Islamist ideology has softened a bit in Afghanistan

After two decades of war in Afghanistan, it is time to reassess the Taliban ideology. The big question is: will they contribute to a peaceful order? Thomas Ruttig, a German scholar who has been observing the country for decades, recently shared insights in an essay he wrote for a publication of West Point, the US military academy.
Participants in an event to celebrate International Women’s Day in Kabul in 2018. Rahmat Gul/picture-alliance/AP Photo Participants in an event to celebrate International Women’s Day in Kabul in 2018.

As the USA and NATO prepare to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, it is clear that the influence of the militant Islamist Taliban, who never accepted the occupa­tion, will play a stronger role. Current Taliban rhetoric sheds light on several issues, including:

  • the media,
  • schools,
  • women rights and
  • the role of Islam in politics.

As Berlin-based Ruttig writes in West Point’s CTC Sentinel the Taliban are sticking to their principle religious motivation, so power-sharing with others should prove difficult. Before 2001, they imposed their dictatorial rule on the country, but their regime was toppled by the US-led invasion after the Islamist attack on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. The big worry now is that they will try to rise to totalitarian power once again and may even succeed to do so.

According to The New York Times, US President Joe Biden’s administration has launched a diplomatic effort with a roadmap for a future Afghan government with Taliban participation. It foresees a revised constitution, terms for a permanent cease­­- fire and eventually national elections. The road map insists on fundamental rights for all citizens, including women and minorities. Part of the plan is an independent judiciary which, however, would be supported by a high council for Islamic jurisprudence.

Ruttig, who speaks two Afghan languages and has lived in the country for more than a decade, reminds readers of the Taliban’s history of authoritarian rule. They first grew strong in the 1990s as their militias became a force in Afghanistan’s long civil war. After rising to power, they kept perpe­trating brutal violence and executed many opponents. They did not respect women’s rights, restricted girls’ school attendance and did not allow freedom of speech. They outlawed music for purposes other than religious worship.

On the other hand, Ruttig points out that the Taliban regained strength after the US invasion because many people were angry with the corrupt government and the violence perpetrated by occupying troops. The Taliban became so strong that US President Barack Obama deployed additional troops to step up the fight against them from 2009 on. His successor Donald Trump, however, declared he wanted to end this “endless war” and decided to withdraw US troops. In April, President Biden confirmed that choice.

According to Ruttig, who worked for UN missions in Kabul in the years 2000 to 2003, the Taliban’s main appeal to many Afghans and people in neighbouring countries is that they have consistently opposed foreign forces – first the Soviet troops, and later NATO. According to Ruttig, they have understood that their regime in the 1990s hurt the economy and isolated the country. The co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network argues that now, by contrast, they appreciate that peace and prosperity depend on cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbours.

At the same time, Ruttig states that they still want to establish a political order based on Islamic law and accuse the current government of being non-Islamic. Their ideology has been softening to some extent, but remains rigid nonetheless. The most notable change is the attitude towards the media. In their early days, the Taliban banned watching TV, monopolised the use of phones and basically relied on print media and radio to spread their views. Today, they use all kinds of technology, including social media and multilingual websites.

Ruttig also assesses the Taliban’s current approach to education. In their view, schools are an entry point for western values. When they were in power, they opposed co-education in schools and insisted on boys and girls being taught separately – and only by teachers of their own gender. More­over, they did not want girls to continue school after puberty set in and, in some cases, limited the curriculum to Koran lessons. In recent years, however, their approach has become less restrictive, Ruttig reports. In August 2013, they proclaimed that children – not only boys – need both religious and modern education, with an emphasis on computer skills and foreign languages.

Headscarves will do

The Taliban approach to women’s rights has been shifting slowly too, the German expert writes. In US sponsored negotiations in Qatar, for example, they declared that the Islamic dress code did not require women to hide their faces with burqas, since headscarves were sufficient.

In the past, the Taliban were hostile to non-governmental organisations in principle, Ruttig adds, but to some extent they have become willing to cooperate with them as well as with government agencies.

To what extent the Taliban are prepared to become one political force among others in Afghanistan, remains unclear, according to Ruttig. He acknowledges that they have been engaging in negotiations. On the other hand, they have not spelled out how they envision Afghanistan’s political future beyond demanding an Islamic system and the withdrawal of all foreign troops. In their internal affairs, of course, the Taliban have not changed much, according to Ruttig. They remain a militant organisation with an authoritarian leadership which does not give scope to open debate and democratic deliberation among their fighters.

Ruttig, T., 2021: Have the Taliban changed? In: CTC Sentinel, March 2021.

Rishikesh Thapa is currently working as an intern for the editorial office of D+C/E+Z and studying international relations and cultural diplomacy at the Berlin campus of Furtwangen University (Hochschule Furtwangen).

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