Destructive Frenzy in Afghanistan

Pre-Islamic artifacts were being systematically destroyed by the ocuntry's fundamentalist Taliban regime.

Published on 2 March 2001

Author(s): Archaeology Magazine

Type:  News report

Supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar announced that all pre-Islamic statues in the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan were to be destroyed. Astoninshing comments from all sides

Rumors began to slip out of the ravaged Afghan capital of Kabul a few months ago: pre-Islamic artifacts were being systematically destroyed by the country’s fundamentalist Taliban regime. On February 12, these rumors were confirmed in a BBC report stating that Taliban representatives, invoking the Islamic prohibition against the depiction of living things, had destroyed over a dozen ancient statues in the National Museum in Kabul. Two weeks later, on February 26, supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar announced that all pre-Islamic statues in the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan were to be destroyed. Among the images the Taliban said it would destroy are two colossal standing Buddha statues carved into a mountainside at Bamiyan.

Taliban Information and Culture Minister Mullah Qadradullah Jamal was quoted by the Afghan Islamic Press news service as saying statues had been destroyed at museums in Kabul, Ghazni, Herat, and at Farm Hadda near Jalalabad. The extent of the destruction is difficult to determine but there is no reason to be hopeful. The fate of the Bamiyan Buddhas is unknown. One report says that they were to be blown up following Friday prayers today. Reactions from around the world are uniformly outraged and saddened (see below). To them we can only add our own condemnation of the destruction of this priceless heritage. ARCHAEOLOGY’s May/June issue will follow up on these events.-The Editors Archaeology

Comments by the Taliban

Afghanistan’s supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar: "In view of the fatwa [religious edict] of prominent Afghan scholars and the verdict of the Afghan Supreme Court it has been decided to break down all statues/idols present in different parts of the country. This is because these idols have been gods of the infidels, who worshiped them, and these are respected even now and perhaps maybe turned into gods again. The real God is only Allah, and all other false gods should be removed." "Whoever thinks this is harmful to the history of Afghanistan then I tell them they must first see the history if Islam. Some people believe in these statues and pray to them.... If people say these are not our beliefs but only part of the history of Afghanistan, then all we are breaking are stones." "The breaking of statues is an Islamic order and I have given this decision in the light of a fatwa of the ulema and the supreme court of Afghanistan."
"According to Islam, I don’t worry about anything. My job is the implementation of Islamic order." "The breaking of statues is an Islamic order and I have given this decision in the light of a fatwa of the ulema [clerics] and the supreme court of Afghanistan. Islamic law is the only law acceptable to me. "My job is the implementation of Islamic order. Only Allah, the Almighty, deserves to be worshiped, not anyone or anything else." "As Islamic sharia [law] orders the destruction of statues and considers the drawing of portraits a mockery to the servants of Allah, the destruction of any site decorated with pictures is necessary."

Taliban Information and Culture Minister Mullah Qadradullah Jamal: "The work began early during the day. All of the statues are to be smashed. This also covers the idols in Bamiyan." "The implementation of Mullah Omar’s order to destroy statues began this morning [March 1]. The destruction work began in Kabul, Jalalabad, Herat, Kandahar, Ghazni, and Bamiyan. The destruction work will be done by any means available to them. All the statues all over the country will be destroyed."

Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil: "The abandoned relics are not our pride. Destroying them would not mean that the freedom of the minorities would cease."

Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef: "There is a decision of religious scholars on this matter, this will be implemented--for sure." "We don’t care why they weren’t destroyed in the past, but we have a government now in Afghanistan that is religious and we want to stop all things that are against Islam." "It is not a valid precedent that we should follow just because they were not destroyed in the past. Maybe in the past they tolerated it...now there is a government established the by religious scholars." "Even if the pieces of the destroyed statues made of gems, stones and metal can be made of value to its owner, these remaining parts should also be smashed."

The Taliban: "As Islamic sharia [law] orders the destruction of statues and considers the drawing of portraits a mockery to the servants of Allah, the destruction of any site decorated with pictures is necessary." Anonymous Taliban militia source(s): "They have started attacking the Buddhas with guns and tank shells--with whatever arms they are carrying." "Explosives, such as gunpowder, have also been placed beneath the statues for more effective action."

