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Cultural Terrorism Volume 54 Number 3, May/June 2001
by Kristin M. Romey

"The real God is only Allah, and all other false gods should be removed." This statement from the one-eyed cleric Mullah Omar sent a chill through the international community following an edict issued by Afghanistan's fundamentalist Taliban regime announcing that all pre-Islamic statues in the country were to be destroyed. That edict, and the resulting destruction, has been universally condemned as "cultural terrorism."

Among the targeted relics were the Bamiyan Buddhas, two enormous 1,500-year-old statues hewn out of a cliff in the valley of Bamiyan, 140 miles northwest of the Afghan capital of Kabul, that were once one of the country's most popular tourist attractions. Destruction of the Buddhas was said to be completed by March 12. A Taliban guard has also reported that the second-century B.C. Buddhist complex in Ghazni was razed two weeks before the edict was issued. Many areas where the destruction is occurring have been sealed off to outsiders, making independent verification impossible at this time.

The Taliban seized control of much of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and has since enforced an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. Women cannot work or attend school and are not allowed out of the house without a spouse or male relative. Music, cinema, and photography of people and animals are among the hundreds of aspects of modern life that are banned.

While the regime insists that it is simply observing Muslim law against idolatry, its actions are generally considered to be a reaction against UN sanctions implemented in January, following the regime's refusal to extradite terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. The sanctions, which include the shuttering of all Taliban offices outside Afghanistan and a ban on international travel by the Taliban leadership, are exacerbating the near-famine conditions caused by Afghanistan's worst drought in 30 years; the UN estimates that up to 600,000 Afghans have been displaced or become refugees.

International reaction to the February 26 edict was immediate, with dozens of countries, including Pakistan, the Taliban's closest ally, condemning the decision. The Taliban remained resistant, reporting that everything from anti-aircraft missiles to tank fire and dynamite were being used to destroy the Buddhas. "The statues are no big issue," Information and Culture Minister Mullah Qadradullah Jamal told reporters. "They are only objects made of mud or stone."

Response from religious groups has been particularly furious and protests have occurred in most major Buddhist countries. Japan threatened to cut off all aid to Afghanistan if the statues were destroyed. Muslim nations have also condemned the Taliban's actions, insisting that the cultural heritage of other religions must be respected. Pakistan's leading daily paper, The Dawn, wrote, "Islam is a religion of harmony and peaceful coexistence...Buddha was an apostle of peace and non-violence. Certainly he deserves better treatment than what he has hitherto received at the hands of blind zealots in Afghanistan."

Several governments and museums offered to remove the statues from Afghanistan, and some suggested that the Buddhas could be sold to help Afghanistan's ravaged economy. The regime refused, insisting that they wish to be known as "destroyers of idols, not sellers of idols."

The Taliban also accuses the international community of clamoring to save the statues, while ignoring the ongoing humanitarian disaster in the country. "These living people deserve more attention than those non-living things," said Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan.

The larger of the two Buddhas rose 174 feet above the valley floor and was the tallest standing Buddha statue in the world. The smaller Buddha, 125 feet high, was a half mile away. Both were carved into the cliff face sometime around the fifth century A.D., plastered, and painted. Cells once used by monks pockmark the cliff around the statues.

The size of the statues has long attracted attention; their presence was first recorded in 632 by Hiuan Tsang, a Chinese monk visiting Bamiyan, a major Buddhist center from the second century B.C. until the rise of Islam in the ninth century A.D. Tsang described the greater Buddha as "glittering with gold and precious ornaments." They survived numerous invasions, including those of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, although the larger Buddha was attacked with artillery by a seventeenth-century Moghul commander.

By the mid 1990s, the Bamiyan valley had changed hands repeatedly between Taliban and opposition forces, and the base of the larger statue was being used as an ammunition dump. In 1997, a Taliban commander trying to seize the Bamiyan valley declared that the monumental Buddhas were to be destroyed as soon as the valley fell into his hands. The resulting international outcry caused the Taliban high command to prohibit the Buddhas' destruction and promise that the cultural heritage of Afghanistan would be protected. In 1998, however, the smaller Buddha's head and part of the shoulders were blown off, and the face of the larger Buddha blackened by burning tires.

Although Afghanistan signed the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, it is unenforceable. However, additions to the Geneva Conventions in 1977 and 1997 prohibit the destruction of cultural property in internal as well as international wars, and convictions on these charges have been won in the international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The UN has said that it will not retaliate against the destruction.

Scorning the current famine, Mullah Omar, the supreme religious leader of the Taliban, has ordered the slaughter of 100 cows to atone for any delay in the ongoing destruction.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America