Summer 2001, Vol. 4, No. 2

Summer 2001

Quick Links:
Related Articles
"What Really Happened in Uganda?", Religion in the News, Summer 2000

"Religious Ironies in East Timor", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

"Wars of Religion", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

"Why Smash the Falun Gong?", Religion in the News, Fall 1999

Quick Links:
Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor: The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate

Purging Ourselves of Timothy McVeigh

The Pope Among the Orthodox

Faith-Based Update: Bipartisan Breakdown

The Perils of Polling

The Rael Deal.

Superceding the Jews

Jamming the Jews

Evangelism in a Chilly Climate

Correspondence: Palestinians and Israelis

Hit Counter

Idol Threats
by Thomas Barfield

The March 2001 destruction in central Afghanistan of the world’s tallest standing Buddhas by the Taliban regime brought international attention to both the country’s rich historic past and its radical Islamic present. For good measure the Taliban also ordered the destruction of all statues in the Kabul Museum and at all archaeological sites. These wanton acts of cultural mutilation produced a universal cry of outrage to which the Taliban appeared impervious.

As the destruction began, The Christian Science Monitor declared it "a giant step backward for civilization" while the Bangkok Post argued that "such an act puts the regime beyond redemption in the eyes of the world community." After the destruction was complete, the New York Times called it a "shocking act, even by the standards of the Taliban, whose suffocating form of Islam has already outraged the world."

While this outcry was not the first against the Taliban, it reflected a level of complete frustration because the act appeared so senseless and had occurred so suddenly. Even before issuing its edict demanding the destruction of the Buddhas, the regime had been involved in a running series of disputes with the international community concerning women’s rights to work and education, drug trafficking, the harboring of terrorists, and the harassment of local Afghan and foreign workers involved in delivering international food aid and medical services.

The Taliban’s international image had also been previously damaged by its summary executions and amputations in public stadiums—one of the few forms of entertainment permitted in a country in which all images (pictures, films, television, video) had been banned along with all music except for religious singing. It was as if the Taliban had designed a remarkably complete symbolic checklist of offensive policies designed to alienate as wide a variety of nations and cultural traditions as possible.

The Taliban’s response to these complaints generally took two forms: first, that their reclusive leader, Mullah Omar, was carrying out God’s will and imposing a true Islamic system in Afghanistan that superseded any kind of secular law or treaty; and second, that outsiders did not understand Afghan culture and had no right to comment on the country’s internal affairs, particularly regarding the status of women. Had the regime sought strict isolation (as a Central Asian North Korea), it might have been able to ignore these complaints. But there has always been a paradoxical element of intense engagement by the Taliban with an outside world whose values it condemns.

The regime desperately craves diplomatic recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan—recognition currently accorded only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, to stave off famine after years of severe drought it is highly dependent on foreign aid from countries and international institutions that it regularly insults. The United Nations and NGOs deliver most of this aid within Afghanistan, but their efforts are financed largely by the United States, the European Community, and Japan. Thus representatives of the Taliban have often appeared willing to bargain with the international community on women’s rights, drug production, and harboring terrorists.

One issue that had not been troubling its relations with the rest of the world was the status of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Even before they captured Bamiyan in 1998, the Taliban had sought to reassure the world that they were no barbarians. In April 1997, for example, the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, Mohammad Masoom Afghani, was quoted by Agence France Press as saying, "The Supreme Council has refused the destruction of the sculptures because there is no worship of these."

After Bamiyan was taken, some Taliban hard-liners did threaten to destroy the monuments as "unIslamic," but they were overruled with an eye to developing tourism and guards were posted to prevent individuals from damaging them. In September 2000, Mullah Omar himself confirmed this position in a decree reported by the London Observer’s Luke Harding: "The government considers the Bamiyan statues as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors. The Taliban states that Bamiyan shall not be destroyed but be protected."

So it came as a shock when late last February Mullah Omar reversed himself with an edict that commanded the immediate destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. As reported by Agence France Presse from Kabul, the decree declared, "Based on the verdict of the clergymen and the decision of the Supreme Court of the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] all the statues around Afghanistan must be destroyed. All the statues in the country should be destroyed because these statues have been used as idols and deities by the non-believers before. They are respected now and may be turned into idols in future too. Only Allah, the Almighty, deserves to be worshipped, not anyone or anything else."

