Muslims Differ Over Taliban Plan To Destroy 'Idolatrous' Artifacts

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - As international condemnation continues to greet the decision by Afghanistan's rulers to destroy ancient religious and cultural artifacts, Muslims have expressed mixed views over the correctness of the Taliban's actions.

A United Nations envoy Tuesday said there now seemed little hope of saving thousands of artifacts from pre-Islamic times, including two huge Buddha rock-face sculptures in the town of Bamiyan.

The Taliban, whose particularly strict interpretation of Islam has seen the introduction of many highly controversial policies, including some highly oppressive of women, says it must destroy the "idolatrous."

U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization envoy Pierre LaFrance has been holding emergency talks in Kabul aimed at persuading the authorities to reconsider.

But the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan told the Afghan Islamic Press there would be no compromise on the issue.

Outsiders have been kept away from the Bamiyan site, and it remains unclear whether the Buddhas have already been destroyed by mortars and artillery. They stand 175 feet and 120 feet high and date back to a time when Afghanistan was a Buddhist center, before the Islamic invasion in the 800s.

Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar on Monday called on Afghan Muslims and those elsewhere to stand firm against outside pressure.

That pressure has been growing. India, the birthplace of Buddhism, has led the chorus of protests, joined by Thailand and Sri Lanka, both predominantly Buddhist countries.

Other countries weighing in include France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Nepal and Russia, whose embassy in Tehran said in a statement: "The Taliban's vandalism against material proofs of the rich spiritual legacy of the ancient Afghan land attest to their open enmity toward universal human values."

The European Union called the move "an act of cultural barbarism and religious intolerance," while U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday Washington had raised its concerns through Taliban representatives in Pakistan.

Although the Taliban has sought to legitimize its actions by pointing to its Islamic duty, not all Muslims appear to agree.

Pakistan - one of just three countries recognizing the Taliban regime - as well as Malaysia and even the Islamic republic of Iran have condemned the decision, while the Arab League and Islamic Education Scientific and Cultural Organization urged the Taliban not to destroy the statues and monuments.

India, Iran and several American museums offered to buy and remove the statues, but were turned down by the Taliban. Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel said of Tehran's offer: "We told Iran that it is our duty to preserve our heritage, but it was a religious obligation to destroy idols. Iran and Afghanistan are both Islamic countries and Islam says that what you do not like for yourself you cannot want for others."

The Taliban has won some support, however. A Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatist group has applauded the decision to destroy the statues.

And in London, a Syrian-born Muslim cleric and judge in the UK Shari'a (Islamic law) Court, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) on the matter:

"It is prohibited upon Muslims to keep idols at home, to maintain them, to trade with them or to earn anything from them whether they be statues, antiques or heritage. It is also prohibited for Muslims to keep idols in the public arena regardless of what their purpose is and such idols must be destroyed. However non-Muslims living among Muslims have the right to keep whatever they wish in the privacy of their own homes."

Elaborating on the edict, a spokesman for Bakri's militant al-Muhajiroun organization said Islam's prophet, Mohammed, had destroyed more than 360 idols when he conquered Mecca. Much earlier, Abraham had destroyed idols too (the Jewish patriarch is considered a Muslim prophet.)

"Hence this action from the Taliban deserves praise rather than dispraise from all Muslims and even those secular ones unfortunately still suffering from the disease of nationalism and idolatry which Islam came to eradicate."

Selling or giving away the statues would also be forbidden, the spokesman said.

Islamic law does not allow Muslims "to either trade with idols or co-operate with others in the evil action of preserving them." Only total destruction is acceptable.

Al-Muhajiroun said it seemed the West was more concerned about the fate of "the idols existent in Afghanistan" than its people, citing the American bombing of suspected terror bases there in 1998, and the U.N. sanctions imposed on the Taliban for refusing to hand over the wanted Saudi terrorist, Osama bin Laden.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow