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Saturday, 10 March, 2001, 10:55 GMT
Icon smashing - the precedents
Protests in Delhi, India
There has been world condemnation of the destruction
By George Fitzherbert

The decision by the hardline Islamic government of Afghanistan to destroy all statues in the country has provoked indignation across the world.

Even Pakistan, the Taleban's closest ally, has called on the Taleban to show greater tolerance.

But the destruction of statues for ideological or doctrinal reasons has a long history in the world, right across Europe and Asia, and is by no means restricted to the Muslim world.

Indeed, the word iconoclasm - the breaking of images - derives from the early centuries of the Christian era.

Huge picture of Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong: His image replaced religious ones
During the Cultural Revolution in China the then premier, Mao Zedong, launched a massive campaign to eradicate what were known as the Four Olds - Old Culture, Old Thinking, Old Ideas and Old Habits.

In Tibet, where the Buddhist society placed great emphasis on holy relics, images and statues, this was particularly devastating.

Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan historian working at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said there was a feeling by Maoists that traditional symbols and religious ideology were hampering the construction of the new Tibet.


There was no question of choosing to be involved or not to be involved, because if you say you will not be involved, its likely that you would be executed

Tsering Shakya, Tibetan historian
"The presence of the statues was a reminder of the past and the people's devotion to tradition," said Tsering Shakya.

"Mao used to say if you make a mistake, there's no point in trying to correct it in piecemeal fashion, what you need to do is to wipe it out completely and create a totally new culture.

"So during the Cultural Revolution there was an attempt to literally destroy every single religious item.

"We are not just talking about the destruction of a few important statues, we are talking about the destruction of the entire presence of religious symbols in private houses, in monasteries, temples, village prayer halls.

English precedent

Going back 400 years to the English reformation, there are examples of the destruction of religious images on grounds remarkably similar to those used by the Taleban - namely to discourage idolatry.

The campaign of destruction went on for a whole century, starting during the reign of Henry VIII as part of the campaign against the monasteries.

Giant Buddha at Bamiyan
The Buddhas offend the Taleban regime
Dr Margaret Aston, a historian of the English Reformation, and author of the book England's Iconoclasts, explained: "It was like a kind of propaganda campaign which was carefully masterminded by the king's chief minister Thomas Cromwell.

"Objects were actually torn to bits in front of a congregation of people who were being instructed in this way."

The idea behind the destruction, she said, was commandments in the Old Testament that said 'Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image or any likeness', and 'Thou shall not bow down to them'.

"The feeling was that people were attributing to the object, to the images - and this particularly applies to sculpture, which is the most realistic art form - they were attributing to the objects a power that is really only God's," said Dr Aston.

"When people in England, for instance, were kneeling before an image of the virgin, they were praying to the Virgin, and were expecting answers from the Virgin."

There was such a thorough campaign against religious statues in England that there are very few such works of art left.

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