The Buddha Tragedy and Beyond

Article excerpt

Neither the West nor the select Islamic nations voicing their condemnation should be surprised by the Taliban's laying waste to Afghanistan's cultural heritage. These Islamic fundamentalist "students of the Koran" - as impervious to their people's needs as they are to international indignation - are completing a process that Muslim iconoclasts and wars of the past failed to do.

The ruin of Afghanistan's culture is nothing new. The colossal 1,700-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas were first defaced by the cannons of Mogul soldiers during the 18th century. Following the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in 1989, bored and undisciplined mujahideen, or holy warriors, took potshots at the relics and covered the surrounding ancient wall paintings with graffiti. Refugee fires from the sandstone cliff caves that flank the statues also inflicted severe damage.

The past two decades of fighting have done much to wreck Afghanistan's patrimony. The Soviets, the mujahideen, and more recently, the Taliban have all contributed to the wanton vandalism of the Kabul Museum plus many of the country's rich archaeological locations, such as the ancient Buddhist site at Hadda outside Jalalabad, whose carvings have been chiseled away. Numerous, too, are the artifacts that have ended up in the bazaars of neighboring Pakistan.

But never before has there been any attempt to demolish systematically the pre-Islamic elements of Afghanistan's heritage. Even while traveling as a journalist in Afghanistan during the height of the war, I found a sense of pride among most Afghans in their country's diverse cultural past, even among Muslim extremists who are now members of the Taliban.

A historic crossroads reflecting the likes of Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babur, Afghanistan boasts antique vestiges dating back more than 20 centuries. Before the outbreak of hostilities in 1978, the Afghans clearly relied on such archaeological treasures as a tourist attraction.

For the Taliban, the decision to destroy Afghanistan's heritage may be an attempt to punish the international community for imposing sanctions. It may also be that the "students" simply don't care what others think. As a primarily Pashtun movement with strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban are characterized by ignorance and limited education. Most of the so- called "students" can't read or write.

Its leaders, notably Mullah Muhammad Omar, have perpetrated socio-religious notions that have little to do with traditional Afghan culture. Despite the Taliban's assertions that it is Islamic to destroy the Buddhas, there has always been a strong tradition in much of the Muslim world to respect the ruins of the past and to accept the presence of other faiths.

Without foreign interference by Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and others, Afghanistan's war - and consequently the Taliban - would have petered out long ago. …