archive of great historical significance. But strangely enough, that’s exactly what the British Library did last week.
Why? The collection featured articles, broadcasts, military documents, and poetry related to and published by none other than the Taliban — yep, the fundamentalist group in Afghanistan responsible for countless bombings and suicide attacks, not to mention the destruction of cultural heritage objects like the Bamiyan Buddhas.
According to The Guardian, the library cited British anti-terrorism laws as its reason for rejecting the archive. Under the UK’s Terrorism Act of 2006, anyone who provides access to terrorist publications is viable to answer for it under law. Legal advisors told the institution it would be best not to accept the material, despite the fact that the Taliban is not on the UK’s terrorist group list. The library also already owns a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook, which contains recipes for building explosives.
The materials had been offered by a small group of academics behind the Taliban Sources Project. For the past two years, Taliban experts Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have been collecting all kinds of printed matter — magazines, newspapers, books on sharia law, and even maps — and translating them from Pashto to English. Their efforts were meant to shed insight into an incredibly secretive group while furthering scholarship of Afghanistan’s culture and heritage. “It gives you access into [the Taliban’s] worldview, allows you to understand what kind of organization they built and attempted to build,” Kuehn told the newspaper. “It allows you to look deeper into their world.”
The library explained that “although the archive was recognized as being of research value, it was judged that it contained some material which could contravene the Terrorism Act, and which would present restrictions on the library’s ability to provide access to the archive for researchers.”
While it’s difficult to understand the complexities that go into a decision like that, it does seem a mistake, considering that one of the great values of books — and consequently libraries — is their ability to shed light on dark areas of understanding. The archive would allow researchers, for instance, to see how the Taliban communicated before it was overthrown by US-backed forces in 2001. Besides, it does seem like Britain has a special responsibility to further scholarship that might help explain the messed-up state that Afghanistan is currently in. Like the United States, it had an extremely heavy presence in the country before it pulled out last year.
The academics behind the project are extremely disappointed. “I find it deeply concerning that research cannot be fostered even in the best institutional framework you could have for providing the materials,” Kuehn said. “That climate is making it so difficult for researchers or students to engage with this material.”