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How close is the

Taliban to God?


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The Taliban's war

on women


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Are the gates of hell opening

in Afghanistan?

Updated November 8, 2021


"The next six months are going to be catastrophic. It is going to be hell on Earth. Ninety-five percent of the people don't have enough food, and now we're looking at 23 million people marching towards starvation." 


With these apocalyptic words, the Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme, David Beasley, has returned to Afghanistan - to warn a distracted global public, and their leaders, that an enormous tragedy is about to occur.


He told the BBC: "It is as bad as you possibly can imagine. In fact, we're now looking at the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth."

In his report that contained this interview, the veteran BBC World Affairs editor, John Simpson, broke into tears as he described meeting one young girl and her family, all of them on the point of starvation.


David Beasley added: "To the world leaders, to the billionaires: imagine that this was your little girl or your little boy, or your grandchild about to starve to death. You would do everything you possibly could, and when there's $400 trillion worth of wealth on the earth today, shame on us."   

Since the chaotic withdrawal of American and allied forces less than three months ago, many development and welfare organisations have left Afghanistan, and most financial aid has been cut off by governments unwilling to cooperate with a Taliban regime.  The effect of this withdrawal of personnel, equipment and funds is that the people of Afghanistan have been abandoned to an appalling fate.


The Taliban are murderous, callous and quite possibly collectively deranged. They are unquestionably incapable of running a country, least of all one at the gates of hell. Many of the previous Afghanistan leaders they chased away were egregiously corrupt, and will not be missed. Afghanistan has been at war for decades - from some perspectives, for centuries. But let us not ignore the fact that President Trump and his lackies orchestrated the causes of this tragic sequence of recent events. And then President Biden, almost casually, ensured that the Trump disaster would explode with the fullest possible force.


How shameful is that?  And will the United States at least begin to recognise its responsibilities? GD

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The end of an

American dream

- John Gray


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Lebanon plunges deeper into



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 A state of   confusion -

sacred and  secular 


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'A countdown to catastrophe'

in a starving Afghanistan

With a deeply depressing inevitability, the UN World Food Programme has declared an unfolding disaster in Afghanistan. According to the programme's executive director David Beasley:

 “Afghanistan is now among the world’s worst humanitarian crises – if not the worst – and food security has all but collapsed. This winter, millions of Afghans will be forced to choose between migration and starvation. We are on a countdown to catastrophe”. To people enduring the bitter winters of central Asia, migration and starvation can prove to be the same thing.


The food programme's declaration of an urgent emergency is supported by aid organisations that are struggling to function, in a country terrorised by authoritarian disorder. What the Afghans need, of course, is an efficient and effective government, which it has not had for generations. The casual abandonment of the Afghan people, by a distracted American President, has made things incomparably worse. Up to 25m Afghans are now facing direct threat of starvation - in tandem with the collapse of many institutions, businesses and rules of law.

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The WFP and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recently warned that, without immediate life-saving treatment, one million children risked dying from severe acute malnutrition. The BBC has broadcast first-hand accounts of a hospital in the southern city of Kandahar (a Taliban stronghold) which has beds multiply filled with malnourished babies. 


The WFP's David Beasley said: “Hunger is rising and children are dying. We can’t feed people on promises. Funding commitments must turn into hard cash, and the international community must come together to address this crisis, which is fast spinning out of control.” 

Now urban residents are suffering from food insecurity at similar rates to rural communities.Rampant unemployment and a liquidity crisis are putting all major urban centres in danger of slipping into an extreme level of food insecurity. This includes formerly middle class populations. In rural areas, the severe impact of a second drought in four years continues to affect the livelihoods of 7.3 million people who rely on agriculture and livestock to survive. 

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Building bridges: a village elder and his daughter at a jirga assembly with the US military on canal construction, Afghanistan, 2010. Photo by Larry Towell / Magnum Photos

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Afghanistan shows the

American dream

of remaking

the world is over


If the US occupation of Afghanistan was a failed exercise in nation-building, its withdrawal

could mark a long overdue shift to

foreign policy realism.


