In March 2001, disregarding international appeals and protests, the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic group ruling at that time Afghanistan, demolished two colossal statues of Buddha carved into the sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan.
The statues, sculpted in 507 and 554 CE, represented classic Gandhara art and were considered a cultural heritage belonging to all mankind. But the Taliban declared the statues insulting to Islam, and destroyed them by mortar fire and dynamite.
This act of cultural homicide prompted Dr. Cheryl Bernard, president of Metis Analytics, a Washington research company, to establish the Bamiyan Project, a non-profit organization “dedicated to the support and encouragement of cultural activism to prevent, restore and overcome the threats posed to civilization’s achievements by war, conflict and social division.”
As part of its effort to safeguard mankind’s cultural heritage, the Bamiyan Project invited 25 scholars, media representatives and activist from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Bosnia to the United States. Here, they participated in a Narratives Conference with the aim “to craft a new, forward looking, democratic, narrative for their respective countries.”
Colonial Williamsburg was chosen as the site of the conference. In his welcoming remarks, Colin Campbell, President and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, declared: “I am acutely aware of the extraordinary ferment in your countries today and the huge challenges you are experiencing as citizens and leaders. I am also struck by the relevance, of this place and the history that was made here, to the struggles in which you and your countrymen are currently engaged.”
He than expressed his hope that the delegates will find the experiences of early Americans, and the way their stories are told in Williamsburg, instructive.
According to Campbell, the response was very positive, “A number of those participating expressed appreciation for the setting and the introduction to our use of historical narrative to tell the stories of the Revolution.”
No doubt, it is a message that may have a potential impact in countries of vital interest to the United States. But when I asked Campbell what kind of role could or should Colonial Williamsburg play in America’s effort to use “soft power” in winning hearts and minds around the world, he demurred.
“We do not see what we do here as an effort to win hearts, and minds. But rather as a way to share our experience with historical narratives about struggles in this country, racial and religious struggles, as well as the struggle for independence, which might be of assistance to those who are experiencing major unrest and seeking potential reform…This strikes me as an ideal role for CW. So much better if the result is to provide a positive view of the United States,” he said.
After the 1989 “velvet revolution,” in Czechoslovakia, the U. S. Information Agency, invited 12 Czechoslovak editors and reporters to the United States to explore the relationship between the media and politics and the concept of an independent press.
The Institute of the Bill of Rights Law at the College of William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg were chosen as destinations for the group to gain a deeper understanding of the history of freedom of speech and the press.
The program was an unqualified success. Stefan Rybar, editor-in-chief of the educational department of the Czechoslovak Television and chairman of the Action Committee during the revolution, following the visit, said: “Our stay in Williamsburg enabled us to immerse ourselves in a subject dearest to our heart — namely, the problem of how to safeguard the freedom of press in our reborn country.”
I asked Campbell whether Colonial Williamsburg would be interested in participating in a similar program, should the State Department decide to revive it.
“We would be most interested in participating in any activity that would be helpful to the emerging democracies and to our understanding of the issues they are facing,” Campbell said.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.