Is it only about statues?

by Michael den Hoet, Hamburg, Germany, The Buddhist Channel, Nov 30,

I believe the letter by Mr. Lin Zi Yi deserves a reply. The destruction of a prominent Buddha relief in the Swat valley in Pakistan caused irritation among Buddhists world-wide. It reminds us of a similar act of cultural terrorism, executed in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, a few years ago.

Public attention however, seems to be much less than in spring 2001. Is it due to the fact that the world has already got used to embarrassing destructive actions of radical Islamists since 9/11, 2001?

I was, politely spoken, very surprised about the argumentation in the letter of Mr. Lin Zi Yi from Shandong, China, published on BuddhistChannel on November 26, 2007. In his statement he plays down the significance of the assaults against both the Giant Buddha Statues in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Pakistan this year.

He even referred to the years-long leading leader of the Taliban regime, Mullah Omar, who had justified the destruction of the UNESCO World Heritage in the Bamiyan valley with the disastrous life circumstances in Afghanistan at that time. Mr. Lin also played down the meaning of Buddha statues in general, saying that “a statue is not the Buddha. It doesn't represent the Buddha.”

I am wondering if the author of these words really knows what had happened in Afghanistan during the time of the Taliban government. Mullah Omars was and probably still is a criminal and a hypocrite who is responsible for a lot of suffering in his country. It was in 1996, when the Taliban fighters conquered Kabul and established a regime of fear over ¾ of Afghanistan – a regime that cost the lives of several hundred thousand people and the freedom of millions of Afghans.

Lead by an extremely restrictive and relentless interpretation of their religion, the Taliban regime itself was responsible for most of the disaster that Mullah Omar complained about when he ordered that the Buddhas of Bamiyan be destroyed. Western charitable organizations that wanted to help the people were banned from the country. It was Mullah Omar who, in 2001, had ridiculed the statues as “symbols of idolatry” and ordered their destruction on the grounds that they were “un-Islamic.” At that time the organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) condemned this as an act of religious intolerance, emphasizing that “the existence of the statues was not damaging to Islam.”

One can discuss in how far Buddha statues represent the Buddha – either as a historic person or as a positive symbol of the full development of mind. And, sure, even as a Buddhist one does not have to give statues a “religious” meaning.

But ancient Buddha statues in Central Asia do represent more: They stand for former high civilizations that contributed to the world culture that we have today. Also in Pakistan, officially an Islamic Republic, a lot of people were proud of the Buddhist past of the country. Friendly Muslims preserved their heritage and were pleased to show it to tourists.

When now these relics of a bright past are under attack it is not just an act against pieces of stone – it is an attack on human values. History knows a lot of examples of how the destruction of culture was followed by terror against people. Many people in the Swat region of Pakistan are in fear of militant groups that want to establish a stone-age regime like under the Taliban era in Afghanistan.

In this context it is worth while to remember what Muhammad Aqleem, deputy curator of Swat Museum, said about the assaults against the Jenanabad Buddha:

“In this statue Buddha was shown in the condition of meditation. He was all peace and tranquility in this statue that was destroyed by the militants. I don’t know what they want to achieve by such actions. They want to destroy our cultural heritage, they want to disconnect with our past”.