Context & Culture

The Destruction of the Bamian Buddhas (2)


28 February 2000: The Taleban want to destroy all non-Islamic images of human beings in Afghanistan as ‘idols’. With this decision, they threaten the rich cultural heritage of their country. International experts react with horror. A contemporary article by Thomas Ruttig.

The Quran bans all displays of human images because Allah – as the God of the Old Testament – has created them in his image, and he cannot be displayed. Therefore, the amir ul-momenin and head of the Afghan Taleban, Mulla Muhammad Omar, has ordered on Monday [26 February 2000] from his headquarters in Kandahar that ‘all the statues in the different parts of the country must be broken’ because they are worshipped by people of non-Islamic religious beliefs. According to Mulla Omar who has added the title ‘Mujahed’ to his name since sometime this also had to be prevented from happening for ‘the future’.

The decision had been taken after ‘consultations with the religious leaders’ of the Emirate, ‘religious judgments’ of the ulema and the Supreme Court. It had been published by the Taleban radio Voice of Sharia already two days ago. Meanwhile, a spokesman of the foreign ministry in Kabul has confirmed it. In neighbouring Pakistan and other countries, this government-sanctioned act of vandalism caused pure horror and hectic activity.

The diplomatic community is trying to prevent the imminent destructions from happening. UN Secretary-general Kofi Annan is being involved. In Paris, Zmaryalai Tarzi – Afghanistan’s chief archeologist in the 1970s – demanded: ‘We urgently have to alert world opinion against this unacceptable decision.’

The UN cultural organization UNESCO already has demanded to preserve Afghanistan’s heritage for future generations. A Western diplomat who has been in Kabul on the very day of the edict and who had heard the rumours about it called it ‘unbelievable and outrageous’ – particularly so because Taleban officials had assured him that they were baseless.

Particularly in danger are the two largest standing Buddha statues of the world in the central Afghan town of Bamian which just had been re-captured by the Taleban from their opponents.(*) Since then, no news are coming out of this area anymore. But it became known unofficially that already 50 or 60 Buddhist and Hinduistic statues had already been destroyed in Kabul’s National Museum. The Taleban, however, also denied this when talking to foreign diplomats – but also denied them access to the museum.

It seems that the Taleban hardliners have got the upper hand against the few diffident moderates in their ranks in a cultural conflict that has been going on for some time – at least since 1998 when a Taleban commander had a tank fire at one of the two gigantic buddhas in Bamian. The Taleban, however, projected this as the action of a lone individual.

Mulla Omar followed up [in July 1999] by issuing an edict that called for the protection of the country’s cultural heritage, including from pre-Islamic times. Guards were installed in front of the buddhas. But this did not prevent local Taleban from blowing up parts of the head of one of them and, in summer of 2000, to blacken the face of the larger one – whose face already had been destroyed in the middle ages by radical Muslims [from the Moghul empire] – by burning tyres. Since then, the ‘male’ Buddha – as he is called by the local population – looks down almost accusingly at the Bamian valley which, under a more liberal regime, would be a cultural magnet of world of worldwide recognition.

From Berlin’s tageszeitung, 28 February 2000, original headline: ‘Kulturalarm in Afghanistan’ (Cultural Alarm in Afghanistan)

(*) Khalili’s Hezb-e Wahdat faction had retaken Bamian from the Taleban in March 1999 but wasn’t able to defend and had to retreat again in May the same year. As revenge, the Taleban massacred some Bamian people and burnt down the town’s old bazaar.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture