Taliban defeated by the quiet strength of Pakistan’s Buddha

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This photo taken on April 26, 2018 shows Pakistani visitors walking past the seventh-century rock sculpture of a seated Buddha carved into a mountain in Jahanabad town in the northwestern Swat Valley of Pakistan, following a restoration process conducted by Italian archaeologists after the Taliban defaced it in 2007. (AFP)
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This photo taken on April 26, 2018 shows a Pakistani visitor walking past a seventh-century rock sculpture of a seated Buddha carved into a mountain in Jahanabad town in the northwestern Swat Valley of Pakistan, following a restoration process conducted by Italian archaeologists after the Taliban defaced it in 2007. (AFP)
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This photo taken on April 27, 2018 shows Italian archaeologist Luca Maria Olivieri pointing towards Buddhist statues at an archaeological site in the town of Mingora, the capital of northwestern Swat Valley of Pakistan. (AFP)
Updated 12 July 2018

Taliban defeated by the quiet strength of Pakistan’s Buddha

  • The holy figure was severely damaged by Islamist insurgents in an echo of the Afghan Taliban’s complete destruction of its more imposing counterparts at Bamiyan in 2001
  • Swat was for centuries a pilgrimage site for the Buddhist faithful, especially from the Himalayas

MINGORA: The Buddha of Swat, carved on a cliff in the seventh century, was dynamited by the Pakistani Taliban in 2007. Now it has been restored, a powerful symbol of tolerance in the traumatized Pakistani valley.
The holy figure, depicted in a lotus position at the base of a granite cliff in northern Pakistan, was severely damaged by Islamist insurgents in an echo of the Afghan Taliban’s complete destruction of its more imposing counterparts at Bamiyan in 2001.
For some, it was a wanton act of vandalism that struck at the heart of the area’s unique history and identity.
It felt “like they killed my father,” says Parvesh Shaheen, a 79-year-old expert on Buddhism in Swat. “They attack... my culture, my history.”
The Buddha sits in Jahanabad, the epicenter of Swat’s Buddhist heritage, a beautiful valley in the foothills of the Himalayas.
There the Italian government has been helping to preserve hundreds of archaeological sites, working with local authorities who hope to turn it into a place of pilgrimage once more and pull in sorely needed tourist dollars.
A decade ago, the militants climbed the six-meter (20-foot) effigy to lay the explosives, but only part of them were triggered, demolishing the top of the Buddha’s face. Another, smaller fresco nearby was torn to pieces.
For Shaheen, the statue is “a symbol of peace, symbol of love, symbol of brotherhood.”
“We don’t hate anybody, any religion — what is this nonsense to hate somebody?” he says.
But other Swatis, less familiar with history and in 2007 not yet traumatized by the full brutality of the Taliban, applauded the attack and took up the argument that sculpture was “anti-Islamic.”
Like their counterparts in neighboring Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban are extremist insurgents who terrorized the population in the name of a fundamentalist version of Islam, banning all representation in art and for whom the idea of a non-Islamic past is taboo.
The episode became a marker for the beginning of the Taliban’s violent occupation of Swat, which would only end in 2009 with heavy intervention by the Pakistan army. By then, several thousand people had been killed and more than 1.5 million displaced.

Holy land

The population of Swat has not always been as it is today, mostly conservative Muslim, where cultural norms dictate that women wear burqas.
Instead, it was for centuries a pilgrimage site for the Buddhist faithful, especially from the Himalayas. The Vajrayana school even consider it a “holy land,” from where their faith originated.
They continued to visit right up until the 20th century, when borders hardened with the independence of British India and creation of Pakistan in 1947.
Now the vast majority of Pakistan’s population are Muslim, and its religious minorities — mainly Christians and Hindus — are often subject to discrimination or violence.
Buddhism for its part disappeared from the region around the 10th century AD, driven out by Islam and Hinduism.
Its golden age in Swat lasted from the second to the fourth centuries, when more than 1,000 monasteries, sanctuaries and stupas spread out in constellations across the valley.
“The landscape was worshipped in itself,” says Luca Maria Olivieri, an Italian archaeologist who oversaw the restoration of the Buddha.
“The pilgrims were welcomed by these protective images, sculptures and inscriptions, arranged along the last kilometers (miles) before arriving,” Olivieri explains.

Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation of the site has not been easy, he says. Carried out in phases, it began in 2012 with the application of a coating to protect the damaged part of the sculpture.
The reconstruction of the face itself was first prepared virtually in the laboratory, in 3D, using laser surveys and old photos.
The last phase, the actual restoration, ended in 2016. Olivieri says the reconstruction is not identical, but that is deliberate, as “the idea of damage should remain visible.”
The Italian archaeological mission in Swat, which he directs, has been there since 1955 — though it was briefly forced from the valley during Taliban rule.
It manages other excavation sites and supervised the restoration of the archaeological museum in Mingora, the main city of Swat, damaged in an attack in 2008.
The Italian government has invested 2.5 million euros ($2.9 million) in five years for the preservation of Swat’s cultural heritage, striving to involve the local population as much as possible.
Now authorities are counting on the Buddha’s recovered smile and iconic status to boost religious tourism from places such as China and Thailand.
Years after the Taliban were ousted, the valley is largely rejuvenated, though at times security is still tense, with an attack killing 11 soldiers in February this year.
Some people in Swat also see the Buddha as a tool for promoting religious tolerance.
Fazal Khaliq, a journalist and author living in Mingora, thinks the threat to cultural heritage has been “minimized” through education and the use of social networks to spread a “soft, good” image.
However, “the majority of people who are not young, educated — they still do not understand” its importance, he admits.
Meanwhile the museum in Mingora now welcomes mullahs “who like Buddhism,” says its curator, Faiz-ur-Rehman.
“Before Islam, this was our religion,” he says.


'It's good to see you:' Obama stumps in Pennsylvania for Biden campaign

Updated 13 min 29 sec ago

'It's good to see you:' Obama stumps in Pennsylvania for Biden campaign

  • Obama’s appearance on the campaign trail this week fills a gap left by Biden
  • More than 41 million ballots have been cast both via mail and in person

PHILADELPHIA: Former President Barack Obama made his first appearance on the campaign trail on Wednesday for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who is locked in a tight race with President Donald Trump in crucial states with just 13 days to go in the campaign.
Obama, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest stars and a frequent target of Trump’s attacks, joined a roundtable discussion with Philadelphia Black male politicians and community and religious leaders before a 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) outdoor drive-in rally to urge supporters to vote early for Biden and other Democratic candidates.
“It’s good to see you,” Obama said, as he entered to applause from the 15 guests.
Obama’s appearance on the campaign trail this week fills a gap left by Biden, who has stayed at home in Delaware since Monday for meetings and preparation ahead of this week’s debate with Trump in Nashville, Tennessee. Biden was Obama’s vice president for eight years.
Americans are voting early at a record pace this year, with more than 41 million ballots cast both via mail and in person ahead of Election Day on Nov. 3, on concerns about the coronavirus and to make sure their votes are counted.
Trump will head to North Carolina, another battleground state where opinion polls show a tight race, for a rally on Wednesday evening.
The last days of campaigning are taking place amid a surge in new cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations in battleground states, including North Carolina and Pennsylvania but also Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.
Pennsylvania has averaged 1,500 new cases a day over the past week, a level it has not seen since April, according to a Reuters analysis. North Carolina is averaging 2,000 new cases a day over the past week, its highest level ever.
Polling shows a majority of voters are disappointed in the way Trump has handled the pandemic, which he has repeatedly said would disappear on its own.
On a call organized by the Biden campaign and Texas Democrats on Wednesday, several Texas Republicans urged fellow conservatives to vote for Biden, citing the coronavirus crisis as well as Biden’s character.
“This is not a decision I took lightly. I love the GOP, and I love most GOP officials. But I love my country more,” said Jacob Monty, a Republican immigration lawyer who resigned from Trump’s national Hispanic advisory council in 2016.

Pennsylvania in the spotlight
Biden and Trump are scheduled to meet in their second and final debate on Thursday night, giving the Republican an opportunity to change the trajectory of a race that Biden is leading in national polls.
Biden’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, has warned staff and supporters she sees a far closer race in the 17 states the campaign considers battlegrounds than is suggested by the national polls showing he has a wide lead.
Biden believes he must win his birth state of Pennsylvania, which Democrats narrowly lost to Trump in 2016, and has visited it more than any other state during the campaign.
Trump has gained ground in Pennsylvania, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday, which showed the challenger leading by 49% to 45%, slightly narrower than a week earlier.
“If we win Pennsylvania, we win the whole thing,” Trump said on Tuesday at a rally in Erie, in the state’s northwestern corner.
The record early vote so far represents about 30% of the total ballots cast in 2016, according to the University of Florida’s US Elections Project.
Opinion polls and voting returns indicate that many of those early voters typically do not participate in elections but are coming off the sidelines this year to back Biden — or vote out Trump.
Trump, who has resumed a crowded schedule of rallies since recovering from his recent bout with COVID-19, will appear on Wednesday night at an airport rally in Gastonia, North Carolina.
Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, is also in North Carolina to mobilize voters in Asheville and Charlotte.