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Nepal: Taliban Tears Down Buddha Statues

Nepal: Taliban Tears Down Buddha Statues


Siddhi B. Ranjitkar

In view of the controversy over the free press versus blasphemous cartoon going on in the world press, I would like to present the following facts about what the so-called Taliban Muslims did to Buddha statues while they were in power in Afghanistan in 2001:

Mulla Mohammad Omar – supreme leader of Taliban militia issued an edict to tear down all ancient Buddha statues saying, "All we are breaking are stones" in the central province of Bamiyan (Kandahar), Afghanistan on Monday, February 26, 2001. Mr. Omar told the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP), "I issued the order to destroy all statues in Afghanistan including the country's rich pre-Islamic statues in line with Islamic beliefs. 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. Only Allah – the Almighty deserves to be worshipped not anyone or anything else. Afghan history is secondary to the history of Islam. Whoever thinks this is harmful to the history of Afghanistan I tell them they must first see the history of 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 statues are insulting to Islam. Because God is one God, and these statues are there to be worshipped and that is wrong now or in the future. " The Taliban Radio Shariat said the Ministry of Information and Culture and Religious Police would carry out the demolition.

The decree was issued at a time when a team of western diplomats visited Afghan capital Kabul to check the reports that Taliban hardliners have vandalized ancient statues in the national museum. The Afghanistan's museums contain a treasure-trove of Buddhist-era artifacts. Museums around the country host important Buddhist statues and other priceless statues. The Kabul museum alone housed an estimated 6,000 statues. It is believed most of them have been destroyed. The Taliban have refused to allow anyone inside the Kabul museum -- war-ravaged building. Most of the museums have been destroyed in the bitter fighting between rival factions during the period of 1992 to 1996. The team comprising the Pakistan-based envoys of Greece, Italy and France left Kabul on Tuesday, February 27, 2001 saying they were "very sad."

Afghanistan was a Buddhist center before Islamic conquerors invaded it around 1,400 years ago. Most of Buddha statues are in Bamiyan about 180 km west of Kabul. It has inherited the world's tallest standing Buddha statue of 53 meters high and the second tallest of 37 meters high. The two statues were carved into sandstone cliff in Afghanistan in the fifth century. Accidentally or deliberately firing at those statues during the last 20 years of ongoing civil war have heavily damaged those two statues.

The Taliban means movement of religious students seized Kabul in 1996, and since then they have imposed a puritanical mix of Pasthun tribal and Sharia law in a bid to create a true Mohammadean state of their thinking. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognize this regime. It is neither the member of the United Nations nor of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

World reactions to the demolition:

Kotatsu Fuijita -- professor emeritus of Buddhism at Hokkaido University in Tokyo said, " I cannot believe the Taliban will destroy the big Buddhas. Even though the statues are in Afghanistan, they are really world heritage now. I strongly doubt the Taliban's understanding of cultural heritage."

Kijo Nishimura -- Secretary General of All Japan Buddhist Association said, "The destruction of Buddha statues 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."

Pradap Pibulsonggram -- spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, Thailand said, " The loss of the Bamiyan Buddhas would be a loss to humanity. It is their loss too. One day when they resolve their problems they will want to attract tourists. Bamiyan Buddha statues will help them if they keep."

Ariya Rubasinghe -- spokesperson for the Sri-Lankan Government said, "We have the grave concern for the Taliban rulers' order to destroy a giant fifth century Buddha that is said to be the tallest statue of its kind."

Angelo Gabriele de Ceglie -- Italy's ambassador to Pakistan said, "It is a great loss, a tragedy for the Afghan people and for the world." De Ceglie was heading a delegation of the Society for the Preservation of Afghan Culture and Heritage – a largely Italian funded organization to try to preserve the remains of Afghanistan's heritage ravaged by more than two decades of relentless war.

Jaswant Singh -- Indian Foreign Minister addressing the parliament said, "The Taliban appears bent for committing a grave wrong, indeed a sacrilege to humanity, to the civilization and cultural inheritance of all mankind. Even at this last stage, we would like to convey that the destruction of these precious manifestations of the cultural heritage of humankind should stop." He offered to arrange for the transfer of all the artifacts in question to India where they would be kept safely and preserved for all mankind.

Kazuhiko Koshikawa – spokesperson for Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, Japan said, "The Japanese Government is deeply concerned over the destruction of all statues in Afghanistan. Those statues are assets to all human beings. If they were ruined, it would be an immeasurable loss. The Japanese government hopes that Taliban will review such a decision and take appropriate measures."

The press release issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, His Majesty's Government of Nepal on March 1, 2001 said, "It is a matter of deep concern for the government and the people of Nepal that the two ancient Buddha statues in the central Bamiyan province of Afghanistan have been already partially damaged and disfigured. His Majesty's Government of Nepal is deeply shocked by this development. His Majesty's Government of Nepal does consider this development as unfortunate and condemns such reprehensible acts of the Taliban Government of Afghanistan."

