by Nadeem Yaqub
(IPS) PESHAWAR, Pakistan --
puritanical Islamic militia has shown again that it cares little for world opinion, but it is the people of the drought and war-ravaged nation who will pay the price for the latest act of defiance.
The little international goodwill that the Taliban had earned by banning poppy cultivation has now been forfeited by their decision to demolish the giant ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan, 130 km west of Kabul.
The miseries of common Afghans are expected to worsen as the international community further isolates the Taliban.
According to an Afghan news agency report, Japan has already warned that aid to the country could be affected because of the Taliban's refusal to listen to the world's pleas not to destroy the Bamiyan statues.
Political observers here say that this time the Taliban may even have alienated their steadfast supporters in Pakistan.
Maulana Samiul Haq, a leading Taliban supporter in Pakistan, had advised the Taliban to seek the opinion of top Islamic scholars before taking a decision on destroying the statues.
Haq, who heads Pakistan's biggest Islamic seminary in Akora Khattak near Peshawar, said the Bamiyan relics could be sold to help Afghanistan's shattered economy.
Pakistan's leading daily, The Dawn, said: "It would appear that the Taliban are cutting at their own roots."
"Islam is a religion of harmony and peaceful coexistence...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," it added in an editorial.
Pakistan -- one of three countries to recognize the Taliban after it overran Kabul over four years ago -- pleaded in vain with the Taliban.
"We hope that the Afghan government will show the spirit of tolerance enjoined upon by Islam as well as respect for international sentiment in this regard," said a foreign office spokesman in Islamabad.
Media in neighboring Iran came down heavily on the Taliban's decision. "Islam has never preached the destruction of objects that embody the belief and history of millions of people throughout the world," said the newspaper Iran News.
Taliban's decision to destroy the Bamiyan relics came at a time when thousands of Afghans are desperate for international assistance in the wake of drought and war.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned of starvation deaths as drought and war give rise to near famine conditions in the country.
The 23-year-old conflict in Afghanistan has devastated the farming-based economy and uprooted millions of people from their homes. A series of UN sanctions have added to the miseries of the people.
Before the UN sanctions were introduced, Afghanistan's major source of revenue was the customs duties on goods airlifted into the country. The ban on Ariana flights put an end to this.
The ban on poppy cultivation and the drought severely affected incomes from farming. The order to destroy all statues in the country is now robbing Afghanistan of its cultural past, which could have been a major source of tourism income.
The Bamiyan Buddha statues were one of Afghanistan's main tourist attractions until the December 1979 Soviet invasion and the subsequent civil war.
Even as the world is at a loss to understand why the Taliban turned a dear ear to the pleas of the international community, some think that the decision was driven more by political than religious considerations.
Hamid Mir, editor of leading Pakistani Urdu daily Ausaf and an expert on Afghan affairs, believes that the Taliban became angry at the numerous offers to save the relics, even as the Afghan people die of hunger and cold.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) offered $100 million to look after the monuments and relics in Afghanistan.
The Taliban were also reportedly trying to "avenge" the December 1992 demolition of the medieval Babri mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya by Hindu zealots.
In a Feb. 26 decree, Taliban supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar declared: "All statues remaining in various parts of the country must be broken...because they represent gods of infidels."
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name given to the country by the Taliban -- has enjoyed a unique cultural heritage, reflecting influences from Persia, Greece, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Statues have been destroyed in several cities besides the capitol. Among the prime targets is the Kabul museum, which has a treasure trove of an estimated 6,000 pieces of Buddhist art.
Several priceless Afghan antiquities were smuggled out of the country in the past two decades. A large number of rare pieces of stolen Afghan statues found their way into bordering Pakistan. Peshawar became a major market for such pieces.
The two Bamiyan Buddha statues stood 53 and 38 meters tall and were hewn from cliffs in the heart of the Hindukush Mountains in the central town of Bamiyan.
The world's tallest Buddha statues, these were carved centuries before the arrival of Islam to the country, when Afghanistan was a center of Buddhist learning and pilgrimage. One of the Bamiyan statues was damaged when the Taliban captured Bamiyan in the year 1998.
March 19, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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