International Papers


The pledge from Afghanistan’s Taliban regime to destroy all the country’s “un-Islamic” statues, including two giant fifth-century Buddhas, provided editorial writers with many of their favorite indignation-producing elements: an obvious villain, an evil deed, a foreign setting, and the cachet of culture.

A piece in Britain’s Observer placed the Taliban’s “heritage terrorism” in historical context: “Smashing images is as old as human hatred.” From the Old Testament through the Reformation, world wars, and the fall of the Soviet Union, statues have gone under the hammer. But what are the Taliban’s motivations? The author, a veteran foreign correspondent, identified two aims:

One is nationalist as much as religious. It is to invent a completely new, completely untrue past for Afghanistan, in which no trace of any other religion or empire or regime apart from their own can be found. … The second motive is a mixture of revenge and reproach. The Taliban leaders are hurt by the West’s disgust with them. They know the rich West cares desperately about the archaeological heritage of Afghanistan; this is a way to hit back.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post presented the destruction order as the latest in a long line of “harsh” measures since the Taliban took Kabul in 1996—following prohibitions on portraits, photographing living people, dancing, music, kite-flying, and the keeping of pigeons. An op-ed in the Independent of London declared that these colorful restrictions “might have made them a bit of a joke to the rest of the world, but Afghanistan’s exports of opium and terrorism are anything but amusing.” It said:

As an act of cultural desecration, attacking [the Bamiyan Buddhas] is on a par with demolishing Angkor Wat or the Pyramids at Giza. But one should not become so absorbed in mourning these ancient stones that one forgets what the Taliban is doing every day to the people of Afghanistan—especially the women. … [Y]ou cannot expect the people of Afghanistan to worry about what the Taliban is doing to old stones when you see what it is doing to them.

An editorial in the Independent made a similar point, claiming that the assault on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage is by no means the Taliban’s worst outrage:

Let us leave aside the regime’s support for terrorism, and its sheltering of Osama bin Laden. It has trampled upon the rights of women and ignored elementary human rights. It bans drugs, yet has presided over a massive heroin export trade. … Afghanistan was three-quarters ruined by the time the Soviet Union pulled out its troops in 1989; by every discernible economic measure, the ruin is now complete.

Papers in several Asian countries spoke out against what the Times of India called the Taliban’s “faithless vandalism.” It said Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, the only countries that recognize the regime, have a special responsibility to rein in the statue-smashers: “Without their help and support the Taliban cannot sustain itself for long as Iran, the central Asian republics, and all moderate Islamic nations have shown their disapprobation of the iconoclasts in Kabul. The Taliban is not defending the true faith; it is grievously undermining it.” Nepal’s Kathmandu Post also stressed the role of the Taliban’s three allies: “Unless these Islamic countries condemn and prohibit the de facto rulers, the ongoing war against world heritage could flare up uncontrollably.” Dawn of Karachi reported that the Pakistani government twice implored the Taliban government to reconsider its plans, but the appeals “seem to have fallen on deaf ears.” It concluded:

[I]t would appear that the Taliban are cutting at their own roots and that they are renouncing their own historical and cultural past. Islam is a religion of harmony and peaceful coexistence among various communities. Buddha was an apostle of peace and non-violence. Certainly he deserves better treatment than what he has hitherto received at the hands of the blind zealots in Afghanistan.

Only Muslim rebels fighting the Russians in Chechnya backed the Taliban’s decision to “destroy stone idols in its country.” According to a translation provided by the BBC Monitoring Service, an “influential editor” at the Kavkaz-Tsentr news agency declared:

Without shame or remorse over its own shamelessness, the world community is hypocritically lamenting the stone idols and simultaneously giving its blessing to the Kremlin gangs’ crusade against the Muslims of the Chechen Republic.

The end of the beginning: This weekend, Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon finalized negotiations that give him the support of around 64 of the Knesset’s 120 members, and he intends to formally present his government of national unity Wednesday. Filling one of the Labor Party’s eight ministerial slots will be Salah Tarif, the first non-Jewish minister in Israeli history. Tarif is a Druse, an Arab sect that is more integrated into Israeli life than most Israeli-Arabs—they serve in the Israeli army, for example. An editorial in the Jerusalem Post dubbed the appointment “an historic milestone” but conceded that since he is not from the mainstream Arab community, it “might well have no effect on Israeli Arab votes.” Ha’aretz commented, sarcastically, “What an achievement: only 50 years of partnership and blood-sealed pact—and already, the first Druze minister!”

Problems? You can count on it. The Prague Post reported that the Czech Republic’s census “isn’t going as smoothly as planned.” Apart from the inevitable complaints that the questions are too personal, there are security concerns: An op-ed agreed that for all the census bureau’s assurances that information will not be shared with advertising agencies, tax authorities, and immigration agencies, “leaks could easily occur.” The main problem seems to be the census “commissioners,” who “despite their fancy name, are merely temporary employees with little training and miserable pay.” Fears of a black market for information about which apartments are loaded with electronic goods, for example, are driving many people to file inaccurate census forms.