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My second visit to Afghanistan in 1989 gave me an opportunity to travel to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, famous for the Blue Mosque or the Shrine of Imam Ali. I was flying Afghanistan's national airline Ariana, a derivative of Aryan, which shows the country's cherished link to its pre-Islamic past. As our plane flew over the Bamiyan region, my interpreter, an official in Afghanistan's foreign ministry, said to me: "Look out the window at the valley below. We have the world's tallest statue of the Buddha there." I asked him if his countrymen were proud of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic history. "Why not? It's as much a part of our history and identity as Islam is."
Twelve years later, after the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan, the awe-inspiring Buddha statues at Bamiyan, which had been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, were dynamited by Islamist extremists. Why? Because, they said, idols are forbidden in Islam.
It was a war on heritage. A heritage that belonged not only to Afghanistan but to the entire humanity. All of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites—indeed, all pieces of artistic and cultural heritage anywhere on this planet—are the common assets of the human race.
Another war on heritage is now being waged in distant Timbuktu, a fabled city in Mali in West Africa. And the target of this war is not some non-Islamic statue or shrine. Rather, several mausoleums of venerable Muslim saints were destroyed last week by hordes of armed Islamist attackers crying "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest). Why? Because erecting tombs in memory of saints, they claimed, is "idolatry". Never mind that generations of devoutly Muslim Malians have revered their saints, buried under these centuries-old tombs, which display the unique beauty of desert architecture.
The order to blast Bamiyan Buddhas had come from the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, an ally of al-Qaeda. In Timbuktu, the attack was carried out by the Islamist fighters from Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), which too has links to al-Qaeda.
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