Destroying the Shrines of Unbelievers: The Challenge of Iconoclasm to the International Framework for the Protection of Cultural Property

AuthorMajor Kevin D. Kornegay
On the basis of consultations between the religious leaders of the Islamic
Emirate of Afghanistan, religious judgments of the ulema and rulings of
the Supreme Court of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, all statues and
non-Islamic shrines located in different parts of the Islamic Emirate of
Afghanistan must be destroyed. These statues have been and remain
shrines of unbelievers and these unbelievers continue to worship and
respect them. God Almighty is the only real shrine and all fake idols must
be destroyed.1
I. Introduction
On March 4, 2001, the New York Times confronted its readers with a
front-page photograph2 of the Taliban’s3 destruction of a pair of colossal
* Judge Advocate, U.S. Army. Presently assigned as Labor and Employment Law
Attorney, Office of The Judge Advocate General, U.S. Army. Ph.D candidate in the
Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies, Duke University, Durham, North
Carolina; LL.M., 2014, The Judge Advocate General’s School, U.S. Army,
Charlottesville, Virginia; J.D., 2001, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; B.A.,
1998, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Previous assignments include Brigade
Judge Advocate, U.S. Army 2d Recruiting Brigade, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, 2011–
2013; Labor Counselor, U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command, Fort Lee,
Virginia, 2008–2011; Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, 101st Airborne Division (Air
Assault) Fort Campbell, Kentucky 2005–2008 (Trial Counsel, 2008, Chief, Claims
Division, 2007, Military Augmentee, Iraq Reconstruction Management Office, Baghdad,
Iraq, 2006, Administrative Law Attorney, 2005). This article was submitted in partial
completion of the Master of Laws requirements of the 62nd Judge Advocate Officer
Graduate Course.
1 This quote is taken from a February 26, 2001 edict issued by the Islamic State of
Afghanistan. The edict is transcribed in full in the following sources: LLEWELYN
MORGAN, THE BUDDHAS OF BAMIYAN 15 (2012); Finbarr Barry Flood, Between Cult and
Culture: Bamiyan: Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum, 84 ART BULL. 641, 655 (2002).
2 Barry Bearak, Over World Protests, Taliban Are Destroying Ancient Buddhas, N.Y.
TIMES, Mar. 4, 2001, at A1.
3 Literally “the students” in Pashto, the Taliban is a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group
that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when a U.S.-led NATO invasion toppled
the regime for providing refuge to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Zachary Laub, The
statues of the Buddha that had watched over Afghanistan’s Bamiyan
Valley since the 6th century A.D.4 In the photograph, smoke and dust
billow and roil from the niche, carved into a sandstone cliff face, in
which the larger of the statues had towered at a height of 53 meters.5 At
a time when Afghanistan was just returning to American and
international public consciousness after a decade of relative indifference,
the deliberate destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was, perversely, the
first time that many people outside the archaeological community
became aware of their existence.6 It was significant that the destruction
of the Buddhas was pictured on the front page of a newspaper with an
international readership. The Taliban ensured that an Al-Jazeera
journalist was on scene to capture the destruction on film.7 The fact that
Afghans were prohibited by the Taliban regime from owning televisions
suggests that they had an international audience in mind.8 Justified as the
enforcement of the religious proscription on idol worship, common to all
three of the Abrahamic religions,9 the destruction of the Bamiyan
Buddhas was also a statement of defiance of the international
community, which had lobbied strenuously for their preservation, as well
as the preservation of pre-Islamic artifacts at other sites in Afghanistan.
4 The dates of the statues’ construction have not been established definitively; however,
there is general agreement that the smaller (and older) of the statues was constructed in
the 6th century AD and that the larger statue was constructed 50 to 100 years later.
MORGAN, supra note 1, 4.
5 53 meters = approximately 174 feet. By comparison, the Statue of Liberty measures
151 feet from its base to the top of its torch and 306 feet from the base of its pedestal to
the top of its torch. Statue Statistics—Statue of Liberty National Monument, NATL PARK
SERV., stli/historyculture/statue-statistics.htm (last visited Oct. 16,
2014). Before their destruction, the Bamiyan Buddhas were the largest standing Buddha
carvings in the world. Id. at 11–13.
6 Although the destruction of the Buddhas was motivated by a desire to destroy their
potential for idolatry, their destruction increased their notoriety and arguably augmented
their cultural significance.
7 MORGAN, supra note 1, at 1.
8 Emma Graham-Harrison, Afghanistan’s Taliban Embrace Power of Video Propaganda,
THE GUARDIAN, June 4, 2014,
afghanistan-taliban-video-propaganda-bowe-bergdahl (noting that in “the days before
2001 . . . , owning a television was a criminal offen[s]e”).
9 “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in
heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth: Thou
shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous
God . . . .” Exodus 20:4–5 (King James); “O ye who believe! Strong drink and games of
chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan's handiwork. Leave it
aside in order that ye may succeed.” Quran 5:90 (Pickthall).

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