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The Most Dangerous Religion (Hint: It's Not Islam)

By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

Is international cultural conflict replacing political Cold War conflict?

Even before fanatical Muslims dynamited ancient Buddhist statues [The Telegraph] in Afghanstan’s Bamiyan Valley, scholar Samuel P. Huntington suggested that the answer might be yes.

Based on the most widely discussed article of the decade in Foreign Affairs, Huntington’s 1997 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World predicted that Islam would prove the most dangerous challenge for the West, because its people are “convinced of the superiority of their culture and obsessed with the inferiority of their power.”

During the past decade, as if to confirm Huntington’s thesis, Muslims have fought (a partial list): Animists in Sudan; Coptic Christians in Egypt, Ethiopian Christians in Eritrea; Jews in Palestine; Eastern Orthodox Catholics in Yugoslavia, Chechnya, and Cyprus; Hindus in India; Roman Catholics in East Timor; Hindus, Confucians, and Christians of various denominations in Indonesia; and finally, of course, secular Westerners in Iraq. 

Each of these conflicts has had its own history; but to the extent that Islam’s opponents in all these conflicts belong to an international, religiously pluralist, Western-dominated cosmopolitanism, they all may seem, to embattled Muslims, to be a single opponent. Paradoxically, however, those very embattled Muslims may have handed globalization a victory in Afghanstan.   

The illicit sale of Afghanstan’s art treasures [International Herald Tribune], Islamic as well as non-Islamic, has been steadily increasing for a decade, well before the Taliban managed to take power five years ago, according to Souren Melikian, art editor of the International Herald Tribune and a cultural historian of central Asia.

The Bamiyan bombings will quite probably turn that already flourishing market into a raging bull market for the smugglers.  “The ‘destroy’ order will provide a convenient smoke screen for the mass looting of the land, an operation that can be carried out only with the happy connivance of lower and mid-level authorities,” Melikian writes. 

The Taliban has delivered a body blow to the already resented “heritage” movement in the Western art community—the view that ancient works should remain in their country of origin.  “I must admit that I begin now to question our policy,[Los Angeles Times] and those of most museums in the Western world, to refrain from purchasing any object from the country of its origins,” writes Marianna Yaldiz, director of the Museum for Indian Art in Berlin to the editor of the art magazine Orientations. 

It is in this legitimization of the smuggling, rather than in Muslim fanaticism, that the larger peril to cultural heritage may lie.

Whatever the threat in Afghanstan, there seems to be little similar danger in other Muslim countries. The edict of Mullah Muhammad Omar [Globe & Mail, Canada], leader of Taliban, the ruling party in Afghanstan, ordering all statues destroyed as idols because “worshippers might be tempted to pay homage” to them, has not been widely acclaimed by other Muslim authorities. 

The Organization of Islam Conference has not condemned the bombings as Iranian President Muhammad Khatami asked it to do, but neither has it endorsed the edict, and Khatami is a major figure in his own right. 

So is Abdul Sattar, the foreign minister of Pakistan, who twice officially urged that the edict be rescinded [Middle East Times], the second plea coming while he was in Mecca for the haj. 

Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose rival Afghan party still holds Afghanstan’s seat at the United Nations, condemned the bombings [CNN.com] as un-Islamic as well as “anti-national and anti-cultural”.  Muslim intellectuals, particularly in the West, have quoted the Koran against the Taliban [Los Angeles Times] and invoked the history of Muslim tolerance for non-Muslim, representative art as proof that the Taliban’s actions are aberrant in Islamic terms. 

Sadly, the evidence was overwhelming, even before the bombings, that the most dangerous religion in the world, at least for art, remains the “religion” of the market.  After the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992, the victorious mujahedeen (Muslim holy warriors) went first for the gold in the national museum and only later discovered that foreigners would also pay for pots and statuary. 

At that point, “a boom in independent excavations began in the country. The spoils went [east] through the Khyber Pass to the Pakistani city of Peshawar, which turned into a center of underground trafficking in Afghan antiquities. Prices are reported to have been sharply inflated by tourists from Japan, where interest in Buddhist culture is very high.  According to Robert Kluyver of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanstan’s Cultural Heritage, Japanese collectors are prepared to pay [Itogi-Newsweek/MSNBC]. up to $1 million for a bas-relief depicting Buddha”

Objects looted in northern Afghanstan are smuggled into Russia [The Art Newspaper] “where they are fenced to the ‘new Russian mafia”. Smuggled Afghan manuscripts have turned up in substantial numbers in Northern Europe, especially Scandinavia [Purabudaya].  Plunder from western Afghanstan travels by way of Iran to Europe, especially to London, where a single statue can sell [Observer] for as much as £50,000.

Rather than a new story, the rape of Afghanstan’s artistic heritage is an old story in a new place. The tale of a tomb-robber [The Art Newspaper] recently published in The Art Newspaper may stand as proof that the classical heritage of the West remains, year in and year out, the liveliest commodity of all. 

Still, Afghanstan, because of its remoteness, has remained relatively virgin smuggling territory, despite the extraordinary artistic interest of such ancient cultures as that of Gandhara, where Hellenism and Buddhism inseminated each other. Political turmoil, creating a desperate hunger for arms and for hard currency to buy them with, has now changed that.

To note all this is not really to refute Samuel P. Huntington. The mujahedeen may have turned to smuggling, but they are not simple smugglers. They are not in it merely for the money; at least not all of them are.  Some of the same reports that document the smuggling also document religiously motivated destruction of objects that could have been, so to speak, sold for good money.  The Bamiyan colossi themselves could quite literally have been held for ransom.  

At this juncture, what will be required to save the art may be a prior political and humanitarian effort to save the people.  In Middle Eastern Times, Shiraz Paracha writes: “After the world’s reaction over the statue issue, many in Afghanstan might ask whether the stone statues were more important [Middle East Times] than millions of starving human beings”. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offered to buy the  imperiled statues [The Times, London] and other threatened works, but there has been no comparable international campaign to save those who, Paracha reports, are “on the verge of death due to war and famine” in hellish refugee camps.

The trade in smuggled art from Afghanstan, on balance, is like the trade in poached ivory from Kenya.  It feeds on the same desperation that fuels religious fanaticism.  Rather than dealing first with the fanaticism, the West may need to deal first with the desperation. The illicit sale of art is one problem for which the market is not the solution. 

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