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Destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan

January 11, 2014
Destruction of Bamyan Buddha statues by the Ta...

Destruction of Bamyan Buddha statues by the Taliban (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Buddhas of Bamiyan (Pashto: د بامیان بوتان‎ – "de bámiyán botán", Dari: بت های باميان – but hay-e bamiyan) were two 6th century[1] monumental statues of standing buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamwam valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, 230 km (140 mi) northwest of Kabul at an altitude of 2,500 meters (8,202 ft). Built in 507 AD, (smaller), and 554 AD, (larger)[1] the statues represented the classic blended style of Gandhara art.[2]

The main bodies were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs, but details were modeled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco. This coating, practically all of which wore away long ago, was painted to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands and folds of the robes; the larger one was painted carmine red and the smaller one was painted multiple colors.[3]

The lower parts of the statues’ arms were constructed from the same mud-straw mix while supported on wooden armatures. It is believed that the upper parts of their faces were made from great wooden masks or casts. Rows of holes that can be seen in photographs were spaces that held wooden pegs that stabilized the outer stucco.

 From Heaven & Hell Blog    Taliban  blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, on March 2001.  A question that exercised me while I was writing about the Buddhas, and still bothers me now, is the basic one of why these giant statues were destroyed. A lot has been written about Afghanistan in the run up to 9/11 and the NATO invasion, including the destruction of the Buddhas, but the picture gets no clearer. What I’m going to share here, a fragment of evidence that has emerged recently, won’t make any decisive difference, either, but it highlights one dimension of the process.

The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was an expensive and technologically challenging project. It involved a massive allocation of resources to a remote valley in the mountains for an extended period of time. It all took place in a country which was impoverished, deep in civil war and experiencing an extreme humanitarian crisis. It was a staged media event, too. Mullah Omar’s edict that “all fake idols must be destroyed” was distributed to international journalists, and Al-Jazeera had a cameraman there as the demolition was going on (he was later convicted in Spain of “co-operating with a terrorist organisation”). A group of journalists were flown to Bamiyan after the destruction to witness the scene. It became headline news across the globe.

One way of tackling the question of why the Buddhas were destroyed is to ask Cui bono? Who benefited? Whose interests did it serve?

One of the few things that commentators on events in 2000-2001 broadly agree on is that al-Qa’eda and the Taleban were in essence very different organisations, one with an international perspective, the other with much more domestic ambitions; but that in this period the foreign fighters based in Afghanistan came to exert as much influence over the Taleban as they ever did. How close Mullah Omar and Bin Laden came, and how great the influence exerted, is a much debated point. Some, like Roy Gutman and Finbarr Barry Flood, have seen the attack on the Buddhas, and the vandalism in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul the previous month, as symptoms of a growing influence exerted by bin Laden and his collaborators over elements of the Taleban leadership.

Certainly, viewed in retrospect, Bamiyan had all the hallmarks of an al-Qa’eda action. In a fine (though in retrospect over-optimistic) piece written after the death of bin Laden, Olivier Roy captures the essentially theatrical character of al-Qa’eda. Lacking mass support, it achieves its impact by staging provocative, headline-grabbing spectaculars:

Al-Qaeda always needs a mise-en-scène – the volunteer for death filming himself before carrying out an action, the execution of hostages in front of the camera in a macabre ritual … The staging is then taken up, for free, by the media: rolling coverage of the attack on the World Trade Center, front pages for any attack in which innocent westerners are killed.

The aim of this “propaganda of the deed” is of course to polarise, galvanizing supporters, outraging opponents, and promoting the “Clash of Civilizations” between Islam and the West that figures like bin Laden think is the inevitable upshot of contact between Islam and the West.

Well, coincidentally or not, Bamiyan was in its effects a model jihadi publicity stunt, outraging and alienating the West, while increasing  the flow of foreign jihadists to Afghanistan. Flood describes it as “a performance designed for the age of the Internet.” Bin Laden loved his symbolism, too, and to a Salafist manner of thinking, the Buddhas of Bamiyan and al-Qa’eda’s targets in New York six months later were in the same category, emblems of the ignorance of a time before, or a time outside, Islam. At min. 2.45 here, for example, Bin Laden, talking about 9/11, calls America “the Hubal of this age”. Hubal was an idol worshipped in Mecca in the Age of Ignorance before Islam, destroyed along with all other idols by the Prophet. To bin Laden’s obscenely reductive way of thinking, both events were pious acts of idol-breaking.

The new piece of information is a charge sheet issued by the US Department of Defense against Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi. Al-Iraqi, an ethnic Kurd, is now held at Guantanamo Bay, having been picked up by the US as he attempted to enter his native Iraq from Iran in 2007. Al-Iraqi was a very senior figure in al-Qa’eda indeed, often referred to as “Number 3″ in the organisation after bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the most senior commander of foreign fighters in Afghanistan before the overthrow of the Taleban in 2001. Al-Iraqi shared bin Laden’s global perspective, and was also involved in training foreign recruits for activities back in their own countries. He apparently identified the UK as especially promising territory: through al-Iraqi’s capable hands passed two of the 7/7 suicide bombers and other would-be homegrown terrorists such as Omar Khyam, convicted in 2007 of a plot to blow up Bluewater shopping centre and other targets with bombs made from chemical fertiliser.

In other words, al-Iraqi is a ruthless and intelligent man fully in sympathy with bin Laden’s ideal of global conflict.

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