Music: A segue into human rights

Music has always been a metaphor for life and progress. But in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s recent decision to burn musical instruments follows their ban on the playing of music in public places.


By Dr Paul Hine, Principal, Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview.

Music is one of life’s great joys. It captures so much of human experience – emotion, beauty, passion, creativity, performance and pleasure.

Listening to the cadence of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, the haunting melodies of Gurrumul Yunupingu or the evocation of Ennio Morricone’s musicology is something that transports the human soul and takes it to places that would otherwise be unreachable. Music and its limitless diversity are a metaphor for life, something that we are able to appreciate every day with the flick of a switch or the extravagant reach and convenience of Spotify. Its enforced opposite – silence – can lead to loneliness and isolation as it precludes the auditory and sensory enjoyment that music in its many forms provides.

I was reminded of this recently, when the Riverview Music Gala Evening was held in the Ramsay Hall. It was a wonderful demonstration of the musical talent that is alive and well in the College. Our Captains of Music led a truly memorable retinue of ensembles, bands, orchestras, choirs and soloists who added their own musical flair to the occasion. Listening to Bohemian Rhapsody played by a quartet of saxophonists was inspiring, as was being moved by the diversity of instruments – strings, woodwind and percussion. There was so much musical proficiency and passion on the night and in the staff who have cultivated such excellence.

In stark contrast, on the same day it was confronting to hear of the mass destruction of musical instruments by the Taliban in Afghanistan. In such countries and contexts, music is regarded as decadent, dissolute and corrupt. While religious orthodoxy needs to be respected, extremism is venomous and dangerous. To consider the art of creating and playing music, of entertaining and promoting the joy that music provides as being immoral is a deprivation of human experience and an abuse of human rights.

Images posted on social media of the incinerated pyre of instruments in the province of Herat are a window into the privations that are part of a life and a country where the most fundamental of rights are violated on a massive scale. This includes arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, flogging and indiscriminate violence, along with extrajudicial and public executions. Sharia law, based upon religious orthodoxy, is difficult to reconcile in a country such as Australia. Rather than promote the virtue of religion and the values that accompany it, the common quotient is fear.

And as for women, in 2021, the Taliban closed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and replaced it with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Since then, girls have been barred from secondary school and subsequently from tertiary education. Currently, girls are only allowed to attend primary school and are prevented from studying certain subjects. Dress codes are rigidly enforced with women required to have a chaperone (mahram) to accompany them in public places. Those who oppose these restrictions – either publicly or on social media – are beaten, arrested or detained on the ‘criminal’ charge of ‘moral corruption’. Add to this the fact that women who experience and then report domestic violence are punished and/or forced into arranged marriages for dissonance.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs reports that the number of Afghans living in poverty has risen from 47% in 2020 to 97% over the past three years. At its most extreme, the lack of social protection has led families to resort to child marriage and the selling of organs. Both are inconceivable to us and reprehensible. Of the professions which have been developed and stabilised over the previous generation, the recent exodus of doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers and government officials since the Taliban takeover has been dramatic, leaving the country in dire need of medical services, legal protection, education and civil infrastructure. The implications for healthcare, employment, housing, education, aged care and social support services, in a country that suffers crushing poverty and institutional oppression, are appalling.

Music is a window into the human soul, but its deprivation in countries like Afghanistan is symbolic of a much deeper symptom of corruption and violation. As we tune our media and online services to our favourite music each and every day, let us remember those for whom music is a cause for persecution and a denial of fundamental human rights. For countless millions in countries like Afghanistan, the prosecution of music is a window into such profound sadness and distress.

This article was originally published in a recent issue of ‘Viewpoint’, issued by Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview.

Feature photo by Pixabay on Pexels.