This edict seemed to catch even many high Taliban officials by surprise. According to the London Guardian, Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel had calmly assured a foreign delegation of the regime’s cooperation in preserving what was left of Afghanistan’s cultural legacy only hours before the decree was broadcast.

The destruction began immediately and was fully accomplished within two weeks. This occurred despite a flurry of official calls to stop from an astoundingly wide array of sources from all over the world. Buddhist countries were particularly incensed and looked upon the action as an assault on their own religious tradition. Japan, one of the largest donors of aid to Afghanistan, took the lead in demanding the regime halt its actions but Sri Lanka and Thailand became directly involved too. Muslim nations also attacked the Taliban. On March 4, The New York Times reported that UNESCO’s 22 member Arab Group, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, had condemned the destruction as "savage."

A large delegation of Islamic scholars from Cairo went to Kandahar to argue that there was no justification in Islamic law for destroying such cultural monuments. They were ignored even though their religious qualifications were far superior to those of the Taliban clerics. In a March 6 interview on Tehran television (reported on BBC Worldwide), former Iranian Prime Minster Rafsanjani declared, "There is no logic behind this [Taliban’s action]. The logic of opposition to statues and the idolatry aspect of the issue do not apply to this particular case."

The United States and the European Community condemned the actions as an attack on the world’s cultural patrimony. Western museums and the Indian government offered to buy and remove anything the Taliban considered offensive. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had many fruitless meeting with Taliban officials. Even Pakistan, the Taliban’s closest ally, attempted to get them to reconsider but failed.

The international press coverage of these events faced two challenges: first, remedying the world’s lack of awareness that the monuments existed; and second, explaining why the Taliban would be willing to pay such a great political price to destroy them.

The Bamiyan statues may have been the world’s tallest Buddhas (175 and 120 feet respectively), but they were not well known to the public at large. Located in a remote valley in the Hindu Kush that was once one of the key nodes of the ancient silk route, they were part of a monastic complex carved out of the valley’s cliff face that once supported 5,000 monks. Hsüan-tsang, a Buddhist monk from China who passed through the region in 632, described how the stone Buddhas employed a wooden superstructure designed to raise and lower the arms to greet visiting pilgrims.

Within a few centuries, however, Islam had completely replaced Buddhism in the region and the complex was abandoned as a religious center. Because the colossal statues were carved from living rock they survived the centuries, although details like the painted mud face and wooden arms were lost. The statues had never been previously subject to religious dispute.

The growing international recognition of the significance of cultural monuments around the world (typified by the United Nations’ "World Heritage List") made the deliberate destruction of such a site a high-profile story that was easy to understand. American television reports on CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN all focused entirely on the tragedy of the destruction itself and the Taliban’s refusal to consider any compromise. With the exception of press coverage in India, where anti-Muslim rioting had broken out, almost all news accounts also stressed that the Taliban’s actions had been condemned by Islamic clerics outside of Afghanistan and that Muslims were as offended as everyone else.

But explaining why the Taliban decided to destroy the Buddhas was not so easy. Here was a symbolic act that that appeared to bring the regime universal opprobrium without any corresponding benefit. Most newspaper and magazine stories attempted to find some hidden logic or strategy by which the Taliban would derive benefit. Of necessity, these explanations were based on little more than guesswork. In fact, the Taliban spokesmen overseas seemed to be scrambling as much as the journalists. During interviews they often appeared to be making up explanations as they went along, seeking to find a more compelling explanation than "Mullah Omar changed his mind."

In the early stages, many Taliban officials even suggested that the decree might not be final. For example, Laili Helms, a self-identified adviser to the Taliban in the United States, argued on National Public Radio’s "Talk of the Nation" March 6 that the Buddhas would not be destroyed. "I think there are internal politics inside Afghanistan that you’d be surprised to hear that most of the leadership and the ministers of the Taliban are hoping that this doesn’t take place, you know," Helms said. "The news hasn’t come through clearly enough in terms of where this fatwa originally came from. It came from the religious clerics, it came from the Ulama, not from the head of any ministry or the head of government. They’ve been giving, issuing announcements, kind of confirming the clerics. But to this day, since about a week ago, over a week ago, nothing has been touched."

