Buddha Bashing

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The name Taliban means "seekers of knowledge." Since they seized control of most of Afghanistan in 1996, the clique of fundamentalist zealots who go by that name have eliminated virtually all human rights within their reach. Their proscriptions run from the hideous to the farcically pious--though farce itself, in today's Afghanistan, can and does kill. At one extreme, most girls are denied any education: Afghanistan is the most misogynistic country in the world. At another, a man who trims his beard commits a jailable crime.

Civil war, drought, famine, invasion and tyranny have been tramping back and forth across the weary soil of this miserable nation for so long that the prospects of its recovery, even if the Taliban were to vanish tomorrow, are distant at best. And now the Taliban have outraged world opinion with yet another bizarre and fanatic provocation. The leading Taliban mullah, Mohammed Omar, declared that since the Koran forbade the worship of idols, all idols in the country (meaning, for the most part, Buddhist sculpture made before the arrival of the Muslims in the 8th century) were to be destroyed. "The statues are no big issue," said an official, Qadratullah Jamal, from his office in the capital, Kabul. "They are only objects made of mud or stone." Jamal's portfolio? The Taliban's Minister of Information and Culture.

They meant it too. Already, the contents of at least two regional museums have reportedly been destroyed, with the rest--including Kabul's National Museum, with its much plundered collection of Buddhist art--presumably to follow. Not a museum or an archaeological site in the country has been secure from thieves since the Russian invasion of 1979; thousands of Hellenistic, Iranian and Indian artifacts from Afghanistan's many-layered past have been smuggled out to the voracious and amoral Western art market.

The announced target that has caused the most serious and concerted outcry from other nations, including some Muslim ones like Pakistan, is at Bamiyan, about 100 miles northwest of Kabul. There, in a valley, about a mile of soft-stone cliff is honeycombed with caves, many of them bearing ancient Buddhist wall paintings dating back to around the 4th to the 5th century A.D. The core of this already much defaced religious center, as it once was, consists of two gigantic standing figures of Buddha, recessed into the cliffs sometime between the 3rd and 6th centuries. The larger of them is 175 ft. high--purportedly the biggest standing Buddha in the world. On Saturday, a spokesman for Mohammed Omar claimed to the Associated Press that soldiers using explosives had "destroyed 80% of the statues. There is only a small amount left, and we will destroy that soon."

In fact, the Koran contains no injunction to destroy the images of other faiths. It does forbid depicting the Prophet: it is not an iconic religion. But none of the teachings of Islamic faith give sanction to what the Taliban are up to. "The terrible irony," says Philippe de Montebello, director of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, "is that Islam is essentially a tolerant faith--much more so than Christianity used to be." If there is practically no medieval art left intact in England, for instance, it is because the godly minions of Oliver Cromwell--ancestors of the Massachusetts Puritans--smashed and burned it all in the Lord's name.

The combination of Koran and Kalashnikov, however, is as toxic as that of Bible and burning stake ever was in Europe. The Taliban's mission is more absolute than some other culture crimes their decree has been compared to, such as the Nazis' famed burning of the books: works of art are singular and their destruction is irrevocable, whereas books exist in the plural and other copies may escape the fire.

Unfortunately, there are no good grounds to suppose that the Taliban can be deflected from their benighted campaign. Even the Metropolitan Museum's offer to purchase and transport pieces of the two Bamiyan Buddhas to New York was rebuffed by Taliban officials. Last week a very faint ray of hope faded when Pakistan, the Taliban's closest ally, failed to dissuade them from going ahead with their plans. Pierre Lafrance, a UNESCO special envoy, was sent to talk to Taliban mullahs in Kandahar, but he found that "there was not the slightest hint of bargaining in their position. Their standard is definitely extreme compared to other countries'."

Extreme is an extreme understatement. Once, Mao's Red Guards set the modern standard of ideological vandalism. Today it's the Taliban, and nobody quite knows what the mullahs hope to gain from their decree--other than a seat among the blessed in paradise, where no statues exist.