Afghan Vacuum Led to Buddha Destruction – March 18, 2001

Ever since they commenced destroying statues belonging to Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic Buddhist past, the Taliban militia, who have ruled Afghanistan since 1996, have been roundly condemned by the international community for this spectacular act of cultural vandalism.

The two statues of Lord Buddha around 170 feet and 120 feet high, carved into a mountainside in Bamiyan, 60 miles west of Kabul, were the most prized examples of Buddhist piety and art. Many other artifacts housed in the Kabul museum and elsewhere in that war-ravaged country have been pulverized into dust by the fanatical Taliban, who were deaf both to international criticism or entreaties to allow foreign museums to cart away the pieces against payment.

It seems that the Taliban are reveling in the international notoriety caused by their grisly deed. Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the U.N. secretary-general, during his current visit to South Asia, all failed to change the mind of the Taliban leadership.

Once the ruler of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” the reclusive and enigmatic Mullah Mohammed Umar, had given his edict that the statues were idols and had to be destroyed, that was it. Pleas by Islamic leaders that Islam enjoins respect for all religions and had a long history of religious tolerance and coexistence with followers of other faiths, fell on deaf ears.

The Taliban tried to justify their bizarre act of self laceration as an internal religious matter, which the international community had blown out of proportion. The Taliban foreign minister, Abdul Wakil Motawakkal stated that when Hindu zealots destroyed the Babri mosque, a symbol of Moghul Islamic rule in India in 1993 in a fit of religious bigotry, the international community had not taken much notice.

So why the furor now?

Another Taliban minister said that the international community should approach Burhanuddin Rabbani (whose whereabouts are uncertain), whom they still recognized as the president of Afghanistan to save these “idols.”

Why would a regime that is embroiled in an internecine conflict with the Northern Alliance, which has a terrible media image, which stands isolated and sanctioned by the United Nations, perpetrate an act so indefensible by any canons of rational conduct? One school of thought believes that after trying unsuccessfully to win international legitimacy and recognition for years, the Taliban lost all hope of support. Just as a disturbed individual hurts himself or herself to draw attention to his or her need for solace, sympathy and support, the Taliban acted likewise.

In a way they were not far wrong. They are having a field day with official and media attention, but the publicity they are getting is totally negative and will further isolate and marginalize them.

Even the sizable reduction of the area under opium poppy cultivation, which is acknowledged by the United Nations, and which would have been applauded under normal circumstances, has been eclipsed by the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

The international community, principally the United States and the West, cannot be absolved for contributing directly and indirectly in creating the Taliban mindset. Soon after the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, after being defeated by the Afghan resistance, it lost further interest in Afghanistan.

Hardly any thought was given to the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan, a country decimated by a decade of Soviet-instigated civil war. While international attention moved to other areas, Afghanistan failed to find peace. The various factions fell on each other.

The huge vacuum in the Afghan body politic facilitated the rise of the Taliban. We failed to learn from the baneful experience of how Nazism and fascism had emerged in Germany and Italy taking advantage of the political vacuum in these countries, which was conducive to the emergence of extremist political leaderships.

The Taliban are oblivious that the sanctuary they provide to the alleged terrorist Osama bin Ladin, the oppressive and dictatorial nature of their regime, the seclusion and sequestration of women, their childish obsession with facial hair (woe betide any hapless Afghan male who does not have a beard of the requisite length) are bringing a bad name to Islam.

Zealots that they are, they believe that what they are doing has divine sanction. We have seen similar bigotry and zealotry in past ages.

Even today in this era of globalization and seamless frontiers, racism, xenophobia and hate exist side by side with attempts to understand and cooperate with religions and cultures other than our own.

One has only to go to a soccer stadium in Europe to see disgraceful manifestations of these unacceptable proclivities. I am personally glad that the Islamic world has strongly criticized and distanced itself from the latest manifestation of Taliban intolerance.

Countless innocent people have suffered enormously through times immemorial at the hands of bigots and zealots.

The global community has to join hands to fight and contain these standard bearers of the modern Inquisition. There can be no truck with a mindset mired in a hate filled iconoclasm, which strikes at pluralism and diversity, which are the bedrock of peace and progress.

— S. Azmat Hassan is adjunct professor at Seton Hall University and a former ambassador of Pakistan.
— From: The Daily Record, Morristown, NJ
— Published: March 18, 2001


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