Misplaced priorities

By Steven Martinovich
web posted March 19, 2001

It's refreshing to see in societies that seem to be in cultural decline concern over the destruction of two giant Buddhas carved into a cliff centuries ago in a remote part of Afghanistan. Cultural and political leaders representing nations from all political and religious strains have decried the destruction of the Bamiyan statues as nothing less than "abominable," as UNESCO head Koichiro Matsuura stated.

Bamiyan statues before
Bamiyan statues after

The statues' destruction is indeed a sad event for the cultural history of the world. Afghanistan, now known as the site of a failed Russian war and continuing unrest, was once an important centre for Buddhist knowledge. That faith was displaced centuries ago by Islam, a largely tolerant religion that, like Judaism, prizes knowledge. It is well known that Islamic scholars saved much of the basis of Western knowledge, in the form of ancient Greek and Roman texts, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 at the hands of Mehmed II.

That aside, the ironically titled Taleban Information Minister, Qudratullah Jamal, announced March 12 that, "The destruction work is not as easy as people would think. You can't knock down the statues by dynamite or shelling as both of them have been carved in a cliff. They are firmly attached to the mountain," demonstrating metaphorically perhaps that while knowledge is difficult to suppress, it can be obliterated.

It is comforting to note that Islam itself has largely not been blamed for the actions of the Taleban. Representatives from the 55-member Organization of Islamic Conference visited Taleban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and argued strenuously that the statues, and other treasures from the nation's pre-Islamic era, should be saved. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak even dispatched the mufti of the republic, the country's most senior Islamic authority, to plead with the Taleban to save the statues. Despite that, there is concern that Islamic treasures may come under attack from Buddhists, creating an even more dangerous atmosphere in the Middle East.

Lost in all the hand wringing over the demolition of the statues, which few can admit they had heard of before the outcry by academics, is the real tragedy of Afghanistan. While politicians denounce angrily the cultural crimes of the Taleban, they have remained largely silent over the fate of the more than 100 000 starving refugees in Herat - only a few hundred miles from Bamiyan - and the more than 60 000 refugees living in a Pakistani camp near Peshawar. As a recent report stated, nearly 170 000 refugees have fled to Pakistan in the last six months alone, a nation already host to more than two million Afghan refugees.

Refugee camp near HeratIt's interesting to note that the destruction of two statues has provoked more outcry and media coverage than the brutal conditions imposed by the Taleban on Afghanis under their control. Afghanistan is a nation where women are prohibited from laughing out loud and educating themselves, and those are the pleasant things one can say about the Taleban's treatment of women, their enemies are slaughtered and any dissent is dealt with severely. To add to the misery of that nation's people, the Taleban continues to battle the remnants of Afghanistan's former government and a nationwide drought means hundreds of thousands are starving. Their situation may only get worse because donor nations may be more reticent to send aid to the nation because of the Taleban's decision.

The destruction of the two Buddha statues was a cultural crime no less heinous then the widespread destruction of cultural landmarks in Yugoslavia during its civil wars. Your author remembers fondly walking along centuries old bridges, visiting churches ransacked by participants of the Crusades and standing in the spot where Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferninand in 1914, all places which no longer exist today thanks to the monstrosity of those civil wars. The difference is that we didn't forget about the human tragedy when we saw the pictures depicting the destruction of those particular cultural landmarks, a mistake many people seem to be making today.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario and the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.

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