Frances Vendrell – UN special envoy to Afghanistan said, " I discussed the edict with the Taliban Foreign Minister in Kabul on Thursday, March 1, 2001 but the minister said, "The Islamic Emirate (Taliban) is not in the habit of rescinding their edicts." I told him that the international community is baffled at the moment and it would create international outrage if the edict were carried out. It is going to have negative implication for the Taliban's image around the world."

China's state Xinhua news agency on Saturday, March 3, 2001 quoted a Buddhist Association of China saying, "Chinese Buddhist circles are concerned about the decision which deeply offends the feelings of Buddhists. We urge the Taliban to halt this destructive act immediately."

The United News of India quoted Atal Behari Vajpayee – Prime Minister of India saying at a public rally in Punjab on Sunday, March 4, 2001, "All nations including Muslim countries have condemned the destruction of the ancient artifacts. A person having no respect for human values is uncultured and can only carry out such a sensleless act. To show respect for one's own religion is another matter but to disrespect and disgrace another religion is an act of shame and I condemn it."

The Swedish presidency of the European Union in Stockholm on Sunday, March 4, 2001 said in a statement, "It (destruction of ancient statues) is an act of cultural barbarism and religious intolerance which will irreparably and irreversibly deprive Afghanistan of a large part of its unique historical and cultural patrimony. The EU strongly condemns this crime against the world's common cultural heritage and deeply regrets that it has taken place in the name of one of the world's important religions."

Demolition:

Qudratullah Jamal – Minister for Information and Culture of the Taliban Government told AFP, "The destruction of scores of pre-Islamic figures designed to stop the worshipping of false idols has begun throughout the country on Thursday, March 1, 2001. The work started about five hours ago but I do not know how much of it (the two Bamiyan Buddhas) has been destroyed. It will be destroyed by every means. All the statues are being destroyed. Taliban soldiers were at work in the Kabul museum and elsewhere in the provinces of Ghazni, Herat, Jalalabad and Kandahar." Militiamen started wrecking the almost 2,000-year-old Buddhist masterpieces in the central province of Bamiyan including the world's tallest standing Buddha after sunrise on Thursday, March 1, 2001.

Taliban officials said on Saturday, March 3, 2001 that they have destroyed most of the ancient relics of their nation's pre-Islamic past including parts of two towering statues of Buddha in less than a week. Mr. Jamal told AFP, "Two thirds of all statues in Afghanistan have already been destroyed the remaining will be destroyed in next two days. The head and legs of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan were destroyed yesterday. Our soldiers are working hard to demolish their remaining parts. They will come down soon. We are using everything at our disposal to destroy them.

The order to destroy the tallest Buddha statue along with all other statues in Afghanistan came from Mulla Mohammad Omar, Supreme Leader of Taliban on Monday, February 26, 2001.

Efforts to save the artifacts:

Mr. Pierre Lafrance -- a special UNESCO envoy traveled to Kandahar -- the southern Afghan city on Sunday, March 4, 2001 for meeting with Taliban leaders and persuading them to stop the demolition of Buddha statues. He failed to persuade the Taliban militia to stop the demolition of the pre-Islamic cultural heritage. Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel said that he had detailed discussions with Mr. Lafrance in Kandahar but could not see reasons for stopping the destruction.

Mr. Lafrance plans to visit Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for persuading them to put pressure on Taliban for stopping the demolition of Buddha statues. Mr Lafrance thinks that the two Islamic countries hold a key to exerting moral pressure on Taliban for stopping the destruction of the artifacts. The UN warned Afghanistan's rulers of extremely serious consequences of destroying the ancient statues.

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art offered to buy the statues rather than see them destroyed. The Association of Art Museum Directors representing 175 museums in the United States, Canada and Mexico, said it would ''stand by any effort'' to rescue the artifacts.

On Sunday, March 4, 2001, Qatar – current OIC (55 member Muslim body) president urged the Taliban to abandon its campaign for destroying the ancient statues stating, "Historical relics regardless of their locations are part of the cultural heritage of the whole humanity, and they must be preserved."

State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said that the United States on Monday, March 05 reiterated its appeal for the Taliban to leave the statues alone for future generations. He also said, "Afghanistan's ancient statues are an important part of the world's cultural legacy and the cultural heritage of Afghanistan."

The French Foreign Ministry said on Monday, March 05, "We are maintaining close contact with all those who are striving to prevent the destruction of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic statues, in particular with the people of the countries that have official relations with Kabul."

Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel speaking from Kandahar said on Thursday, March 8, 2001, "We have said that we would not spare pre-Islamic or post-Islamic Buddhist artifacts. The Emirate (Taliban) has been established for realization of Islamic Sharia (law). And we will implement the verdict. The verdict calls for their destruction." The verdict refers to a ruling of a Taliban court following advice from Afghan Ulema or religious scholars on the issue. This statement came as Japan launched a new bid to save the statues and a day after a UNESCO envoy said the irreplaceable relics had not yet been badly damaged holding out hope that they might win a reprieve yet.

A three-member Japanese delegation arrived in Islamabad on Thursday, March 8, on the way to Afghanistan in the latest bid to persuade the Taliban not to demolish the statues in Bamiyan. UNESCO special envoy Pierre Lafrance said on Wednesday that he would return to Afghanistan in this week in a second bid to persuade the Taliban to spare the statues.

AFP reports that militia official's claim that Bamiyan Buddhas are being destroyed with everything possible from tanks to dynamite but it is impossible to verify what exactly has happened to those statues because the province is sealed to outsiders.

On March 9, 2001, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for stopping the demolition of the two large Buddha statues in Bamiyan from among the ancient artifacts the Taliban militia has been destroying. (Gorkhapatra March 11, 2001)

Egypt's top religious leader Mufti Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel was traveling along with the delegation of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), comprising Qatar's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Ahmed bin Abdullah al-Mahmud, OIC official Ibrahim Bakr and two well-known Sunni clerics Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi and Mohamed al-Rawi to Afghanistan on Saturday, March 10, 2001 to meet the Taliban official and UNESCO representative Haytham al-Khayyat for trying to dissuade the fundamentalist Taliban militia from destroying two of the world's oldest Buddha statues. The trip came on the same day Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Mutmaen announced that "work" on the statues was between 80 and 90 percent complete.

Wassel condemned the order to destroy the statues, and said, "From religious point of view the statues do not have an effect on belief. Quran – Islamic holy book contains many references and stories of past civilizations and monuments they left behind."

UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura called Wednesday (March 7) on Egypt to intervene to help save the statues – the tallest Buddhas in the world located in the Bamiyan region of central Afghanistan.

Afghan Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel rejected U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's plea to stop destruction of ancient Buddha statues emphasizing that the action was started after thorough deliberations in light of the edict according to the Islamic law. Mutawakel expressed these views in a press conference held at Afghan Embassy in Islamabad after meeting with U. N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on Sunday, March 11, 2001.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar accused the international community of doing too little too late to save the historical treasures saying on Monday, March 12, 2001, "The whole world community remained a passive spectator to the disaster… to the irreparable damage to the world's cultural heritage."

An official said in Colombo on Sunday, March 18, Sri Lanka was seeking to buy the rubble and any remains of the Bamiyan Buddha statues destroyed by Afghanistan's Taliban rulers in a bid to rebuild them. Sri Lanka – the seat of Theravada Buddhism had earlier offered to finance an international operation to save the two statues that dates back more than 1,500 years.

Taliban Supreme Leader Mulla Mohammad Omar ordered on Friday, March 16 to slaughter 100 cows as a sacrifice for atoning the delays in the destruction of the ancient statues in Bamiyan. Kabul's official media however did not make it clear if Omar meant the delay since Islam came to Afghanistan around 14 centuries ago or since the Taliban took Kabul in 1996. The Radio Shariat reported in Kabul, " These cows are to be slaughtered by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban) for the further glory of God, the Almighty's name and as an offering for the error and the delay in the destruction of the statues."

Conclusions:

The world opinions could not save the Buddha in large stones. However, Buddha will remain everywhere people want to live in peace. Obviously Afghanistan is not the appropriate place for Buddha to reside under the current war situation. Hence, time has come for Buddha in those magnificent stones to leave Afghanistan for some other places. Buddha was not for worshipping idols; so it does not make any difference for Buddha if someone makes or breaks statues. In fact Buddha did not believe in God but in peace.

One of the Buddha's teaching is "nothing is permanent in the universe. Everything is changing every minute." Those large Buddhas in stones in Bamiyam have to change at one time or another but it happened in the beginning of the third millennium. Another teaching of Buddha is "you will enjoy the consequences of your deeds. In other words if you do good things you will have good results if you do bad things you will have bad results."

Fanatics often do things without taking into account of the results of their deeds. Hindu fanatics tore down the Babri Masjid (mosque) in India in the last decade of the second millennium causing the destruction of hundreds of Hindu temples in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Muslim fanatics demolished the Buddhas in stones in Afghanistan in the beginning of the third millennium without considering the spiritual and physical results of such deeds. This may be the last bravery of Taliban in the battle against humanity. Time will show the results of such bravery.

(Sources: The Rising Nepal of February 28, 2001 & of March 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 12 13, & 19, 2001, Gorkhapatra March 11, 2001, The Kathmandu Post of March 2, 2001)

Wednesday, March 21, 2001.

*************

Siddhi B. Ranjitkar recorded these facts when the Taliban destroyed the huge Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001.


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