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Jewish World Review March 9, 2001 / 14 Adar, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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The Taliban's wrecking job -- GERMANY'S minister of culture reached for a historical analogy the other day to characterize the Taliban's attack on priceless antiquities in Afghanistan.

"I feel myself uncannily reminded," Julian Nida-Ruemelin said, "of the book burning by the Nazis."

There are certainly similarities. In ordering the destruction of every statue in Afghanistan -- including the two immense standing Buddhas of Bamiyan, which for 15 centuries have gazed down at the Silk Road as it wends its way past the Hindu Kush -- the Taliban are committing an act of historical vandalism that is indeed reminiscent of the Nazis. The ruthless fanaticism, the implacability, the feverish determination to purge the land of "corrupt" and "alien" ideas -- yes, those would all have been familiar to Josef Goebbels.

But it isn't only Nazis who behave in this way. Henry VIII devastated the monasteries of England. The Bolsheviks demolished Russia's Orthodox churches. In 1992, Hindu zealots, spurred by India's leading religious party, smashed Ayodhya's 16th-century mosque into rubble. An Arab crowd in Nablus last fall used crowbars and pickaxes to raze the Jewish shrine of Joseph's Tomb. The ravaging of the enemy's cultural and religious treasures is a tactic as old as man.

Except that what the Taliban are doing cannot even be explained as an act of war. Whose spirits do they hope to crush by shelling the statues? Whose influence are they trying to strangle? There are no Buddhists in Afghanistan; there haven't been for 1,000 years. The Taliban have enemies, but insurgent Buddhism is not among them. What possible benefit can they derive from blasting ancient masterpieces to dust?

"We don't believe in these things," says Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the mullah who controls the Taliban's foreign policy. "They are against Islam."

But if the Buddhas of Bamiyan are such an affront to Islam, how have they managed to survive all these years? Afghanistan has been ruled by Muslims for 1,300 years. Surely the Taliban are not the first to take the strictures of their religion seriously.

Of course their claim is without merit. Islam no more requires the demolition of the Bamiyan statues than Christianity requires the demolition of Stonehenge. Even Muslim voices are being heard to say so.

The government of Pakistan, one of the few that recognizes the Taliban regime, has condemned the assault. The Iranian president, Mohammad Khatamai, describes it as "inhumane, violent." UNESCO's Arab contingent calls it "savage." The towering Buddhas are "just a recording of history," the grand mufti of Egypt says, without "any negative impact on Muslims." The president of the Islamic Center of New Delhi points out that the statues are older than Islam itself and labels the Taliban's actions "barbarian politics."

This universal fury, I suggest, is just the reaction the Kabul junta was hoping for. They know it is outrageous to pulverize the Bamiyan monoliths; it is intended to be outrageous. What is important to the Taliban, it seems to me, is not that the idols be destroyed but that the rest of the world -- especially the West -- be horrified by their destruction. It is not enough that Islam -- the Taliban's twisted, bitter interpretation of Islam -- be upheld: The non-Islamic world must be mocked and appalled in the process.

It wasn't necessary, after all, to notify the international media of the order for the statues' demolition. The wrecking job could have been carried out in secret. But keeping the vandalism quiet would have defeated its purpose: to show, in the most vivid way possible, how utterly the Islamist dictators of Afghanistan reject the norms and expectations of the outside world.

Which means that the Taliban will not be dissuaded by the anger and disgust raining down from all sides. The louder the storm rages, the more they will be convinced of their own purity and zeal. The world's pleas for the statues to be spared the Taliban will take as the best evidence that they ought to be smashed. Like scorched-earth totalitarians in other times and places -- like the Khmer Rouge, the Nazis, the Red Guard -- they nurse a particular contempt for conventional notions of decent behavior.

But whatever becomes of Afghanistan's old stone statues, we would do well to remember that the real horror of the Taliban is not that they are crushing cultural relics. It is that they are crushing human beings.

The Taliban rule with ferocious cruelty. They permit no civil rights, no due process, no freedom of thought. Under the sharia law they insist on, women are repressed more fearfully than anywhere else on earth. They are forbidden to go to work or to school, forbidden to laugh out loud, forbidden to appear in public except under escort -- and even then only when shrouded from head to toe. Torture is widespread in Afghanistan's jails, and the Taliban, who are Sunni Muslims, have massacred minority Shiites by the thousands.

It is admirable that the world has cried out to protest the Taliban's abuse of the Bamiyan Buddhas. But why has their been no outcry to protest their abuse of living, breathing Afghanis? There is little enough that we can do for those who bleed under the Taliban's lash. Could we not at least notice them?

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment on this column by clicking here.

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