LONDON — The problem is that the world is actually a very provincial place. Most people in the non-Muslim parts of the world have never been in any Muslim country, so if Muslims anywhere in the world do something really stupid, they will readily believe that those actions are typical of Islam — and of course, the headlines will suggest that they ical. Like, for example, the headlines after the Taliban regime of Afghanistan blew up the giant 1,700-year-old Buddha statues of Bamiyan last week.
It was vandalism and cultural intolerance on a massive scale, and rightly condemned by people and governments around the world, including most Muslim governments. But it is worth noting, now that the huge Bamiyan statues are gone — the taller of the two was 56 meters high — that the largest graven image from ancient times still surviving in the world is the Great Sphinx of Egypt. And Egypt has been under Muslim rule for about 1,300 years.
All the Muslim regimes of Egypt, like all the previous Muslim governments of Afghanistan for over 1,000 years, protected the pre-Muslim heritage of their countries. The Taliban mullahs who now rule the country are fanatical hicks from the deepest countryside who have been further radicalized by two decades of incessant war, but to imply that their behavior is typical of Islam is slander.
Intolerance is not a Muslim failing but a human one. Many ancient Egyptian archaeological sites have been vandalized, for example, with the faces hacked off the statues even in the tombs, but that was not the work of Muslims. It was the work of iconoclastic Christian fanatics in the last centuries before the Muslim conquest.
In the seventh and eighth centuries, Christian religious fanatics were destroying statues and pictures depicting the human form all over the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium). The logic was exactly the same as in Afghanistan today: If we do exactly what we think God wants us to do, then maybe these terrible things — barbarian invasions, plagues, and so on — will stop happening to us.
Most of the eastern Mediterranean fell to the Arabs before the Byzantine Emperor Leon III officially banned the veneration of images of Christ and the saints in 730 A.D., and that limited the damage. Under Muslim rule, the most important monuments of antiquity were preserved intact, not only in Egypt but in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
This is not to say that Muslims have been entirely blameless in these matters. Both Christianity and Islam harbor a significant prejudice against representations of the human face and form, partly as a result of their shared Jewish roots, and partly because in their formative stages they were at war with older religions that did indeed worship (or at least symbolically revere) carved and painted idols.
Their reflex iconoclasm may subside for long periods of time, but it keeps bursting out again — as when Protestant rebels rejected Roman Catholic religious imagery four centuries ago to pursue a more austere vision of Christianity, and when the puritanical Wahhabi reformers imposed an even more austere version of Islam on Saudi Arabia in the last century. What we are seeing in Afghanistan at the moment is an offshoot of the latter.
The Wahhabi religious authorities have been zealously eradicating any evidence of pre-Islamic religious practices in the Saudi-controlled part of Arabia since 1820, when they destroyed the 12th-century statues of Dhu Khalasa. They’re still at it today: When Lebanese professor Kemal Salibi suggested in a book a decade ago that once-Jewish villages in what is now northwestern Saudi Arabia might have been the location for many of the earliest passages in the Bible, they immediately bulldozed the ancient buildings in those villages.
Only if the world archaeological community is mobilized early — as in the discovery of a small fifth- or sixth-century Christian church in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province some years ago — can the Wahhabi vandals be stopped from erasing the evidence. (The church is now surrounded by barbed wire and off-limits to archaeologists, but was still standing at last report.) But their behavior is no more representative of the generous and tolerant spirit of the best of Islam than the Orthodox iconoclasts and Puritan witch-burners were representative of the best of Christianity.
There is a best and a worst in every religion, as there is a best and a worst among the nonreligious (though many religious people don’t like to admit that). All the great monuments of the past will be destroyed sooner or later (though we should try to delay the process as much as we can). And people’s lives are still more important than pieces of rock.
The Taliban should not have destroyed the statues of Bamiyan. But they cannot have failed to notice that blowing them up focused more international attention on their country than all the years of war, all the lives that have been snuffed out, all the survivors living in hopeless misery. They are not exactly seeking help for the people they rule — they are far too bitter and cynical for that — but it wouldn’t hurt to send some help anyway.