How Muslim are the Taliban?

30 September 2021

6:53 AM

30 September 2021

6:53 AM

I first met Haji Mir, a tribal elder from Helmand, in Herat in western Afghanistan in 2002, not long after the fall of the Taliban. He had come to Herat to ensure the safety of Helmand under the new American-backed administration. At the end of the trip he protected us when we were stoned by a mob after filming a large outdoor event marking Eid.

Mir was a decent local leader in a system that valued his skills. But when I tried to track him down ten years later, at the height of British military involvement in Helmand, I was told he had been targeted and killed by the Taliban.

Mir was one of thousands of elders and traditional Muslim preachers and mullahs culled by the group, in a ruthless reshaping of the Afghan cultural landscape, as profound as their assault on more progressive areas of life such as women’s rights.

Across the Islamic world there are different ways of organising Islamic institutions. In Afghanistan the ulema, nationally and locally, is an institution composed of Islamic scholars and mullahs which decides social and religious issues. When Afghanistan was an Islamic Republic, governed by Sharia law before the Taliban took power on 15 August, the ulema were acknowledged guardians of that tradition.

But the Taliban have a singular interpretation of Islam, not shared by many other countries, and alien to Afghan traditions. After taking power this year they arrested the national head of the ulema appointed by the Ghani government, Maulvi Mohammad Sardar Zadran, and released humiliating pictures of him, blindfolded with his hands tied. This was consistent with their long-term violent policy of replacing the traditional religious and tribal elders of the country with their own more hardline leaders, educated in Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan.

The Taliban’s substitution of the Islamic Republic with the ‘Islamic Emirate’ is more than a dry constitutional change as well. During the few substantive sessions of peace talks in Doha last year between the Taliban and representatives of the Republic, arguments over the kind of Islamic legal code Afghanistan should adopt and the source of political and religious authority were the main sticking points, with the Taliban taking a harder line than when they were last in government.

When the Taliban emerged in the mid-1990s, as a reaction to the bitter civil war that followed the defeat of the Russians, they had no sense of the world beyond their Pashtun homeland. Their desire was only for stability in Afghanistan. There were ‘moderate’ Taliban on the Islamist spectrum, and many were comfortable with the Sufi-inspired folk religion of the country. Others were drawn from Pakistani madrassas, and their cultural values were based on Pashtun rural life. In their world women were as much property as land or cash – an idea wrapped up in the Pashto line that it is vital for the honour of the tribe to protect ‘zan, zar, zameen’ (women, gold, land). Encounters with the outside world then were baffling to the Taliban. One of their ministers asked me in 1997 ‘Why are you westerners so obsessed about “our” women?’

But the country they now govern does not hold fast to those traditional values in the same way. Women’s rights are not just a western-imposed social construct in Afghanistan but a wide expectation. In this young country – where more than half of the population were born since the US-led intervention – and across rural Afghanistan, women now have different aspirations and expectations. This was accepted by more traditional religious elders before the Taliban takeover.

Before the fall of Kabul the ulema were engaged this year in a fascinating dialogue led by a women’s network on the kind of society they wanted. The ulema were concerned that they were being squeezed between radical Islamists like the Taliban and a rapidly urbanising and youthful society demanding a different lifestyle from their parents. The conclusions of the dialogue were surprising in that the ulema agreed on a progressive platform for women, allowing education at all levels, full employment opportunities and the right to choose marital partners.

The Taliban have now taken a very different view and ‘Islamism in one country’ is no longer an option. Part of the reason is the competition the Taliban face from other jihadi groups. The emergence of a number of global jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq has changed the nature of the game and the Taliban will face competition for recruits and terrorist financing from Islamic State. The Afghan faction of that movement, Islamic State Khorasan, were quiet for some time after their attack in August which killed 13 US marines at the airport. But they have restarted attacks this week in Afghanistan, most prominently with a series of suicide car bombs in the eastern city Jalalabad. And it is clear that al Qaeda are once again openly operating in Afghanistan.

So the Taliban face a series of challenges that are contradictory. They need to show the Afghan population that they are providing better security, while showing potential recruits that they still mean business as a violent jihadi organisation. And they need to demonstrate to the west that they are a responsible government. It is an impossible set of priorities – especially as they face an unprecedented crisis with the economy barely functioning.

The women’s networks who were speaking to the ulema are still just about intact, and are attempting to reorganise. They have very basic cheap needs such as credit for mobile phone sim cards. While western governments are wrapped in a major policy review over how to manage the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and support programmes like education and health, human rights, small cheap interventions to back civil society organisations would go a long way to building social resilience in the face of the Taliban.

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