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Afghanistan: Taliban Edict Threatens Central Asian Cultural Heritage

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia says it has begun the destruction of all statues in the war-torn country, including two third-century Buddha colossi that are part of a major archeological site. The country's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, justified his decision on 26 February by saying all statues were offensive to Islam. Omar's edict has triggered a wave of public outcry throughout the world, including a statement by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan calling upon the Taliban to preserve Afghanistan's cultural heritage.

Prague, 1 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia said today that it has begun destroying all statues in the country, including two third-century Buddha colossi which are part of a major archeological site.

The move follows an order issued earlier this week (26 February) by Mullah Mohammad Omar, Afghanistan's supreme leader, who ruled that all statues are offensive to Islam.

In a "fatwa" (edict) read on the Taliban's Voice of Sharia radio, Omar said, "Because God is one God and these statues are there to be worshipped, and that is wrong, they should be destroyed so that they are not worshipped now or in the future."

Sites under threat of immediate destruction include two giant Buddhas hewn from sandstone cliffs at Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan. Located 145 kilometers west of the capital Kabul, the ancient city is a traditional stronghold of the Hazaras, Afghanistan's minority Shiite Muslim community.

The Hazaras oppose Taliban rule. They are the descendents of intermarriage between Genghis Khan's Mongol warriors and the indigenous Tajik and Turkic peoples. The Hazaras consider the two colossi -- 38 meters and 53 meters high, respectively -- part of their heritage.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service, exiled Afghan writer Latif Pedram expressed his dismay over Omar's edict.

"Unfortunately, we must say that the order of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar to destroy these historical and cultural statues -- which are not only the cultural heritage of the Afghan and Central Asian peoples, but also of all mankind -- is a shocking and cruel decision. The damage will be unimaginable. By doing this, the Taliban want to destroy the deep roots of the country."

In a recent book on the Taliban, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid describes the two Buddhas in the following terms: "The figures are carved with the classical features of all sub-continental Buddhas, but [they] are draped in Greek robes for they represented the unique fusion of classical Indian and Central Asian art with Hellenism, introduced by the armies of Alexander the Great."

One of the two colossi is said to be the tallest statue in which Buddha is portrayed standing up rather than sitting. Carved four centuries before Islam reached Bamiyan, the statues were one of the wonders of the ancient world, visited by pilgrims from China and India.

Bamiyan has changed hands several times since the war between the Taliban and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani broke out in 1995. Last month, opposition forces briefly took control of the city before the Taliban retook it two weeks ago (17 February).

Several hundred Hazaras are reported to have been killed by the religious militia since 1998.

Omar's edict triggered a wave of public outcry throughout the world.

On Tuesday, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a statement calling upon the Taliban to preserve Afghanistan's cultural heritage. In his appeal, Annan said he believes that "destroying any relic, any monument, any statue will only prolong the climate of conflict in Afghanistan."

Yesterday, the government of Sri Lanka, a nation with a Buddhist majority, expressed "grave concern" over Omar's edict. India, Thailand, Iran, France, Germany, and the United States have also expressed dismay over the decision.

Buddhist groups in Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, and South Korea have condemned the planned destruction of the Buddhas as anti-cultural and an affront to humanity.

The Paris-based UN Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) has twice this week urged the Taliban not to destroy the statues.

The head of the UNESCO's Asian division in the Culture Heritage Department, Christian Manhart, told RFE/RL:

"As soon as we heard about Mullah Omar's order, on Monday [26 February] night, we launched an appeal to the Taliban. We sent this appeal to the international press, with an emphasis on the Pakistani press, because we know that Pakistan has a certain influence on the Taliban. This morning [28 February], we issued a second appeal to the Taliban, along with a message from our Director General [Koichiro Matsuura of Japan]. It is a stronger appeal that reminds the Taliban it should not expect international recognition if they commit such acts."

Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate rulers. The Taliban regime is not represented in the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Pakistan has provided both military and financial support to the Taliban, who now control about 95 percent of Afghanistan.

Since they captured Kabul in 1996, the Taliban has imposed a very strict version of Sharia law in an effort to create a pure Islamic state. It has notably outlawed photography and television, believing that Islam forbids all images, including pictures or paintings of people.

Olivier Weber is a reporter for the French daily newspaper "Le Monde." He says the Taliban is aiming at destroying all signs of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic culture because it sees it as "alien."

Weber, who was in Bamiyan last summer, told RFE/RL he believes that the Taliban "is carrying out some sort of mental revolution somehow similar to the cultural revolution launched by [Chinese Communist leader] Mao Zedong in the 1960s and 1970s, or by [Cambodia's] Khmer Rouge regime during the years 1975-1979."

"What are we talking about? We're talking about creating a 'new man' in Afghanistan. When you see, in the streets of Ghazni, Kandahar or Kabul, 18-year-old militiamen of the Department of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, armed with sticks and whips, punishing Afghan believers who forget to proceed with the five-o'clock prayer, you can tell that there is something abnormal here. The Afghan people suffers from this kind of incredible coercion imposed by the Taliban. This mentality, imposed by force, does not correspond to the traditional, open-minded, religious mentality of the Afghan people."

The Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice strictly implements Sharia law in Taliban-controlled provinces. Militiamen chase down women considered improperly dressed and beat men for not having long enough beards.

In an interview with a Western news agency (Associated Press) yesterday, Omar's aide and Taliban "foreign minister" Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said the job of destroying all statues in the country was given to what the Afghan population generally calls the "religious police."

One of the two Bamiyan giant Buddhas was partially blown up in September 1998, when the Taliban first occupied the city. More recently, Taliban fighters burned tires at the foot of the other statue, streaking it with black smoke. Islamic students have also destroyed ancient frescos in Hazarajat province.

Destruction of pre-Islamic art work in Afghanistan probably started long before Omar issued his latest fatwa. News reports say Islamic students recently destroyed several ancient statues stored in the Kabul National Gallery.

The Taliban has denied the charge. Journalists and European ambassadors to neighboring Pakistan went to Kabul last week to verify the reports, but they were refused access to the museum.

French journalist Weber says the ban on human representation declared by the Taliban in the name of Islam has no equivalent in the Muslim world.

"For example, Kabul National Gallery, which has just reopened, has about 150 paintings, including some drawn by Afghan impressionists. But the Taliban has covered with white paint all human faces depicted on these paintings. This kind of mental revolution, of hysterical iconoclasm, is very dangerous."

UNESCO's Manhart thinks the order to destroy all statues might be a Taliban negotiating tactic aimed at lifting UN sanctions against the militia, which were tightened last December.

Taliban Foreign Minister Muttawakil said yesterday that foreign countries should refrain from interfering in what he describes as an "internal issue."

(Ghodratollah Shahidi and Jean Khakzad of RFE/RL's Persian Service contributed to this report)