Virtue, as the Taliban see it

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 24, 2021

A morning in Kabul in Sept 2020, nearly a year before its reconquest by the Taliban. Photo by Mohammad Rahmani on Unsplash

The Taliban, by some accounts, are not a particularly virtuous sort. They’ve allegedly been forcing thousands of people from their homes and land in the north and south of Afghanistan. So says Human Rights Watch.

And yet the Taliban piously bang the drum for virtue, as they see it. The “as they see it” part is key.

After the August 15 fall of Kabul to the Taliban, I wrote a piece for ‘The New European’ on whether Afghanistan’s new rulers would dare insist on a sharia that almost no country now follows. Even Saudi Arabia, I argued, no longer observes a form of sharia that prevents women from working and participating in society. It seemed hard to imagine that the Taliban would return their country to the sharia state they deemed virtuous in the 1990s. Girls were kept out of school; women were barred from working outside their homes; music and television was banned and brutal forms of public punishment were used to keep the people in check.

But, here they are, back again, promoting much the same formula for Afghanistan. Women are wondering when, or even if, they will be able to study and work and go about their business in the wider world. The Taliban’s ‘commander of the faithful’, Haibatullah Akhundzada, is unapologetic about the government working “hard to uphold Islamic rules and sharia law”. But the rules are contested.

Sadakat Kadri, an English barrister who wrote a fascinating study on sharia in disparate parts of the world, recently noted that Mr Akhundzada once wrote “a legal justification for suicide bombings”. This sort of “fierce” spiritual guidance could bode ill for Afghanistan, he said. “Isolated verses of the Quran can easily be cited to justify the disadvantaging of women and minorities. Ninth-century texts condemning pursuits that distract from God are reason enough to outlaw frivolities from soap operas to Snapchat. And brutal punishments can always be labelled divine: symbolic floggings, amputations and executions excite the Taliban’s supporters as much as they appal its critics.”

Mr Kadri’s piece, which appeared in the London Review of Books, pointed out that an Islamic scholar popular in Taliban circles is Ibn Abiʼl-Dunya. He  tutored “several princes in late ninth-century Baghdad, wrote seven tracts on prohibition alone. Among the frivolities he thought hateful to God were stringed instruments, chess, pigeon-fancying and sitting on seesaws”.

That’s an eccentric list. And it’s possible to see why and how the Taliban might persuade itself of the virtuousness of its whimsies.