Afghanistan’s Neighbors React

Pakistani Foreign Ministry: "Pakistan attaches great importance to and supports the preservation of the world’s historical, cultural and religious heritage. We appeal to the Afghan government to take measures to fully protect Afghanistan’s rich historical, cultural, and religious heritage."

Pakistani Foreign Secretary Inamul Haque: "We hope the Afghanistan government would give serious consideration to this international appeal, including that by UNESCO and others, and that they will not demolish the cultural heritage of Afghanistan."

Pakistani archaeologist Ahmed Hasan Dani: "These are not there to be worshiped. They are works of art. They belong to all humanity."
India’s Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan: "The government of India will raise this issue at every international forum including the United Nations. We will make all attempts to stop the demolition of Lord Buddha’s statue. This is not a statue, but a legacy of humanity. Nobody should demolish it."
India’s Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh: "If the Taliban do not wish to retain their inheritance, India would be happy to arrange for the transfer of all these artifacts to India, where they would be kept safely and preserved for all mankind. It is tragic that this act of vandalism, the most extreme among the many other acts of destruction of statues, artifacts and archaeological treasures of Afghanistan, is being pursued despite a global outcry against it.’’

Former Director of the Archaeological Survey of India R. Sengupta: "...particularly sad for India. They were some of the finest specimens of Buddhist civilization and culture."

India’s Former Ambassador to Afghanistan: "It’s extremely tragic. The destruction of any global property is an issue of utmost concern. They have not only destroyed world-famous heritage but shattered the sentiments of millions of Buddhist followers."

Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organization: "Strangely, certain Taliban-led individuals, calling themselves ’cleric,’ have ordered destruction of ancient sites...citing blasphemy and idolizing as reasons." "We condemn the destruction of statues of Buddha which are treasures of mankind just like the Taj Mahal or Imam Square in Isfahan. It is very strange that centuries after the Afghan people became Muslims, and received the strength of Islam...certain people who claim to be religious accuse some of anathema and idolatry."

Iran News: "Through their irrational acts, the Taliban are proving once again that they are not only against the history and culture of their own people, but they are also working hard to deny the Afghan people their future."

International Reactions

U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker: "The United States is distressed and baffled by this announcement by the Taliban. Their action directly contradicts one of Islam’s basic tenets--tolerance for other religions. Deliberate destruction of statues and sculpture held as sacred by peoples of different faiths is incomprehensible, as is the Taliban’s utter rejection of the treasures of Afghanistan’s past. The United States joins the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan, the UN Economic and Social Council and other governments in urging the Taliban to halt this desecration of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage."

The European Union: "The EU strongly urges the Taliban leadership not to implement this deeply tragic decision which will deprive the people of Afghanistan of its rich cultural heritage."

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero: Comments from Non-governmental Organizations "The announcement by Mullah Mohamed Omar, supreme leader of the Taliban, that all pre-Islamic statues would be destroyed is appalling."

Russian Foreign Ministry: "These intentions cannot be judged otherwise than as an assault on the cultural and historical achievements of not only the Afghan people, but also of world civilization. The Taliban’s vandalism against material objects of the rich spiritual heritage of the ancient Afghan world shows their clear enmity to common human values."

German Foreign Ministry: "Germany is appalled by the willful destruction of cultural artifacts in Afghanistan. The damage to culturally unique Buddha statues by the Taliban cannot be justified."

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s spokesman, Kazuhiko Koshikawa: "The Japanese government is deeply concerned. If they are ruined, it would be an immeasurable loss. The Japanese government hopes that Taliban will review such a decision and take appropriate measures."

Thailand’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Pradap Pibulsonggram: [Loss of the Bamiyan Buddhas would be a] "loss to humanity. It’s the loss of Afghanistan to destroy these. One day when they resolve their problems, they’ll want to attract tourism. This would help them. The Taliban is destroying not so much the Buddhist image, but something that is in their country that is of value, even though they’re not Buddhists. It’s their loss"

Sri Lanka’s government spokesman Ariya Rubasinghe: "If true, this is a very serious matter and we are gravely concerned."

