To Afghanistan's supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the destruction of a few thousand Buddhist statues is just a way of following Islam's stern injunction against idolatry.
"All we are breaking are stones," he told reporters from his headquarters in Kandahar, adding, "my job is the implementation of Islamic order."
But to Western archaeologists, Buddhist scholars, diplomats, and other Muslim nations, the announced destruction Saturday of most of the giant Buddhist statues in the Afghan town of Bamiyan is a big deal indeed.
The Taliban has not only reportedly destroyed two 1,500-year-old statues that are a rare example of the fusion of Western and Asian styles. They have shattered any international goodwill the reclusive Islamic regime has left.
"The absolutely stupid decision to destroy the statues is only a symptom of a very, very general malaise," Gabriele De Ceglie, the Italian ambassador to Pakistan, told Reuters news agency. Mr. De Ceglie is a member of a committee of diplomats trying to save Afghanistan's cultural heritage. "It is a country where nothing is going the way it should go."
The statues' destruction comes at a crucial time for the five-year-old Taliban regime. Unable to finish off a five-year struggle with northern rebels or to prevent the migration of nearly a million Afghans seeking food relief after a two-year famine, the Taliban regime has become desperate to receive international recognition as Afghanistan's true government.
Only three nations - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan - recognize the Taliban. But none has voiced support for destroying Buddhist statues. And while food relief pours into the camps of their foes in the north, the Taliban's needs have been pointedly ignored. Last November, the world community deepened the humiliation by slapping economic sanctions against the Taliban for its alleged support of terrorist Osama bin Laden, and for its poor human rights record.
The Taliban garnered some goodwill recently by announcing a ban on growing opium poppies - a major source of revenue for the government.
But Mullah Omar's anti-idol edict does more than just underscore the Taliban's goal of creating the world's purest Muslim nation. It also "punishes" the West with one of the few tools it has left. "This is their way of forcing the world to pay attention, to take them seriously," said Gen. Hamid Gul, former head of Pakistan's secretive Inter-Services Intelligence agency, in an interview with the Times of India.
Like many Taliban supporters, General Gul said the West's reaction to the Bamiyan destruction is hypocritical, since the world "silently stood by as 10 million Afghan lives have been placed at risk" by war and famine.
At the center of the controversy are two massive statues, carved out of limestone cliffs by Buddhist monks between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD.
Towering 175 feet and 120 feet above the plains of central Afghanistan, the statues at Bamiyan marked an important resting place for caravans of traders along the Silk Road, coming from China and down to the western coasts of India. There, Buddhist ideas spread, and picked up a fusion of Western and Eastern influences. Consider the statues themselves: Their faces wore the serene smile of Buddhist statues, but their dress was Greco-Roman.
By the end of the weekend, Taliban artillery and explosives had been used to destroy the heads and legs of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and a Taliban spokesman said the remaining parts would be destroyed by today. "We are using everything at our disposal to destroy them," said Information Minister Quatradullah Jamal.
The destruction of these monuments has set off a curious reaction among Afghanistan's neighbors. In India, where Hindu fanatics destroyed a 15th century Muslim mosque in 1992 in hopes of building a Hindu temple there, the central government called the Taliban's actions "un-Islamic and satanic."
In Iran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, in essence, that the Taliban are giving Islam a bad name. "Unfortunately, the Taliban's destruction of statues has cast doubt on the comprehensive views offered by Islamic ideology in the world."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society