Date: 3/9/2001




By George Szamuely

There is something hilarious about the worldwide horror at the Taliban's proposal to destroy Afghanistan's Buddhist statues, including the two giant Buddhas in the central Bamiyan province. The Bamiyan statues date back to the centuries of Buddhist rule that preceded the arrival of Islam in the ninth century AD. Despite the protests, the Taliban are in no mood to hang about. Using anti-aircraft weapons, tanks and explosives, they have already destroyed large parts of the figures. Western leaders issued statements laced with piety and sanctimony. Up until two weeks ago none of them had even known that there were Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

Now they are all aficionados of museums. However, the last thing they want to be caught doing is expressing hostility towards Islam.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the ancient statues "an important part of the world's cultural legacy and the cultural heritage of Afghanistan.. The United States joins...other governments in urging a halt to the destruction by the Taliban of a significant aspect of Afghans' cultural heritage."

Following their meeting in Trieste, Italy, the environment ministers of the G-8 group of industrialized nations issued this gaseous statement: "Mindful that the diversity of natural and human systems is at the core of sustainable development, we express dismay and shock at reports of the edict of the Taliban leadership."

"Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage," the statement went on, "is of vital importance not only to the people of Afghanistan but also to the world as a whole." The European Union too got into the act. In a statement issued in Pakistan by Sweden, the EU condemned the destruction: "The Presidency of the European Union strongly condemns this crime against the world's common heritage and deeply regrets that it has taken place in the name of one of the world's important religions."

German Culture Minister Julian Nida-Ruemelin - inevitably - compared the destruction of the statues to the burning of books by the Nazis. "This is about a piece of global cultural heritage which the rest of the world cannot be indifferent to" he declaimed.

UNESCO sent an emissary to Kabul to negotiate a "solution" with the Taliban. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art offered to pay to have the giant Buddhas removed from the country. There has also been a proposal to build a giant wall in front of the statues so as to hide them from Islamic eyes. But Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil dismissed these ideas. "We have all sorts of possibilities to maintain them or to keep them out of sight," he explained, "Our verdict wants their annihilation." His hands were tied, he explained.

Any alternative to the destruction would fail to satisfy Islamic law: "Our decree is based on Islamic orders and.we will spare no pre-Islamic or post-Islamic era statues."

"World's cultural legacy," "global cultural heritage," "diversity of natural and human systems," "one of the world's important religions" - such grandiloquent phrases roll easily off the tongues of the guardians of the New World Order. Or at least occasionally they do. For the destruction of the Buddhist statues is hardly the first instance in recent times of Islamic intolerance towards other religions. For at least two years, Albanian Moslems have waged a systematic campaign to annihilate the "rich cultural heritage" - to use the appropriate phrase - of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Kosovo. This has taken place while the province has been under military occupation by NATO and under the nominal jurisdiction of the United Nations. Yet this destruction has evoked very little protest and virtually no condemnation. The Met has not offered to pony up some cash to save precious cultural artifacts. UNESCO has not rushed an emissary over to Pristina to undertake urgent negotiations with the KLA. The loss of Europe's Christian heritage clearly is a matter of very little importance. Here is a tiny sample of the devastation wrought by this reign of Islamic terror (rather nearer to home than Afghanistan):

The Monastery of the Holy Trinity, built in the 14th century, housed a valuable collection of manuscripts from 14th to 18th centuries. It was plundered, burnt and then leveled to the ground by explosives.

The medieval Monastery of St. Mark of Korisa, built in 1467 with a single-nave, a rectangular foundation and a preserved fragment of the original, ancient fresco, housed a major book collection. It was robbed and burnt prior to having been completely destroyed by explosives.

The Monastery of St. Archangel Gabriel, built in the 14th century, had a rectangular foundation, a semi-round apse and a semi-cylindrical vault. A number of the 14th century liturgical vessels were kept in the church. The monastery was first looted and then set on fire. Finally, it was completely destroyed by explosive.

The Monastery of St. Uros, with the Church of the Ascension of The Holy Virgin, built by the Empress Helen at the end of the 14th century. In 1647-49 Patriarch Paisios bequeathed the manuscript of the hagiography of the Emperor Uros to the monastery. The monastery was mined and destroyed.

The Monastery and the Church of St. Archangels, in Gornje Nerodimlje, were built in the 14th century and renewed in the year 1700. The monastery was burnt and looted.

For a comprehensive list, visit here:

This rampant vandalism came as no surprise to NATO, and particularly not to the United States. For decades the US Government has promoted Islamic fundamentalism as a tool to ensure its global hegemony. The policy long predated the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was no accident that the US Government chose to back the most extreme of the Islamic fundamentalist groups that were fighting the Russians. This was not because US policymakers were naïve about the true intentions of their clients. To the contrary, as early as the 1960s they had realized the usefulness of Islamic fundamentalism. First, it would act as a bulwark against Arab radicalism of the kind espoused by Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser. It was preferable to have Arabs worrying about proper religious observance and correct dress code, rather than why a small group of emirs continues to control fabulous wealth while the rest of the populace lives in abject poverty. Moreover, Islam came to be seen in Washington as a powerful weapon in the global struggle with the Soviet Union. The largely Moslem Central Asian republics were seen as restive. Spreading the Islamic message to them would help weaken Moscow's rule. Through the agencies like Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, the US Government spread a message of Islamic fundamentalism and ethnic nationalism to Central Asia.

The CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) created the Taliban. The idea was to encourage a specifically Sunni radicalism, which would content itself with imposing the sharia while avoiding grappling with pressing social and economic concerns.

This suited Saudi Arabia perfectly, partly because it was anxious to strengthen its Islamic credentials as against the newly-triumphant Shiite rivals in Iran. In addition, the Saudi rulers, presiding over the world's largest oil exporter, were terrified of political radicalism. Not surprisingly so. A tiny group of people, along with their large families, retainers and hangers-on live in luxury and do very little in the way of work all day. The Saudis' vast oil wealth is spent on the purchase of ever-more sophisticated weaponry from the Pentagon, which its feeble military would almost certainly have no idea how to use.

Meanwhile, the people who do the work have very little in the way of political rights. What the Saudi rulers do have is Mecca, Medina and a US guarantee to step in to bail them out if they are ever threatened.

So the United States, along with its Saudi and Pakistani clients, began to finance, train and arm the mujahedeen of Afghanistan. Altogether, about $40 billion in cash went to the mujahedeen. Then, starting in late 1984, thousands of militant Islamic radicals from the Middle East made their way to Afghanistan. Their recruitment was organized by the Saudi businessman, Osama bin Laden. In camps set up in the Afghan tribal areas, these volunteers underwent military training, political education and Islamic consciousness-raising. The ISI - effectively the CIA - supervised this indoctrination into the ant-Soviet jihad.

The withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989 did not lead to the closing down of the camps, any more than it led to the dissolution of NATO. To the contrary, the camps continued to flourish training recruits for one jihad after another. The ISI and the CIA, of course, continued to finance and supervise their protégés. The jihads were largely directed at perceived foes or rivals of the United States. Fundamentalist volunteers would be sent to Xinjiang province in China, with a view to trying to detach an Islamic republic out of China. Volunteers would turn up in Chechnya and Daghestan helping to mobilize anti-Russian feeling there. Or they would make their way to Bosnia, seeking to establish the first Islamic republic in Europe.

In each of these cases, the goals of the Islamic fundamentalists and of the United States Government were the same. The United States did not give a damn about the sharia. But they saw in Moslem Bosnia and Moslem Albania potentially useful clients. They would join an informal grouping of Moslem countries stretching from the Persian Gulf into the Balkans. This would include Turkey, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It would be led by the United States and aligned closely with Israel. Moslem Albania would be groomed to replace Greece as NATO's base in the Eastern Mediterranean. This bloc of Moslem states would act as the staging ground for US expansion into Moslem Central Asia, there to appropriate the oil and gas riches of the Caspian Sea.

In the case of Bosnia, the United States encouraged the Sarajevo Government not to limit itself to recruiting the Aghani crowd, who were mainly Sunni, but to cultivate the Shiite Iranians as well. In May 1991, almost a year before the war broke out in Bosnia, President Alija Izetbegovic paid an official visit to Teheran. He expressed his desire to expand ties with Iran. The Iranian mullahs were impressed by Izetbegovic, seeing in him "a Moslem believer whose party is the strongest political organization in Bosnia-Herzegovina and [which will rally] Yugoslav Moslems." In May 1991, Iran dispatched 65 mujahedeen fighters to Bosnia. Iranian-run training camps for terrorists opened for business in Bosnia in the summer of 1991. Then the Hizbollah guerrillas showed up, led by Brigadier General Bakri Hassan Salili, Chief of Security and Intelligence in the Sudanese Army.

The goal of the Islamic fundamentalists is creation of an Islamic state and the imposition of the sharia. The fundamentalists' outlook is extremely religious but politically non-threatening. This is not surprising. The militants are trained in the private religious schools, known as madrasas, that today flourish in a number of Moslem countries, thanks in large part to Saudi funds. These madrasas therefore follow the basic Saudi agenda: sharia, sharia and yet more sharia. The creation of a cadre of non-political Islamic rulers is clearly the goal of both the United States and Saudi Arabia. Nonpolitical Islamic rulers are more likely to sign deals with US corporations, play along with NATO's maneuvers or follow an IMF-prescribed program than truly nationalist leaders like Slobodan Milosevic or even Franjo Tudjman.

The alleged rift between the United States and the Taliban has always been a sham. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Taliban work in tandem. According to the Woodrow Wilson Center's Selig Harrison, "The Taliban are not just recruits from 'madrassas' but are on the payroll of the [Pakistani] ISI." Moreover, the old associations between the intelligence agencies continue: "The CIA still has close links with the ISI." And the United States is not even pushing sanctions against the Taliban. Harrison points out that UN Security Council Resolution 1333 calls for an embargo on arms to the Taliban because they refuse to hand over Osama bin Laden. "But it is a Resolution without teeth because it does not provide sanctions for non-compliance," he argues, "The US is not backing the Russians who want to give more teeth to the Resolution."

Let us be done then with the pleasing notion that the United States is in hot pursuit of Osama bin Laden. He is very useful to Washington just where he is - making trouble for the Chinese, the Indians and, above all, the Russians. As for the giant Buddhas, we really could not care less about them. But Buddhism is rather fashionable today, particularly among the Hollywood crowd. So some vague protests have to be mounted. The Serbian monasteries did not even get that.


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