Taliban Kills Buddha

Some taller than the Statue of Liberty, stone Buddhas have stood watch over the Bamiyan Valley for over 1500 years.

Some taller than the Statue of Liberty, stone Buddhas have stood watch over the Bamiyan Valley for over 1500 years.

By now the Buddhas are already gone, ground to dust and blown away. Tall as apartment buildings, standing watch for 1500 years, they had been waiting for this moment: the moment when the world would prove them right, when even the seemingly eternal would affirm the first and hardest truth, impermanence. Even as the dynamite ignited and the stone in the shape of a finger, the shape of a nose, fell and crumbled in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan, the Buddhas must have smiled. See, we told you so.

Since 1996, by force, by edict, and by the strange power of religious charisma, the leaders of the Taliban militia have been transforming Afghanistan into what they regard as the only true Muslim state. That intention alone would have been enough to raise hackles in the West. Along with being the world’s fastest-growing religion, Islam is also, to non-Muslims, the most maligned, mysterious and misunderstood. Chances are, if you read anything at all about Muslims in the past week, it was also about terrorists.

The Taliban didn’t need to go out of their way to win the world’s attention, but the decidedly non-Western details of their policies have done so to a degree well beyond their importance on the global stage. Cardinal sins in the American mindset are vital parts of their new world order: Women are covered from head to toe; men have been jailed for clipping their beards. Not content only to remake the present, they have set their sites also on Afghan history, targeting especially evidence of the region’s complicated spiritual heritage.

Once a stop on the trade route between China, India and Europe, Afghanistan was home to a vibrant Buddhist culture centuries before Islam’s dominance and even its birth. Artifacts from the archaeological sites of Bamiyan and the museums of the capital, Kabul, are reminders of the fact that land is older than factions, that civilizations great and small flower briefly then fade away.

And so, last week, in an ongoing attempt to prove that the fate of the Islamic Emirate will be otherwise, the Taliban demolished the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two massive statues (one standing 170′, the other 120′) carved from the stone cliffs that frame the valley 100 miles from Kabul.

“These idols have been gods of the infidels,” the New York Times reported one senior Taliban official declaring. Politics being politics whatever the religion, while one spouted off, another provided spin — like this from Qudratulla Jamal, the Taliban minister of information and culture:

“It’s not a big issue. The statues are objects only made of mud or stone.”

This is a sentiment with which the Buddha himself certainly would have agreed. “Decay is inherent in all component things,” he said. Whether it comes through natural or human means, eventual destruction is the defining fact of existence.

Yet it’s difficult for the rest of us to remain so even-keeled in the face of such apparent sacrilege. When word spread last week that the statues were in danger, they instantly took on a meaning that aligned them with every other instance of artistic accomplishment threatened by fanatic ideology. Their imminent demolition was a Nazi book burning, a Khmer Rouge slaughter of intellectuals, and a medieval auto de fe all in one.

Little surprise, then, that the loudest voices of protest have come from the art world. UN Secretary General Kofi Anan pleaded with the Taliban to spare the statues, but only New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was so bold as to offer a middle path between explosive iconoclasm and the appearance of caving in to external demands.

“We deplore the destruction of major examples of the world’s cultural heritage,” museum director Philippe de Montebello said. “We, the Metropolitan, would be prepared to come with experts at our cost, and, in collaboration with them, take pieces that are obviously portable and preserve them in the Met.”

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect or succinct misunderstanding of the issue. Absence is absence, no matter if the Buddhas become dust in Afghanistan or dusted objets d’art in some far away museum. That this seemed, if briefly, a plausible solution indicates what is truly at stake here, and that it is not so simple as preserving “the world’s cultural heritage.”

Rather, the fate of the Bamiyan Buddhas is a matter of who may control our notions of permanence; of who will have the power that goes with defining the sacred.

According to the sociologist Max Weber, human society moves by means of an engine called charisma, that elusive quality that grants authority, suddenly, as if miraculously, where it was not before. Charisma, for better and for worse, threatens the existing society with new interpretations of goodness, righteousness and normalcy.

The demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas is a flashpoint between two warring notions of permanence, two irreconcilable considerations of the sacred. What we are witnessing now in Afghanistan is a charismatic moment, one that does not give a damn for the permanence or the sacredness we find in the “world’s cultural heritage.” Rarely are the roles played so close to the book, but this is the way the world moves: Old gods are demolished, new gods arise. That the gods in this case are monuments to impermanence itself adds a not so subtle irony to the loss.

Another irony: In their ongoing struggle to create a pure Islamic state, the Taliban wrecking crew has affirmed a more ancient truth. Do what they will with their Texas-sized country, it’s still a Buddhist universe. Nations, gods and emirates rise and fall, but the Buddhas, pulverized now, becoming again the very earth of Afghanistan as hammers swing to break their toes, they’ll have the last laugh.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.