For the hard-line Islamic rulers of Afghanistan to destroy another faith's religious icons as well as some of the world's oldest and greatest works of art amounts to a giant step backward for civilization.
Tolerance for other religions, even if it is in respecting a faith's ancient artifacts from centuries ago, is a basic tenet of any major faith. Without such tolerance, the world might revert to destructive religious wars of the past. With it, religion can flourish.
Reports that the Taliban rulers have begun to demolish the carvings of giant Buddhist figures from 14 centuries ago have brought outcries from many corners, notably other Islamic nations. (See story on page 7.)
The Taliban declares that its decision to destroy all historic religious statues is based on its interpretation of Islamic teachings to get rid of all "idols" that are "insulting to Islam."
That other Muslims strongly disagree in this case and condemn the decision may yet persuade the Taliban to halt this destruction.
But given the Draconian way the fanatical Taliban have treated women, harbored terrorists, and brutally enforced strict behavior, they may be immune to this latest international pressure. Offers by museums to buy the artifacts have been ignored.
Especially targeted for destruction have been the world's two largest Buddhas, carved out of a cliff near the ancient trade routes of the old Silk Road. They have stood as monuments to a time when Afghanistan was a center of Buddhist learning and pilgrimage, and have long since become part of the world's cultural heritage. The carvings were ranked in their historic and aesthetic appeal with other Asian religious monuments, such as Cambodia's Angkor Wat, Indonesia's Borabodur, and Burma's Plains of Pagan.
War and the Soviet occupation have left this poor nation vulnerable to radical ways. International isolation of the Taliban may have led it to take this public act of desperation. But embracing the regime now would seem unlikely to win its favor.
Moral persuasion by the world's Muslim leaders is needed to save what precious artifacts remain. And the rest of the world can learn once again the need for any religion to respect other individuals' ways of worship.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society