While Helms may have been right about the politics, she was of course wrong about the power of the clerics to see their will done. And once it was, whatever public disagreement or disbelief there was within the Taliban movement itself disappeared.

The roving Taliban envoy visiting the United States at the time, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi, explained the destruction on the grounds that foreigners had offered money to preserve monuments but not feed people. In a March 21 interview on National Public Radio he said that Afghan officials had told him that if the world "does not care or if the world is destroying the future of our children with economic sanctions, how do they care about our past?"

Since, according to Afghan officials, the decree had been months in preparation, his explanation of its origin appeared opportunistic. But many other analysts also sought to tie the destruction to external political relations and took the view that the Taliban were lashing out against their diplomatic isolation and the particularly tough new sanctions imposed by the U.N. at the beginning of 2001. "Sanctions may be the short answer" for why the Taliban acted as they did, Newsweek declared April 2, claiming that the world’s pressure on the Taliban to give up Islamic militant Osama bin Laden and end their support of regional Islamic separatists had backfired.

Still others looked to local politics. "Some analysts in Kabul and in Pakistan suggested that the Buddhas’ destruction was also aimed at punishing the inhabitants of Bamiyan, most of whom are Shiite Muslims from the Hazara ethnic group and many of whom support armed opposition groups fighting Taleban rule," the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable reported March 19. "The Taliban, a movement of militant Sunni Muslims, regards Shiites as infidels." Constable also suggested that hard-liners had put through the policy deliberately to isolate Afghanistan further in the hopes of creating an Islamic state without compromises.

Yet as events proceeded, it became clear that destroying the Buddhas and other art treasures could not have been a calculated strategy to get something from the rest of the world. If the Taliban had really been seeking more aid for Afghanistan’s starving children, they would have relented upon being offered money, which they absolutely refused to consider.

Nor did the new policy improve the regime’s chances for international recognition. Indeed, the controversy completely obscured the Taliban’s important policy change in implementing a ban on opium production. During the previous year Afghanistan had obtained the dubious distinction of becoming the world’s largest opium producer, but just as clear evidence was emerging that the new policy was actually being enforced throughout Taliban-controlled territory, the Buddha controversy arose and the Taliban got little or no credit.

On the other hand, if the Taliban had really been interested in lashing out at the world, doubling the production of opium rather than breaking statutes would have had a greater impact.

As for the internal politics, they were harder to read because the Taliban are so opaque. It is unlikely, however, that the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed in order to get back at the Hazaras, because the monuments held no ritual significance for them. The Pashtun Taliban and the Hazaras do have a long history of animosity, dating back to the brutal Afghan conquest of the region in the 1890s. But the Taliban have rarely resorted to symbolic actions when more direct ones were available. They murdered the main Hazara political leader, Ali Mazari, in 1995 after first allying with him. They have also been accused of the massacre of 3,000 Hazara civilians when they took the northern city of Mazar-sharif in 1998.

Just a few weeks before the destruction of the Buddhas, a United Nations rapporteur claimed the Taliban massacred 300 ethnic Hazaras in central Afghanistan. Even more ominously, a May 14 report on French television station TF-1 described the widespread circulation of a Pashto language booklet calling for the wholesale removal of the ethnic Hazara and Tajik populations and their replacement by Pashtuns.

It may well be that Taliban hard-liners did hope that further isolating Afghanistan was in their interest. But as much as these hard-liners—and especially the non-Afghan elements of the Taliban—might want to isolate the country, at least part of Afghan leadership understood that if all international aid were withdrawn the regime would likely collapse. In any event, given the regime’s lack of familiarity with the outside world, it is most likely that they did not anticipate the firestorm of controversy their action set off.

In a March 18 press conference in Kabul, Foreign Minister Mutawakel complained about the lack of attention the opium ban had received and lamented, "But when some statues of stone were destroyed, the international community made such a hue and cry, which really astonished us." He also tried to distance the Taliban’s internal actions from their demand for recognition, explaining in a March 13 interview in Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun that the destruction was not an act of retaliation against the international community for economic sanctions. "We are destroying the Buddha statues in accordance with Islamic law and it is purely a religious issue."