Italy’s ambassador to Pakistan Angelo Gabriele de Ceglie: "It is a great loss, a tragedy for the Afghan people and for the world. This is a historical treasure, a cultural heritage that belongs to the world." "This is a stupid decision that is symptomatic of a general malaise in the country."

Comments from the Archaeological Institute of America

On March 8, Archaeological Insitute of America president Nancy Wilkie added the AIA’s voice to the protests, stating that, "In recognition of the enduring cultural significance of the sculptural art of Afghanistan, the Archaeological Institute of America strongly urges the Taliban to rescind their edict ordering the demolition of Buddhist sculptures both at Bamiyan and in their museums. We urge the Taliban to adhere to the respect for cultural diversity, both past and present that is basic to the principles of Islam."

Comments from Non-governmental Organizations

International Council on Monuments and Sites and International Council of Museums: [ICOMOS and ICOM] "learned with great shock of the new decree issued by the Taliban leadership of Mullah Mohammad Omar ordering the systematic destruction of all statues in the country. This decision breaks the commitment made by the Taliban leadership in 1999 to protect all cultural heritage in Afghanistan and in particular the giant Buddha figures at Bamiyan. Adding to the dishonour of breaking a commitment to preserve the ancient and diverse heritage of Afghanistan as part of that of the whole of mankind, such an act of destruction would be a total cultural catastrophe. It would remain written in the pages of history next to the most infamous acts of barbarity.

Dimitri Loundras, the Greek Ambassador in Pakistan and Chairman of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage: "The past of Afghanistan belongs to the Afghan people. Secondly, it is also world heritage." "Mullah Omar’s latest instruction to destroy pre-Islamic statues in Afghanistan is unacceptable and must be reversed immediately." "If they reverse their decision, it could be seen as a positive sign for future discussions with the Taliban authorities."

Nancy Dupree, Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage: "It is absolutely sickening. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. You could not enter the Bamiyan Valley without being in awe of the creative dynamism of these figures. They belong to the whole world; they don’t belong only to Afghanistan." "Why spend money on an old building when the people need so much? These old buildings are Afghanistan’s identity. And when you lose your identity, you’ve lost your soul."

Association of Art Museum Directors: "AAMD considers this an assault of the cultural and historical achievements of world civilization and humanity."

Views of the Afghan Opposition

Hamid Karzai, former Deputy Foreign Minister in the ousted Afghan government of Burhanuddin Rabbani: "They are part of our heritage. Afghanistan has been a staunch Muslim country for 1,200 years and the mullahs have never tried to destroy these statues. Why wasn’t the issue of these statues being against Islam raised in 1,200 years? They are trying to destroy Afghanistan’s history, Afghanistan’s memory."

Exiled Afghan author Latif Pedram: "Unfortunately, we must say that the order of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed 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."

Movement for Democracy and Human Rights for Afghanistan: "Today is the darkest day in the history of Afghanistan--darker than the day when Chengiz Khan’s Mongol hoards invaded our land. What they did not destroy--and perhaps did not want to destroy--is now being destoyed by a most barbaric group, the Taliban."

National Islamic Front of Afghanistan spokesman: "It is a destruction of our national heritage."

Islamic & Buddhist Perspectives

Egyptian Muslim intellectual Fahmi Howeidy: "Islam respects other cultures even if they include rituals that are against Islamic law."

Senior Egyptian Islamic leader mufti Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel: [The pre-Islamic statues] "are only a transcription of history and have no negative impact on the faith of Muslims."

Iran News: "Islam has never preached the destruction of objects that embody the belief and history of millions of people throughout the world."

Phra Wipatsri Dhamaramo, secretary to Thailand’s chief Monk: "As Buddhists we are not allowed to criticize anyone, but good religious people should not destroy world heritage."

Kotatsu Fujita, Hokkaido University’s professor emeritus of Buddhism: "Even though the statues are in Afghanistan, they are really world heritage sites now. I strongly doubt the Taliban’s understandings of cultural heritage."

Kijo Nishimura, All Japan Buddhist Association Secretary-General: [The destruction] "must be avoided as much as possible under any circumstances. Once you destroy something, you can never get it back. We have an important responsibility to leave these statues to our descendants."

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