Taliban Explains Buddha Demolition
Published: Monday, March 19, 2001
With outrage still fresh around the world over the destruction of two giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan, a Taliban envoy says the Islamic government made its decision in a rage after a foreign delegation offered money to preserve the ancient works while a million Afghans faced starvation.
"When your children are dying in front of you, then you don't care about a piece of art," Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi, the envoy, said in an interview on Friday.
Mr. Rahmatullah is in the United States on a mission to improve ties and ease the Taliban's isolation. A main focus of his visit, he said, will be to find a way out of the impasse surrounding Osama bin Laden, the terrorist suspect whose presence in Afghanistan has prompted international sanctions.
Still, Mr. Rahmatullah expressed no remorse over the demolition of the two giant Buddhas, carved from a cliff in central Afghanistan 1,400 years ago and considered one of the world's artistic treasures.
An adviser to the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, Mr. Rahmatullah gave for the first time here the Taliban's version of events: how a council of religious scholars ordered the statues destroyed in a fit of indignation.
The destruction, according to his account, was prompted last month when a visiting delegation of mostly European envoys and a representative of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization offered money to protect the giant standing Buddhas at Bamian, where the Taliban was engaged in fighting an opposition alliance.
Other reports, however, have said the religious leaders were debating the move for months, and ultimately decided that the statues were idolatrous and should be obliterated.
At the time the foreign delegation visited, United Nations relief officials were warning that a long drought and a harsh winter were confronting up to a million Afghans with starvation. Mr. Rahmatullah said that when the visitors offered money to repair and maintain the statues, the Taliban's mullahs were outraged.
"The scholars told them that instead of spending money on statues, why didn't they help our children who are dying of malnutrition? They rejected that, saying, `This money is only for statues.' "
"The scholars were so angry," he continued. "They said, `If you are destroying our future with economic sanctions, you can't care about our heritage.' And so they decided that these statues must be destroyed." The Taliban's Supreme Court confirmed the edict.
"If we had wanted to destroy those statues, we could have done it three years ago," Mr. Rahmatullah said. "So why didn't we? In our religion, if anything is harmless, we just leave it. If money is going to statues while children are dying of malnutrition next door, then that makes it harmful, and we destroy it."
"What do you expect from a country when you just ostracize them and isolate them and send in cruise missiles and their children are dying?" he said, referring to the sanctions and American attacks against Mr. bin Laden's base in Afghanistan after the bombing of two American embassies in Africa in 1998.
"You don't recognize their government," Mr. Rahmatullah added. "It is a kind of resentment that is growing in Afghanistan."
At the same time, he said the Taliban would not destroy statues actually being worshiped, and would not touch the Hindu temples still left in Afghanistan.
Mr. Rahmatullah is due to meet officials of the State Department and National Security Council on Monday in Washington, where he will also speak next week at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Atlantic Council of the United States and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
He would not disclose details of a possible new proposal for a way out of the standoff over Mr. bin Laden, the Taliban's fourth, saying he needed a signal from Washington first.
But there are reports in Pakistan that one option might be turning Mr. bin Laden over to a special tribunal, perhaps in The Hague, for trial by a panel of Islamic judges.
The Clinton administration had rejected an Afghan trial, international monitoring of Mr. bin Laden ? whom Mr. Rahmatullah described as a nobody the Americans made into a hero ? or exile in another Muslim country.
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