Ever since they seized power from former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban have continued to impose brutally suppressive diktats in the name of religion. A series of recent repressive measures indicate hard-line ideologues among the Taliban flexing their muscles to assert power within their internationally unrecognised regime. Ban on girls’ education, imposition of hijab or face veil on women, compelling male employees to grow long beards and wear turbans or caps, segregation of parks, leisure venues and even restaurants by gender are just a few of these sanctions. They have also tried to limit access to independent information by taking off air broadcasts of international media, including Voice of America, BBC and Deutsche Welle. Local media is already facing unprecedented censorship and restrictions. Several news anchors and senior journalists working in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan resigned after being threatened for criticising or questioning the regime’s draconian codes. In another recent move, the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue has instructed all TV channels to make sure that female presenters cover their faces.
But before they came to power, the Taliban had presented another face to the world.
Dashing dreams of girls
With the hope of regaining power, even before the conclusion of the Doha agreement with the United States in February 2020, the Taliban were presenting their softer image by agreeing to human rights—particularly women’s rights and girls’ education. In February 2019 in Moscow, their senior negotiator and current deputy foreign minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai promised he would guarantee women’s rights. He said, “Women should not worry if a settlement grants Taliban more influence. In the eyes of Taliban, women are highly-valued as the builders of a Muslim society.” They would be granted rights in “business and ownership, inheritance, education, work, choosing one’s husband, security, health, and the right to a good life,” he added.
But contrary to those promises, after gaining power in August 2021, the Taliban imposed a ban on girls’ education and working women, almost instantly restricting their movement and role in society. The worst decision came when after seven months, the Afghan girls aged 7 to 12, who were hoping to restart their lessons at the start of Afghan new year (Nawroz), were denied entry into schools. Videos of these aggrieved, desperate girls circulated on social media and touched people across the globe. As of now, they have lost a full academic year since the Taliban took over Kabul.
A religious scholar (who asked not to be named), familiar with the Taliban’s decision-making, suggests their supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, is surrounded by hard-line and extremely narrow-minded rural mullahs including current chief justice Sheikh Hakeem and Sheikh Muhammad Khalid Hanafi, minister of vice and virtue. They are advocating for the implementation of a stricter version of the Sharia. The extension of the ban on women’s rights coincided with an extraordinary meeting of the Taliban cabinet under the leadership of Mullah Haibatullah in Kandahar in March this year.
Syllabus, suicide bombers and statues
Glorification of suicide bombers and conversion of several mainstream schools into ‘madrassas’ is yet another step aimed at nourishing religious radicalism and ensuring the continued supply of a fighting force built on the Taliban’s own radical lines. Furthermore, their education officials have already criticised the current curriculum (drafted by the previous regime) for schools and colleges and have announced a specialised Islamic curriculum. It’s largely believed that curriculum is one of the reasons for the closure of girls’ schools across the country. A classified document assessing the curriculum reveals the Taliban’s strong criticism of it. They have expressed their strong opposition to lessons on democracy, music, women and human rights and have termed these as ‘Western values’ and ‘against Islamic principles.’
They have also criticised lessons on Afghanistan’s ancient heritage and Buddha statues, terming these as ‘against Islamic teachings.’ The document further states, “ancient heritage and idols are not our history but rather a shame…”. The Taliban have vowed to replace it with their own curriculum soon. Countering Afghanistan’s historical, cultural and national identity is the Taliban’s way to institutionalise religious radicalism and prolong their authoritarian rule. They believe Afghan nationalism and its rich culture and history will threaten their narrative, which is based solely on archaic notions of religion. Thus, they are primarily targeting the country’s national and historical identity and promoting ‘madrassa’ culture or ‘Talibanisation,’ in other terms.
Banning the Afghan national flag and national anthem were the immediate actions they took after entering Kabul. Since August 2021, several youths have been killed, injured and arrested by Taliban while protesting for the reinstatement of Afghanistan’s national flag.