It is the Taliban’s insistence that this was a "purely religious issue" that has been neglected in most news reports. But in fact, the impetus for the destruction of the Buddhas appears to have been grounded primarily in the Taliban’s radical iconoclasm and obscurantist interpretation of Islamic law. The decree was issued by an assembly of clerics and confirmed by Mullah Omar as a religious issue and does not appear to have been run past any government officials before it was announced. It was only the religious justification that was addressed in domestic Afghan news accounts.

A Taliban editorial in the Kabul newspaper Shari'at published just after the edict was issued contended that the "objects of worship, which had been considered as sacred and worshipped in their time in the past, are filthier than everything else and thus it is necessary that our beloved country should be cleansed of the existence of such false objects." That other Islamic scholars rejected this line of interpretation had no impact on Mullah Omar. "Muslims should be proud of smashing idols," he boasted in the London Times March 6. "It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them."

The Egyptian clerics who had visited him in Kandahar to argue this point were scathing in their opinion of Taliban legal reasoning. In a March 23 interview in the London-based Arabic language newspaper, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, they condemned the decree as fundamentally flawed "because of [the Taliban’s] circumstances and their incomplete knowledge of jurisprudence they were not able to formulate rulings backed by theological evidence. The issue is a cultural issue. We detected that their knowledge of religion and jurisprudence is lacking because they have no knowledge of the Arabic language, linguistics, and literature and hence they did not learn the true Islam."

But who were they to tell Mullah Omar, the man who named himself Amir-ul Momineen, or Commander of the Faithful, that he did not know his business? His only overt response to all the criticism was to order the sacrifice of 100 cattle March 16 and to give the meat to the poor to express his regret for taking too long to get the job done and not having done it earlier.

What has been clear from the beginning of their rule is that the Taliban have mixed a narrow view of Islam, Pashtun tribal laws, and a melange of rural folkways to create a worldview that appears natural, logical, and God-ordained, if only to themselves. They are confounded that anyone would have the audacity not to agree with them. Perhaps they have not yet reached the level of the Red Guards who attempted to wipe out China’s past to create a socialist utopia or Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge who killed a third of Cambodia’s own people, but they are creating the conditions for a disaster of similar proportions.

Around Christmas 2000, just before attacking the Buddhas, they issued a decree declaring that "any Afghan who converts to the rescinded religion of Christianity will be sentenced to death." On January 13 the Afghan newspaper Hewad warned, "Anyone caught selling literature promoting Christianity or Judaism or degrading Islam, its personalities would be subjected to five years’ imprisonment." In May, after they destroyed the Buddhist monuments, the Taliban demanded that all Hindus wear a badge to distinguish themselves from non-Muslims.

On May 26, the Economist editorialized, "Soon there will be no more religions for the Taliban to insult." It was wrong. The very next week the Taliban announced that all non-Muslim international aid workers and journalists must agree to abide by their version of Islamic law (including punishments such as stoning for adultery) and accept the authority of the Taliban religious police. If the destruction of the Buddha "idols" was purely symbolic, this latter demand threatened to result in the withdrawal of most international aid workers from Afghanistan at a time when the country’s need was most dire. According to the June 9 London Independent, the UN World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization have warned that as many as five million Afghans are in danger of starvation.

Coverage of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas reflected the tendency of journalists to see religious justifications as a smokescreen for more "real" explanations based on politics or economics. Yet even before the Taliban took power, Afghanistan was a land in which religion so permeated every aspect of life that it would have been unwise to dismiss it as simply atmospherics. Under the Taliban, the assumption must be that real religious fire is generating the smoke.

Determined to peer behind the Taliban’s own explanation of their behavior, few journalists attempted to explain the religious doctrines at issue (such as iconoclasm) and what these imply for the future of Afghan society. If Muslim clerics elsewhere said the statues did not have to be destroyed because they were "no longer being worshiped," did this imply that it would be right to destroy them if they were? Is the Taliban a movement outside the accepted bounds of Islam or an extreme interpretation within it? How should the international community’s cultural relativism deal with God’s single truth? Inquiring minds still want know.

Related Articles:

"What Really Happened in Uganda?", Religion in the News, Summer 2000

"Religious Ironies in East Timor", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

"Wars of Religion", Religion in the News, Spring 2000

"Why Smash the Falun Gong?", Religion in the News, Fall 1999