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Foreign Affairs

Taliban sharia: how will they ‘respect’ women’s rights and press freedom?

The media are full of reports of Taliban 2.0: the Taliban which promises to respect women’s rights; the Taliban which is pledged to sustain freedom of the press; the Taliban which has assured equality for all, with roles in society, in government, and a university education for all who are able. Some of the media are reporting the rather crucial caveat; that women’s rights will be respected “under the system of Sharia”; there will be press freedom “under the system of Sharia”; and there will be equality for all “under the system of Sharia”.

“We are going to allow women to work and study. We have got frameworks, of course. Women are going to be very active in the society but within the framework of Islam,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid at a press conference in Kabul.

Taliban sharia isn’t particularly disposed to respecting women’s rights or sustaining press freedom as the West would understand it. Their “framework of Islam” demands some theological exposition, not least because when they say they are “committed to the media within our cultural frameworks”, those ‘cultural frameworks’ aren’t liberal and democratic.

In a pledge to respect human rights and freedoms “under the system of Sharia”, the definite article is important. There isn’t one single school of sharia, but a number of strands of Islamic moral codes which have emerged and developed over the centuries through competing Islamic empires and theological ideologies. And those competing visions of a caliphate have often been fought for in the mountains and hills of Afghanistan, which sits at the crossroads between Iran and India/Pakistan, and between Central Asia and the Arabian Sea. It has been invaded and colonised throughout history, most recently by the British, the Soviet Union and the Americans, each having to contend against “mujahideen rebels” in order to bring law and order with peace and security.

But these “mujahideen rebels” are actually Afghanistan’s majority indigenous Islamic group, and they want their homeland back. And they want it back on their terms; not subject to Western hegemonic notions of law and order or peace and security. The Pushtun Taliban are a Sunni tribe, and have been fighting a civil war for decades with the ethnic minorities of the north – the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen. Each has their own sharia school of allegiance (some tribes are Shiite), but the Taliban sharia is that of the Sunni Hanafi school: ‘taliban’ means ‘students’ in Pashto.

And their Sunni Hanafi school of sharia is fused with a particularly ‘zealous’ interpretation of Deobandism, syncretised with Wahhabism. It is militant and expansionist: adherents might condemn Islamic terrorism and issue fatwas against those who murder and maim, while they teach in their madrassas an Islamic revivalist theology and an anti-imperialist ideology. Deobandism began as a doctrine of reconciliation with colonialism, but under the Taliban became a struggle against it; a jihad against the kuffar invaders.

Taliban sharia has never entertained nuance: indeed, it has historically been devoid of much knowledge at all of the Qur’an, the development of Islamic sharia, and even of Afghan history. It is a purist ideology which brooks no argument and entertains to expository discussion: it is interpreted and handed down by mullahs, who mete out stoning and amputations, summary assassinations, and force women to wear burqas because they are permitted no public face. Girls are sold into slavery and married off: women are merely chattel; the property of the men. This is Pushtun fundamentalism. It is virulently and violently anti-Shiite, and therefore abhorred by Iran and welcomed in Pakistan. Indeed, Iran came close to invading Afghanistan in 1998 when the Taliban executed 11 Iranian diplomats, ostensibly to avenge the death of Taliban prisoners, but their principal crime was that of not being Sunni, and Iran was then backing the Shiite Hazaras against them.

The Taliban sharia is an extremist “framework of Islam” which historically has welcomed Muslim radicals from dozens of Islamic countries provided they are pledged to the destruction of Taliban enemies and the liberation of Afghanistan. Tens of thousands have been educated in the madrassas of Pakistan in preparation for the Afghan jihad; the final onslaught. They are part of a pan-Islamic arc of radicalism, entrenched in Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, the Philippines and Bangladesh. They defeated one superpower – the Soviet Union – in 1989. They have just defeated the second – the mighty United States of America and NATO allies – who invaded after the destruction of the World Trade Center by Afghan-trained Arab militants on September 11th 2001.

It has taken 20 years, but the Taliban are in no hurry: they have poppies in abundance, and heroin on tap. They can wait for decades more while the coffers overflow with the proceeds of opium, and no doubt also soon with lithium. And now they have $100billion worth of weapons and military hardware dedicated to their theo-political cause. Provided women and the press are dedicated to the Islamic framework of Afghan jihad, they will be respected and free indeed. But the likelihood is that the Taliban sharia of narrow Hanafi and extreme Deobandism has not been abandoned or infused with Sufi strains of enlightened moderation: women’s rights will not be respected, and the press shall not be free – unless, of course, we are supposed to believe the Taliban have travelled the road to Damascus.