The Taliban

August 27, 2009

With the war in Afghanistan all over the news, people keep asking me “Who are the Taliban?” 

The Taliban were originally a band of madrasa (seminary) students (taliban) who were living as refugees in Pakistan. Many of the men who made up the Taliban were veterans of the Afghan-Soviet war. They had returned to Afghanistan after the Soviets departed. They spent their first couple of post-Soviet years pushing their ideology and cultural moral codes across the country. The group was primarily made up of Pashtuns (ethnic Afghans), but quickly overwhelmed the Northern Alliance of non-Pashtun minorities.

The Taliban denounced contending militias, and in doing so claimed the mantle of moral leadership. They characterized themselves as representing the majority of Afghans. As a result, the Taliban were able to unite 90 percent of the country. They then declared the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. It is understandable that Westerners would ask, Why did the Afghan people go along with this? Well, after almost eighteen years of Soviet occupation followed by a civil war, and the apparently endless series of bloodshed, I believe that initially people accepted the Taliban because they ended the violence. 

The Taliban were at first regarded by Afghans as liberators. They promised to restore law and order in a country where none had existed for almost two decades. They were a symbol of security and stability. They disarmed the population, built hospitals and schools, and imposed much needed authority. It was not until the 1996 capture of Kabul that the Taliban revealed their intentions of enforcing a strict puritanical form of Islam upon the country. With extensive support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban subdued any and all Afghans who then got in their way. 

The brand of Islamic radicalism used by the Taliban is significantly influenced by the Deobandi movement out of Pakistan. Many of the Taliban were trained in Deobandi schools in Pakistan while they were refugees in the Afghan-Soviet war. Students received free education, religious, and military training. The bill was paid for by Saudi funding. Students from these Deobandi schools espouse a worldview from which they use Islam to legitimate their tribal culture, customs, and preferences. 

The Taliban promote their own brand of revolutionary Islam. They have banned music, television, and photography. They require men to wear beards and women to wear burqas. Under the Taliban, women have been expelled from public life, unable to attend school or hold a job. And they wield strict physical punishment for anyone who deviates from their edicts. 

Many Muslim nations have denounced the Taliban as being illegitimate. Countries as diverse as Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt have all condemned the Taliban’s abuse of human rights. At the height of the Taliban’s power, the only countries who recognized the group as having legitimate control over Afghanistan were Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

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