The Taliban rout and the image of Islam

Boris Johnson infamously said on the 8th of July that there was, “no military path to victory for the Taliban … I don’t believe that the Taliban are guaranteed the kind of victory that we sometimes read about”. Equally egregiously, Joe Biden, earlier recounted, he didn’t think the Taliban would takeover, “…because you have the Afghan troops [who] have 300,000 well-equipped as well as good as any army in the world and Air Force, against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.” Surprise aside, what does the Taliban rout mean for the image of Islam and Muslims?

The reality on the ground was far more advanced than both Johnson and Biden were willing to believe, despite intelligence services on both sides of the pond predicting a collapse of the Afghan government. The question wasn’t “if” but “when.” And so, on 15th August the Taliban took over the Presidential Palace in Kabul, completing their rout of the Afghan government, declaring, “the war in Afghanistan was over.”

In the months and years leading up, it was clear that the Taliban weren’t gone and were seeking to re-exert themselves. There doesn’t seem to have been much meaningful negotiation between the Taliban and the now-deposed Afghan government. The rate of the takeover, almost unchallenged, with impunity over the last few weeks created a sense of inevitability, a juggernaut that couldn’t be stopped, and could only be resolved seemingly through capitulation of the Afghan government. Once the Afghan President fled Kabul, it merely confirmed the rout. It was a military coup, except it wasn’t the Afghan military doing the coup but a determined and autonomous group of trained fighters.

The 20-year cycle of history now raises questions all around. How will the Taliban govern – will they revert to a harsh violent regime which they’ve been known for or create a more inclusive government founded on a greater degree of tolerance of opposers and offence? What will this mean for Islamist extremism and radicalism more globally – will Afghanistan become a breeding ground for terrorism, or will the Taliban prevent this from happening? What about the continuity of freedoms that Afghans have gained over the last 20 years with access to education and employment for women? What will this mean for poverty alleviation, foreign direct investment, and the development of Afghanistan generally? What will this mean for Muslims around the world including British Muslims given that the Taliban will seek to legitimise their actions, “Talibanised Shari’ah”, and raison d’être all under the pretext of God’s law?

Of course, the true impact of Taliban rule will only become apparent as time goes on. In the meantime, we will only get a glimpse through the filtered, subjective imagery of videos and reporters, making a proper assessment of the fuller picture of the situation tough to gauge. No doubt, there will be all sorts of expectant cognitive biases kicking in as we internalise the drip-feed of news, opinions and analysis – good and bad – reaching different conclusions. The Taliban are resilient, diverse and as many reporters are increasingly finding out charismatic. That said…

The Taliban don’t have a civil service structure but would need to create one fast. Picking up Humvees, mortars and machine guns and so on clearly won’t be enough! Currently, it is formed on militarised command-and-control leadership with a decentralised, often unassured loosely organised bureaucracy. Nor is it homogenous in its enforcement of “Talibanised Shari’ah” across Afghanistan. We can expect to see, for example, differences in the treatment of people, opposers and aptitude for protecting human rights. But women now must be allowed to continue to play their part in society, not least because it is their basic human right, but also because filling the job vacancies that they would leave behind would not be possible.

Sentiments within China along the lines of “how Afghans are right to feel betrayed by the US,” will be a way for China to deepen friendly, cooperative relations with Afghanistan, and with it get into the global geopolitics of the area for its own strategic interests. The international community will reality check Biden’s efforts to reverse America back into internationalism following Trump’s “America first” approach. This was a decision accelerated by Biden. The US aim of destroying Al-Qaeda, terrorist networks and killing off Bin Laden were key objectives that had long been achieved in Afghanistan. But toppling the Taliban regime made it a moral obligation for the US and her allies to stick around long enough to help Afghanistan get back on its feet. Ten years on since the killing of Bin Laden was clearly not enough for nation-building. But Biden perhaps does have a point, “I can not and will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another country’s civil war.” It is Afghans who, ultimately, need to help themselves, and whether the Taliban should or shouldn’t be a part of that equation it is for Afghans to resolve for themselves.

Optically, gun-wielding men in beards wearing turbans and rugged clothing representing an imposition of Islamic values and law conjures the very worst possible imagery of Islam today. Not just non-Muslims, but most Muslims would be frightened by this imagery. For a small few, the coming back of the Taliban symbolises a supposedly end-state victory for the Afghan power of faith, defeating the so-called “infidel invaders” which started with the Soviet Union and claiming back from the US what was theirs. This sentiment will once again rouse romantic ideals of a global caliphate and fire up “I told you so” anti-Western sentiments. It’s not a good sign that organisations representing Muslims, scholars and institutions who normally have something to say on matters, political or otherwise, both here in the UK and abroad, have yet to at least urge the Taliban to maintain human rights and protect women’s freedom. Though in the British Muslim context, I do think we have better resilience to extremism compared to the 1990s when there was open support for the Taliban, and we had hate preachers about. The situation now is of course vastly changed. But we must remain alert to the possibility of anti-Westernism falsely in the name of God. The history here means there is a sensitivity that Muslim leaders and scholars ought to be tuned into.

The Shari’ah cannot be left to be bastardised by the Taliban and face no rebuttal of their way. Those of us who wish to see God’s revelation benefit society cannot remain quiet. Yes, the legitimacy of the Afghan government was highly questionable, and its bureaucracy too weak to stand on its own feet, which, as Ibn Khaldun’s assabiyyah rule would’ve predicted, its fall was inevitable, deserving perhaps. But at the same time, God’s law is not a call to de-civilising, or arms, or ousting peaceful governments just because you disagree or dislike those in power. And whether the Taleban know it or not, “Talibanised Shari’ah” will reflect on the image of Islam globally, making it trickier to advocate Islam as a universalist message that upholds life, liberty, wealth, and human reasoning etc. For British Muslims, convincing others that cosmopolitan conservativism is a far cry from the intolerance, denial of rights and aggression of the Taliban will be more challenging. If the Iranian autocracy, which was founded on a similar basis to the Taliban, is anything to go by, we can expect the image of Islam to suffer.

We can also expect to see a growing Afghan diaspora both in the UK and elsewhere. The brain drain from Afghanistan and the hard-working, entrepreneurial spirit of Afghanis could be a benefit to the UK. That also means we need to ensure the Afghans that come to the UK are welcomed and integrated into communities properly. We must be prepared to receive many more than the 20,000 the UK Government has arbitrarily plucked out of the air. After all, for the UK, the Afghanistan project has clearly been an abject failure of purpose and of the NATO alliance, and it certainly has all the hallmarks of Vietnam for the US. There will be many lessons to learn. But those lessons will not be a consolation to the hopes and ambitions of many Afghans. Nor will it be for the thousands of people who are currently scrambling to leave Afghanistan. We pray for peace and good times for the people of Afghanistan.

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