Understanding the Taliban Is a Crucial Task...By Aisha Geissinger


News from Afghanistan in the international media revolves around
reportedbans on marbles, kite-flying and toilet paper, and the
forcibleimposition of the beard and burqa. It seems that the vocabulary 
theaverage Talib has shrunk to two words: haram (forbidden) and
fardh(obligatory). Reports of draconian restrictions on women take
centrestage, because of western audiences fascination with what lies
behind theveil. Men responsible for enforcing public decency are said 
beat womenin the street who show their faces or ankles. Most women are 
allowedto work. They are forbidden to see male doctors, yet there are 
femaledoctors available. Most girls schools have been closed, and the
onlyeducation available is religious instruction for girls who have
notreached puberty.

What are we to make of all this? Some Muslims agree with these 
publicly support the Taliban. Others violently disagree, 
the beard in order to demonstrate their disagreement, and arewilling to
appear on television along with secular human rights andfeminist groups 
order to denounce these policies. But most Muslimsmaintain an 
silence, taking refuge behind the excuse that "wedont really know whats
going on there." It might be more honest to saythat we dont want to 
what is happening, much less deal with it.

To most Muslims, the Afghans are the heroic people who defeated the 
Soviet Union despite overwhelming odds. The subsequent civil warin
Afghanistan deeply disappointed most people and has led them to 
faces from the on-going conflict as much as possible. The majorityof
Muslims worldwide cherish visions of a just Islamic state
emergingsomewhere, if not in their own country. This hope sustains many
people inthe face of what appear to be hopeless odds. To see the dream
become anightmare, and the phrase "Islamic justice" used as a synonym
fortyranny, is painful.

Finally, criticism of the Taliban, whether it comes from non-Muslims
orMuslims, is often heavily overlaid with prejudices or
politicalinterests. Muslims often show their partisan, class, ethnic 
madhhabiinterests in their criticism, deriding the Taliban as
"peasants","ignorant Pakhtun", or "Wahhabis". Muslim criticisms tell at
best apartial tale: who does the ban on toilet paper primarily affect?
Pity thepoor foreign correspondents who are forced to use a lota (water
jug)! Ifany non-Muslim country banned toilet paper, environmental 
would beapplauding it for its ecologically progressive decision.

Western complicity in and responsibility for the Talibans excesses
isusually ignored; if the economy is based on opium, what can anyone
expectafter 22 years of war and upheaval, to say nothing of the
recentimposition of economic sanctions? These criticisms of the Taliban
areclearly a way of attacking Islamic movements in general and proving
thatany attempt to actualise Islams socio-political dimensions in this 
isdoomed to failurein fact, that nothing could be worse than a
societybased on Islam. Other Afghan factions have been making political
mileageout of such western media attacks, but in the long term all
Muslims, in and outside of Afghanistan, will pay a high price for such
coverage inyears to come. It is being used as a weapon against any
Muslimself-assertion anywhere, even of the most peaceable and innocuous

While the media deride the Taliban as mediaeval, in fact such groups
arethoroughly modern and emerge as a result of the unsettled conditions
ofthe modern world. Similar movements can be found in other countries
andamong many of the worlds religions. American Christians who bomb
abortionclinics, Hindus who demolished the Babri Masjid and have their
eyes on anumber of other masajid throughout India, ultra-orthodox Jews 
throw stones at women who walk through their neighbourhoods wearing
trousers orshort sleeves, all have more in common with the Taliban than
they (or theTaliban) realise. All such movements, despite their outward
differences,are a reaction to the dramatic social, political and 
changeswhich have taken place in the last hundred and fifty years. The
world isbeing swamped by lahw (vain pursuits), and much of it is beyond
thecontrol of ordinary people. Many Muslims realise that their cultures
arein retreat before the advance of the technologically advanced
andaggressive global secular civilisation.

The modern world focuses primarily on material things. Development
ismeasured by material indicators, not by intangible things such
asGod-consciousness, brotherhood and sisterhood, or
neighbourliness.Taliban-style movements also focus on the material, the
tangible aspectsof faithrules and outward behaviour. Unlike beliefs,
intentions and feelings, these can be controlled and imposed upon 
Talibanviolence against those who break the rules is an application of
themodern view that state interference in the lives of individuals is
theanswer to most social problems. An over-literal focus on
individualQuranic ayaat and ahadith obscures the larger picture, and 
laws thecentre of attention while ethical conduct remains at best

This focus on rules also ignores the prerequisites for establishing
anIslamic system in the modern world. Since the 1975 drafting of
CEDAW(Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women), 
UNand various NGOs have been trying to discourage single-sex education
andmedical care when possible. Muslims by and large have ignored this,
withsome communities quibbling over whether and to what degree women
shouldbe educated. As a result, there is still a marked shortage of
womendoctors, nurses, other medical personnel, and educators in most
Muslimcommunities, including Afghanistan.

Some women pursue degrees in medicine or education with the intention
ofenhancing their marriageability rather than practising after
graduation.Others prefer (or are compelled by circumstances) to work in
the west.The twisted ideas that a married woman has no responsibility 
the ummahas a whole, and that it is shameful if she has concerns beyond
herimmediate family circle, are also alive and well. In addition,
someMuslim women, even those who observe purdah, prefer to be seen by
maledoctors because they do not have confidence in the competence of
women.This is based partly on cultural beliefs in female inferiority, 
alsoon the sad fact that female doctors are often restricted from
receiving comparable training to men, and are often are not able to
pursuespecialisations outside of obstetrics and gynaecology.

In these circumstances, the separation of medical and
educationalfacilities for women and men becomes blatantly unjust. It
harmsindividual women, infants and children, men, the family and the 
asa whole. It is also profoundly destabilising: people who have the
meansto leave such a society will do so in search of medical
treatment,education and opportunity. Those who stay will tend to be
suffocated, andtheir ability to deal with the challenges posed by the
modern world willbe decreased.

The Taliban are having to deal with international condemnation
andfinancial arm-twisting by donor countries. As a result, they have to
gothrough the motions of improving their position on women. On March
8,they held a celebration of International Womens Day in Kabul for
700 hand-picked women, formerly employed as medical workers. The 
have forbidden the celebration of Nawruz (the pre-Islamic Persian new
yearsday) as a bidah (innovation), but apparently International Womens
Day,which commemorates a strike by American female garment workers, is
acceptable. This is an indication of their helplessness in the face
ofwestern condemnation because the womens problem wont go away by 
aveil over it, western solutions are being used as window-dressing.
ThoseAfghans who might have proposed constructive and creative
Islamicsolutions have been killed or driven into exile.

The situation in Afghanistan cannot continue as it is, and when 
apart one wonders who will be there to pick up the pieces. Christian 
secular aid organisations are eager to build on the disillusionment of
Afghans with Islam, and missionaries are actively converting
Afghanrefugees to Christianity. Twenty years from now, what will be the
resultof the Taliban experiment? A generation of embittered,
violentlyanti-Islamic intellectuals, authors and artists? Will anyone 
to walkin the streets of Kabul wearing a beard or a burqa?

The Islamic movement needs to look honestly at the situation in
Afghanistan (and places such as northern Iraq and Pakistan,
whereTaliban-style ideas have following), consider the origins
andconsequences of such groups, and develop responses which will solve
theproblems that they create within an Islamic framework. Averting our
facesfrom painful realities is an option we cannot afford, both because
itbetrays the suffering of many in Afghanistan men and womenand because
ofthe long-term consequences for the Ummah as a whole. 


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