While there is no central interpretive authority in Islam, an acceptable interpretation must satisfy a minimum number of requirements. For example, the interpretation must be based on the Qur'an and sunnah (the reported words and example of the Prophet). It must be based on knowledge and motivated by piety. It must also serve (rather than harm) maslaha, the public interest of Muslims in particular and humanity in general.
Even if we assume that the Taliban's interpretation of Islam satisfies these minimal requirements, the Taliban is still not entitled to force its views on other Muslims within and outside Afghanistan or on the rest of the world. In fact, the very Islamic jurisprudence which protects the Taliban's right to freedom of thought also protects the freedom of thought of other Muslims and non-Muslims as well. Khalifah Abu Ja'far al-Mansour, the eighth-century head of the Islamic Abbasid State whose power extended from Baghdad to places as far as modern-day Egypt, Syria, Iran, and India, learned this lesson well. . When he approached Imam Malik with the idea of adopting the Maliki school of thought (math.hab) as the officially sanctioned one, the imam rejected the idea repeatedly. Realizing that he is only a human being who is capable of error, Imam Malik refused to impose his views on a whole people.
The Taliban seems to have no such concerns. This is consistent with their rejection of other basic Islamic principles, such as shura (consultation with other Muslims) and bay'ah (a system of elective non-authoritarian governance). It is also consistent with their rejection of the Islamic injunction that the pursuit of education is the duty of every Muslim, male and female. Finally, it is consistent with their rejection of the overarching Islamic model of harmonious gender, racial, religious, and general human relations.
For centuries, Islam has preserved and even maintained all prior cultural expressions, including the Egyptian Sphinx, the Persian Persepolis, ancient houses of worship belonging to other religions, and the pictures, images, artifacts and possessions housed in those sanctuaries. In fact, had it not been for Islamic protection, these structures and artifacts may not have survived. Khalifah 'Umar, a companion of the Prophet and the third Muslim Caliph, provides an excellent example. Upon entering Jerusalem in the seventh century, he prohibited the destruction of any Christian images or places of worship.
Muslim jurists also prohibited the destruction of places of worship and religious artifacts belonging to non-Muslims. The medieval Ibn al-Qayyim noted that the Qur'an itself prohibits such destruction. The Qur'an explains that had it not been for God counterpoising (daf') one people by another, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques - that is, places where the name of God is remembered frequently - would have been surely destroyed. The medieval writer al-Zajjaj commented that had God not counterpoised one people by another, there would have been destroyed synagogues in the time of Moses, destroyed churches and monasteries in the time of Jesus, and destroyed mosques in the time of Muhammad.
It is also worth noting that the land now called Afghanistan was part of the Persian Empire, which was conquered by Arab armies fourteen centuries ago. Since then, many of the most pious and illustrious Muslim rulers have reigned over it without seeking to destroy the statues of Bamiyan. This is precisely why these statues have survived till this day. To destroy them now in the name of Islam is to consider oneself to be a better Muslim than all of one's predecessors. That is truly hubris and is contrary to the fundamental Islamic principles of humility, tolerance, freedom of thought, consultative democracy, and preservation of public maslaha.
Recently, a Taliban spokesman claimed that the decision to destroy the statues was a political one, made out of frustration with an international community willing to spend money to repair the statues while ignoring the human catastrophe befalling Afghani children ravaged by sanctions and malnutrition. As a result, the statues became a symbol of an oppressive West, and hence the object of hostility and destruction.
While the Taliban's reasoning is faulty, we must not ignore these humanitarian concerns. These sanctions have harmed innocent people, making them pawns in a global political struggle not of their own choosing. All Americans, religious and secular alike, need to remember this and recognize that by harming a helpless and oppressed people, existing sanctions are based on faulty logic as well. Americans need to develop ethical ways for protecting our legitimate political and economic global interests without harming the burdened population of the Third World. Otherwise, we risk joining the Taliban in placing hubris and wrath above the global common good.