A fight within – hard line or foreign aid
By imposing a stricter version of Sharia and medieval codes, the Taliban are moving along the same fault lines that resulted in the collapse of their previous regime in 2001. It was the same mindset that led to the demolition of ancient statues of Buddha in Bamyan in 2001. Mullah Omar, then supreme leader termed the statues as “un-Islamic and heritage of pagan days” and issued a decree to demolish all, including the sixth-century twin Buddhas in Bamyan. A similar state of mind justified giving sanctuaries to al-Qaeda fighters and its leader, Osama Bin Laden. While rejecting the handover of Bin Laden to the US after the 9/11 attacks, Mullah Omar claimed he would sacrifice his Emirate and Afghanistan for the protection of Bin Laden since it was his moral and Islamic duty.
Nearly two decades later, under the Doha agreement, the Taliban committed they will not shelter or allow any entity or individual, including al-Qaeda, to use Afghan soil against the interests of the US and its allies. However, dominance of hardliners in the Taliban ranks and the imposition of recent extreme measures show that the Taliban can’t be trusted to abide by their international commitments either. Supposedly, if an individual from a similar religious ideology takes shelter in the Taliban regime, based on their interpretation, it would be against religious principles to deny them sanctuary or hand them over to their enemies. Taliban gave a similar response to Pakistani authorities when they demanded the handover of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Molavi Faqir Muhammad, who is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan and was released from prison after the Taliban’s take over in August 2021. This seems to be one of the key reasons behind Pakistan’s (which is largely blamed for its support to the Taliban during their struggle against US and NATO forces) reluctance to recognise their regime. This stance is not only alarming for the United States and its allies but also for China, the central Asian States and Russia.
All these nations are highly vulnerable to Islamic radical ideology and fear the emergence of Islamic militancy in their territories. East Turkistan Islamic Movement of Uyghur Muslims (ETIM) in the western Xinjiang region of China is a significant security concern to the socialist republic. China is blamed for its human rights violations against the Uyghur Turkic-Muslim minority. To escape persecution, many Uyghur Muslims have taken asylum in neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan. Any regrouping or reorganisation of ETIM would be a significant security challenge for China.
According to a source close to the Taliban, several senior officials are not in favour of these radical steps and fear it would further prolong their regime’s international recognition and limit or end the direly needed international financial assistance. Even the Haqqanis, known for their lethal and brutal operations and suicide attacks, have chosen a moderate stance. On 3 March, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s interior minister, urged tribal and religious elders from Paktia, Khost and Paktika provinces to respect women’s rights. Though, the absolute and authoritarian nature of the movement doesn’t permit any of its members to publicly criticise their leader. But in an unprecedented way, on May 22, at a gathering in Kabul, the deputy foreign minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, criticised the ban on women’s education. He said, “they are deprived of the right to education. Where will women learn Sharia lessons? Women make up half of Afghanistan’s population”. However, the hard-line clerics wouldn’t easily give up on their core religious values for the sake of recognition or any foreign assistance.
The United Nations Security Council, in its latest report on al-Qaeda and their affiliates, said the Taliban have not done anything to limit the activities of foreign terrorists and that terror groups have more freedom in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The growing influence and control of affairs by hard-line elements would directly impact commitments of the Taliban to not allow any entity or individual to use their soil against foreign interests. Henceforth, if the Taliban continue to impose their extreme version of Sharia, ignore basic rights of Afghan citizens, don’t hold traditional ‘Loya Jirga’ or elections and do not address genuine concerns of the international community, the country would undoubtedly plunge into further unending conflict and a chaotic and unstable Afghanistan would easily become a hub for global terrorism. Ultimately, the re-emergence of al-Qaeda would be a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’.
It’s the responsibility of the international community, particularly the Islamic world, to pressure the Taliban into giving up their radical interpretation of Islam and pave way for the formation of an inclusive government where all Afghans can live with freedom and prosperity.
Zardasht Shams is a former Afghan diplomat. He served as Deputy Ambassador of Afghanistan in Pakistan from 2017-19. He has also served as Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister for Information and Culture from 2015-17. He tweets @shamszardasht. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)