The world must hold the Taliban accountable for Afghanistan’s cultural heritage

Blowing up ancient monuments, destroying priceless artifacts, burning books and looting on a massive scale – when the Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, they quickly declared war on most art forms and cultural objects.

Citing the Koran, the Islamist group destroyed paintings, interrupted music and systematically engaged in the destruction of museums and their collections across the country.

In 2001, the group sadly blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas, two colossal 6th-century statues that had been carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan Valley. The statues were destroyed after the Islamist group declared them to be idols, a move that angered the international community at the time.

The Taliban also went on a rampage of destruction, smashing thousands of priceless artifacts at the Kabul National Museum, which features a vast collection of artifacts ranging from prehistoric times to Islamic art.

Amid their renewed takeover of the country after the US withdrawal, experts urgently call on the international community to hold the Taliban accountable for their actions to prevent similar acts of destruction from happening again.

“To remember: it wasn’t just their most spectacular act of destruction, blowing up the iconic Bamiyan Buddhas,” Cheryl Benard, president of the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH), told The Media Line.

“They also cut off artwork from the Kabul Art Museum, burned video libraries, banned music and even banned kites and songbirds as pets,” she said.

According to Benard, ARCH contacted the Taliban in November 2020 to explain the importance of cultural heritage and to encourage the group to discuss the issue in the peace talks they were pursuing at the time with the then Afghan government. .

“They responded somewhat to our surprise by ordering their commanders not to destroy historic structures and not to allow looting,” Benard revealed. “They also put guards at the Kabul museum at the request of the director, which we were able to pass on to them.

“What we are hearing so far from other related organizations on the ground is ‘so far everything is fine’ but it is too early to say what will happen,” she added.

ARCH recommends that the Afghan people continue to monitor cultural sites and continue to carry out any work related to culture.

In addition to organizing exhibitions and fostering partnerships with local cultural leaders, the association hopes that the international focus on Afghan heritage will show the Taliban that “the world cares and will shape its way. opinion about them accordingly ”.

Last week, UNESCO, the cultural body of the United Nations, launched an urgent appeal calling for the protection of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and warning that any destruction could undermine a lasting peace in the country. UNESCO cited two World Heritage sites as its draw: the minaret and archaeological remains of Jam, as well as the cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley.

“Any damage or loss of cultural heritage will only have negative consequences on the prospects for lasting peace and humanitarian aid for the Afghan people,” the statement said.

Professor Gil J. Stein is the director of the Chicago Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation (C3HP) at the University of Chicago. Stein, who specializes in Near Eastern archeology, said it was difficult to determine the severity of the current threat.

“The key question is how much the Taliban’s ideology, policies and priorities have changed since 2001, when they demolished the Bamiyan Buddhas and passed through the National Museum of Afghanistan, systematically breaking the few Buddhist sculptures from the 15th century AD and the unique 19th century AD. Nuristani wood carvings of ancient pre-Islamic Indo-Iranian gods, ”Stein told The Media Line.

Afghanistan Ambassador to the UN Ghulam Isaczai addresses the United Nations Security Council regarding the situation in Afghanistan at the United Nations in New York, New York, United States, August 16, 2021. (Credit : ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)
Like Benard, he stressed the importance of the international community putting pressure on the organization.

“Although much of the leadership of the Taliban has remained the same since that time, [they] have become much more aware of the importance of public relations and the need for international recognition of their regime, ”said Stein, noting that the Islamist group has recently made public statements affirming its commitment to preserving Afghan cultural treasures .

Several rare and unique elements of cultural heritage are particularly at risk, including the collections of the National Museum, as well as archaeological sites across the country that could be threatened with looting due to their isolation and lack of government protection.

“The most important thing is that the Taliban live up to their public commitment to protect Afghan cultural heritage,” Stein said. “This is something that can and should be monitored by the international community, and the world must hold the Taliban accountable if they violate their public commitments on this issue.”

Any potential damage to priceless artifacts and museums can be further mitigated if the Taliban regime enacts and enforces strict laws to protect sites and monuments and prevent looting.

Others who had previous experiences with the extremist group were less optimistic.

Paul Bucherer heads the Institute and Museum of Afghanistan (Bibliotheca Afghanica) in Switzerland, which served as a temporary residence for the Afghan artifacts.

Bucherer distinguished between the different branches of the Taliban and said that it is the non-Afghan Taliban elements that have the most extremist views and pose the greatest threat. In addition, he said there were foreign jihadists from Chechnya, Uzbekistan and Pakistan who were also involved in the ongoing conflict.

“Regarding the Afghan Taliban, I do not really see a great danger for cultural heritage, because in 1998, the Taliban (then) asked Switzerland to appropriate objects of Afghan cultural heritage in order to protect them. of destruction “in our Arab friends,” Bucherer told The Media Line.

“Particularly at risk are all objects depicting living creatures, human or animal, as their artistic representation is considered blasphemy,” he said, adding that Buddhist and pre-Islamic representations in the region are most likely to suffer. become targets.

Unlike Benard and Stein, Bucherer had less hope that diplomatic pressure would be an effective deterrent and even argued that international press coverage could prove to be counterproductive.

“The only possibility would be to protect the objects with military action and to evacuate them abroad, but that will not happen,” he said. “There remains hope that the Afghan staff at the National Museum will manage to hide the most important artefacts, especially those recently unearthed at Mes Aynak.”

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