ISLAMABAD — As if the destruction of some key human values were not enough to satisfy the blind zeal of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, they have now turned their guns on historical relics.
In the nearly two weeks since Mullah Mohammed Omar, the reclusive Taliban leader who has seldom been seen in public, ordered the destruction of all statues from the country’s pre-Islamic era, Afghanistan has once again been in the international spotlight.
This time, however, the attention is qualitatively different. While earlier criticism of harsh practices such as banning the education of girls and restricting women from most professions came largely from the Western world, the Islamic world’s response to the latest burst of destruction has been barely less forthright.
Pakistan, the only country to maintain an embassy in Afghanistan, was joined by Qatar, the present head of the 56-member Organization of Islamic Conference, the global coalition of Islamic countries, in urging the Taliban to reverse their decision. The world’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims — the two main sects of Islam, often divided on many other issues — are beginning to show unity in opposing the Taliban.
The statues are “just a recording of history and don’t have any negative impact on Muslims’ beliefs,” said Nasr Farid Wasel, Egypt’s grand mufti, a prominent leader among the world’s Sunni Muslim clergy.
Predominantly Shiite Iran, which went through its own Islamic revolution but never experienced the destruction of historical relics, not only criticized the destruction but also offered to buy the two large statues of Buddha, believed to be the tallest in the world, in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan.
The pleas from around the world appear to have made no difference to the Taliban. “This is an issue of Shariah (Islamic law) and a religious decree. To change that is beyond the power of anyone,” said Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, reacting to the international calls for a reversal of the decision.
The Taliban’s relentless defiance in the face of this international outcry raises three vital questions for the future of the Central Asian country, devastated by 22 years of conflict since the invasion by the former Soviet Union in 1979.
First, the Taliban, now in their fifth year in power and having occupied almost 95 percent of Afghan territory, are still finding it difficult to take charge of the whole country. They continue to be opposed by the so-called Northern Alliance, a coalition of Afghanistan’s smaller minorities that have the backing of Iran. As a result, the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan remains tenuous, despite their control of territory. They face years of pitched battles interrupted by periodic lulls of peace, with lasting peace a very distant prospect. The consequence must be that, without a political settlement and under the influence of the Taliban’s hardline policies, Afghanistan will remain bogged down in instability.
Second, the Taliban’s defiance will further impoverish an already economically devastated country, whose outward flow of refugees has only intensified since last summer’s drought. Many of Afghanistan’s biggest aid donors, such as European countries and Japan, have already interpreted steps like the forced closure of girls’ schools as obstacles to continued aid. Now the destruction of Afghanistan’s historical relics will make it increasingly difficult for many donors to make larger commitments to the country’s reconstruction while the Taliban remain in power. In recent weeks, Pakistan, faced with its own economic problems, has begun tightening controls over the flow of Afghan refugees. For the Taliban, faced with the prospect of diminishing aid and new blockades from Pakistan — the one country that has traditionally hosted Afghan refugees — economic distress can only worsen in the coming months. While the hardline regime will use every means at its disposal to survive, its grip on power is bound to weaken as time goes by, perhaps ultimately unleashing public unrest and new challenges to its authority.
Finally, the Islamic world’s criticism of the latest Taliban edict could well be the first in a number of disagreements. Nowhere else in Islam are there precedents for a similar destruction of historical relics. Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia, three of the larger Islamic countries, in fact exemplify the tolerance that has generally been shown toward historical sites, which are used to attract tourism and as showcases of cultural preservation. Nowhere else in the Islamic world are there example of relics being worshipped by Muslims. The Taliban’s supposed fear that Afghanistan’s Buddhist statues will inspire Muslims to worship them and therefore must be torn down immediately sounds as hollow as the hardline regime’s other controversial policies.
As the world looks on in complete dismay at the ongoing destruction in Afghanistan, the only silver lining may be that the Taliban regime is hardly sustainable in the long run. Sadly, however, it may cause irreparable damage to Afghanistan and to the country’s heritage before it is overturned.
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