What was it all for?

A mosque with a turquoise dome with terraces surrounding it painted pastel blue, with miniature and full-size minarets. What look like pine trees of some sort can be seen in the foreground, partly obscuring the mosque.
Mosque containing the shrine of Ahmad Shah Durrani, the first king of Afghanistan, in Kandahar

Last weekend, the Taliban completed its takeover of Afghanistan (well, it took the capital; it’s possible that pockets of resistance remain) after the Americans and British withdrew their troops which had been propping up the former government of Ashraf Ghani. It had been threatened that the takeover could take as little as 90 days; it has taken only a few days, prompting outrage and accusations that the western powers have betrayed the Afghan people (particularly those such as the interpreters who served the British army during the occupation) by pulling out; indignation has also come from soldiers who lost limbs or friends during the war. There have been numerous lurid reports of atrocities by the Taliban, who it has claimed have forced families to hand over daughters for marriage to Taliban fighters, as well as the automatic assumption that whatever they did in the mid-90s, they will do again now.

To answer the question of what it was for: it was to flush out al-Qa’ida who had killed thousands in a number of major terrorist attacks such as the Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam US embassy bombings and the 9/11 attacks. That job was done; al-Qa’ida have been dissipated and many of their fighters have been killed or captured. Many have renounced their ideology and others have moved onto ISIS and some of those were also killed or captured. The Taliban were not considered a threat until the 9/11 attacks; their oppression against women was never thought to be a good reason to send troops in to oust them. People are confusing the reason the invasion took place with the justifications, or at least the ones they bought into. We don’t invade other people’s countries to free women from oppression. It’s only in theory that we send troops in to arrest actual genocides (see Bosnia and Rwanda). We cannot keep our troops in Afghanistan in perpetuity to prop up a government which has not paid its army in several months and whose army, as a result, will not fight for it. The job they were there to do has been done and we have problems of our own: a pandemic and a climate emergency among other things.

I don’t doubt that some of the reports about the Taliban’s behaviour are exaggerated or fabricated and that people will believe a lot of nonsense because it fits with their prejudices about “how Muslims behave” when they take power, or because it matches with what they know about ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Taliban are not ISIS; they are actually at war with the ISIS elements in Afghanistan. ISIS are an offshoot of al-Qa’ida (though that group’s remnants have more recently portrayed themselves as the moderates) and its roots trace back to American-run prisons in Iraq during their occupation. The original Taliban, as their name implies, were students in Deobandi religious schools in Pakistan in the 1990s. Their interpretation of Islam was informed by rural Pashtun customs and was an extremely harsh one, but they are not the unbridled ignoramuses that filled the ranks of ISIS, which included people who had learned their religion from a book called “Islam for Dummies”. The Deobandis are a large movement with mosques and religious schools throughout the Indian subcontinent and all its diaspora, notably including the UK and South Africa. There are differences of opinion among them; what distinguishes them is their position on certain matters of doctrine.

I see many Muslims making excuses for their oppressions, including the denial of education to girls. When first in power, they were widely perceived as having restored security after years of instability the war had brought, particularly after the mujahideen factions that overthrew the former Soviet-backed regime turned to fighting amongst themselves for control. Yet their supporters justified the restrictions on women’s liberty (not only education but work and healthcare also) by claiming that this was because of lack of security, and that once that security had been achieved, the Taliban would open the best Islamic schools and colleges in the world. Yet that security never materialised. The truth is that the use of ‘security’ to deny people liberty is a trick of tyrants the world over: look at how the Assad regime has maintained a “state of emergency” for years by using the excuse that the country was “at war” with and “occupied by” Israel, which does indeed occupy most of the Golan Heights, but this is no excuse for maintaining emergency legislation far from there. Similarly, the continuance of civil war in Badakhshan, in the north-east of the country, cannot justify shutting women in their homes hundreds of miles away in Kandahar.

Now, I hear the justification for closing schools is that people are starving. This may be the case, but it still sounds more like an excuse than a reason. In many parts of the world, children get a meal a day at school. In Pakistan and elsewhere, Islamic charities run schools and every school provides a midday meal unless the child has been sent in with food to eat (though if the school is a boarding school, this will not be the case). Hunger is not an excuse to not educate. Islam is a religion that encourages education and learning; the first word in the Qur’an to be revealed was ‘read’ as is well known. In the classical era, Islamic scholars were the envy of the world and women learned and taught, and major scholars married women who taught in mosques. They wore veils, of course, but they were teaching in public. A scholar was not ashamed if his wife was teaching hadith or something in the local madrassa or mosque. All this is unthinkable in Deobandi mosques today; colleges for women and girls are few and far between and those for boys have no women teaching religious subjects. I saw a thread on Twitter last week claiming that a book by a well-known Deobandi scholar advocated that girls only receive basic religious education and not even be taught to read and write if they appeared too independent, along with some ‘scientific’ justification about the nature of the female mind. This nonsense could more likely have come from a secular western philosopher of the preceding two centuries, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau with his “Emil and Sophie” proposals for education of boys and girls, than from any classical Muslim scholar. Islam is not a religion that fosters illiteracy or ignorance; quite the opposite.

The Taliban are back in power and if they defeat the revived Northern Alliance in the Panjshir valley (which I hope they do, as the last time that alliance gained power, they reduced much of Kabul to rubble in infighting), they will be for the foreseeable future. We will see if their promises bear fruit in the coming months. But as for Muslims elsewhere, let’s not see a return to justifying obvious oppressions and parroting excuses from a propaganda sheet while dismissing adverse reports from reliable journalists. Most of the same people would not like the same kind of rule the Taliban inflicted on Afghanistan last time in their home town, be it Keighley or Karachi, so we should not cheer it on in Kabul or Kandahar either.

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