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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 of 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 to beat womenin the street who show their faces or ankles. Most women are not allowedto work. They are forbidden to see male doctors, yet there are few 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 policiesand publicly support the Taliban. Others violently disagree, advocateshaving the beard in order to demonstrate their disagreement, and arewilling to appear on television along with secular human rights andfeminist groups in order to denounce these policies. But most Muslimsmaintain an embarrassed 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 know what is happening, much less deal with it.

To most Muslims, the Afghans are the heroic people who defeated the former Soviet Union despite overwhelming odds. The subsequent civil warin Afghanistan deeply disappointed most people and has led them to turntheir 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 and 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 groups 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 age 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 sort.

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 who 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 economic 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 people. 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 makes laws thecentre of attention while ethical conduct remains at best optional.

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), the 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 to 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, but 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 ummah 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 700hand-picked women, formerly employed as medical workers. The Taliban haveforbidden 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 casting 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 thingsfall apart one wonders who will be there to pick up the pieces. Christian and secular aid organisations are eager to build on the disillusionmentof 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 dare 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.