Oliver Weber's AFGHANISTAN: ASSASINATED MEMORY

By George Tarabishi

Afghanistan: La Memoire Assasinee

(Afghanistan: Assassinated Memory) 
Edited by Olivier Weber 
Published by Editions Mille et Une Nuits, Paris
2001,140 pages

Against the backdrop of the "the war on terror" taking place currently in Afghanistan comes this book to remind us that the Afghan question is primarily a cultural one, especially under the Taliban regime. Here we consider culture in its broad sense as a way of life and a way of thinking representing a systemic vision of both the universe and existence.

From this perspective, this book, which collects articles written by 12 international researchers in various areas of cultural studies, represents a cry of protest against "the crime against culture" that was the Taliban's continual objective from their capture of Kabul in September of 1996.

The Taliban objective was, in essence, one of "culture against culture," with a goal of the extermination of culture and the destruction of its systems and symbols. They intended to extract the Afghan culture's roots and return it to point zero.

The Taliban objective did not recognize the legitimacy of art, painting, music, poetry, and the heritage of the generations. It is a complete and extreme model geared towards destroying images, a distinguishing characteristic common to religious fundamentalist movements in the Byzantine era and the Middle Ages. This model reached its peak in Afghanistan under the Taliban, starting with their burning films and videotapes in public places, banning television broadcasts, erasing pictures of individuals, burning photographed manuscripts in the Kabul Museum, and finally destroying the enormous Buddha statues in the Bamyan mountains.

The initiative to publish this book came from the organization dedicated to the defense of culture and common human heritage in the world, i.e. UNESCO. In fact, the first article in this book bears the signature of Koishiro Matusura, the general director of UNESCO, who opens by saying that, "A crime against culture has been committed. The Taliban, by destroying the grand Buddha statues that have overlooked the Bamyan valley for over 1500 years, have committed an unforgivable and irreversible crime for they have eliminated a part of the Afghan memory and have annihilated a precious testimony to the traditional intercultural exchange and have destroyed a heritage that belongs to humanity as a whole."

Olivier Weber, who was commissioned by UNESCO to organize a panel for the defense of "the traditions of Afghanistan and Central Asia," considered the political and cultural objective of the Taliban to be a dark spot unprecedented in history. He writes that the Taliban are advocates of "complete cultural isolation" and seekers of "absolute nihilistic puritanism." They are bitter enemies of women since women represent aesthetic values, and are proponents of the worst forms of oppression: dictatorship of minds and souls. They are soldiers/pilgrims as in the Middle Ages, or neo-Hulakians (after Hulako of the Mongols) burning everything around them to establish a government of mullahs (Mullarchy) and to practice a more severe form of extremism than burning images, namely burning the cultural images of Islam itself.

The exiled Afghan academic, Latif Badram, also draws the Hulakian analogy, showing that just as Hulako destroyed the great Ismaili library called the Death Castle and blackened the waters of the Tigris with the books he burned, so the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, ordered the incineration of 55,000 archival volumes and manuscripts from the library of Alhakim Nasr Husru in Bolalhamri.

Christian Vahard, a specialist of Asian affairs in the division of cultural heritage in UNESCO, presents the most comprehensive and detailed account of the crime against culture committed by the Taliban in their destruction of the Bamyan statues. He begins his account by citing the literal text of the decree issued by the Taliban government in the city of Kandahar, on February 26, 2001, relating to the destruction of all statues in Afghanistan regardless of their historical or artistic importance under the pretext of "pagan worship." The text reads: "Based on discussions of the religious leaders in the Islamic Afghan Emirate, and on the basis of fatwas (Islamic legal rulings) of religious experts and the ruling of the high court of the Islamic Afghan Emirate it is decreed that all non-Islamic statues and burial sites in all parts of Afghanistan must be destroyed. These statues had been and continue to be places of pilgrimage by infidels who dignify and glorify them as worshiping sites. There is no God but Allah the High and Mighty, and all other gods are destined for annihilation. As such, the president of the Emirate has ordered all the officials in the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (MPVPV) and also those in the Ministry of Information and Culture to destroy all statues. Furthermore, and as decreed by the high court of the Islamic Afghan Emirate and the committee of religious leaders, all statues must be destroyed so that henceforth it will not be possible for anyone to revere or glorify them."

In the wake of this decision, the UNESCO issued an appeal, first to the leaders of the Taliban, requesting the preservation of Afghan cultural heritage. This appeal was widely publicized in the Pakistani as well as the international press. On February 28, the general director of UNESCO sent a personal letter to the president of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, through the Taliban ambassador in Islamabad, pleading with him to intervene to stop the process of destruction. After issuing three additional press releases in consecutive weeks, UNESCO's director organized negotiations with ambassadors of various Islamic countries, especially those who recognize the Taliban regime. In March, Pierre Lafrance, the special envoy of the general director of UNESCO, made a series of visits to Islamabad, Kandahar, and Kabul where he met the foreign minister and the cultural minister of the Taliban regime. Then he left for the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, calling upon these governments to intensify their pressure on the Taliban regime.

As a result of UNESCO's appeals, a number of Islamic religious authorities in Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan issued fatwas against the Taliban decree of destruction. Also after appeals of UNESCO's general director to the Islamic Association Conference, a delegation composed of the presidents of 11 Islamic countries traveled to Kandahar to convince Mullah Omar not to use the Koran and Islam as a pretext for the destruction of those statues. But all these political and religious interventions were in vain, and the Taliban leadership continued to persist with its decision for destruction, despite the opposition demonstrated by Afghan intellectuals who lived in exile or in areas not under the control of the Taliban government. Christian Vahart refers to an incident that is quite revealing: the Taliban forces in the Bamyan valley refused for two weeks to implement Mullah Omar's decision. Their resistance warranted a personal visit from the minister of the MPVPV to Bamyan on March 8, and on the following day he and his men supervised the destruction of the statues by dynamite and artillery.

It remains to be said that the statues of Bamyan were the largest of their kind in the world. They were carved in rock, rising in height to between 38 and 55 meters. They were a symbol of the meeting of the East with the West and of dialogue among civilizations. They date back to the sixth or seventh century when they were erected by Buddhist monks who settled in the mountains of Bamyan at a height of 2,700 meters. Their style mixed Greek and Buddhist cultures that had extensively interacted with each other following Alexander the Great's conquests in the heart of Central Asia, and particularly the kingdom of Bektarion (today's Balakh) in northern Afghanistan. The art of these Buddhist monks reflected clearly the influence of the Hellenistic Alexandrian School whose artists were the first to sculpt statues of Buddha, giving them Apollo-like features.

Translated from the Arabic by Basil Samara

This article appeared in Vol. 8, no. 38 (Winter 2002).


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