 John Gray

The abrupt disappearance of a familiar world leaves a sense of unreality in those who witness it. When an unhinged rabble stormed the Capitol building in Washington, DC in January, it was hard to believe the scenes broadcast across the world were happening. A similar sense of disbelief is produced by images of American and allied forces struggling to extract their citizens and partners from the grip of a triumphant Taliban in Afghanistan. The two events are part of the same process of disintegration. The disorder that has been loosed on the world reflects the disorder that reigns in the United States itself.


There are many who think Joe Biden’s decision to accept the Afghanistan withdrawal plan negotiated by Donald Trump in Doha in February 2020 was simply a default in leadership. Biden should have disowned Trump’s deal, or delayed its implementation until conditions looked more propitious. The US’s retreat was needless, and the decline of American power can be reversed by an act of will. It is not only a shrunken army of neoconservatives, seething in their Washington bunkers, who think this way. So does Tony Blair when he fulminates against Biden’s “imbecilic” decision.


It is true that the Biden administration’s handling of America’s withdrawal has been deplorable. Leaving Bagram airbase in the dead of night on 1 July, without informing the local Afghan commander and programming electricity and water supplies to be shut off after the last plane had departed, prefigured the chaos that followed. The base housed a prison – widely feared and hated by Afghans as a centre where large-scale torture was practised – which contained thousands of inmates. Many of them fighters from the Taliban and Islamic State, they soon escaped or were released.


Arrant incompetence characterised the American exit from the start. But attributing the Afghan tragedy to Joe Biden’s poor judgement and allegedly waning mental powers is a cop-out. Instead, the retreat is the outcome of

20 years and more of liberal overreach in the US and its allies. If anyone is senile, it is the political class that mired the West in this conflict. Biden’s decision may yet be remembered as a long overdue shift to realism in American foreign policy.


It is worth asking what the US and Nato believed they were doing in Afghanistan. The official narrative propagated by the governments involved in the Afghan mission is that the original plan was to prevent the country from being used as a safe haven for terrorists, and that this was achieved. Exiting in present circumstances has left the West more vulnerable, they argue, and at the same time signals to its allies that they cannot count on its protection.

There is some truth in this story. It is not only Ukraine and Taiwan that suspect they too could be abandoned by the US. Japan, Israel, the Gulf states, the Baltic states and Georgia will be wondering how much American guarantees of their security are worth. Jihadism has been re-energised, a trend already manifesting itself in countries such as Somalia and Mali. A horrendous refugee crisis is brewing. Desperate Afghans fleeing terror and famine, who only weeks ago were being assured that human rights are universal, will face sealed borders across Europe. Within Afghanistan, the US pull-out has handed the initiative to terrorist forces even more extreme than the Taliban, such as Isis and various jihadist splinter groups.


The dangers are all too clear. Yet installing an army of occupation was never a sustainable strategy. More than the US switching its attention to another misbegotten war in Iraq, it was this fateful decision that made disaster unavoidable. Occupying Afghanistan meant waging a counter-insurgency campaign, which in turn meant a failed exercise in nation-building. An ignominious exit was preordained.


There were better ways of defending the West. The campaign of disabling terrorist sites by bombing, which drove Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from the country, could have been turned into a permanent threat backed by that of concentrated ground operations. Pressure could have been exerted on Pakistan, whose military Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) nurtured and sheltered the Taliban throughout its history.


Launching a counter-insurgency campaign defied the lessons of history. The last major victory in a war of this kind was in the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s, where the British were able to deploy an existing state infrastructure against communist rebels. In Afghanistan a modern state had to be constructed from scratch – an impossible task, as Afghan history has repeatedly demonstrated. If a small Western garrison had been kept in place, as some have proposed, it would have only delayed the final reckoning. All the Taliban had to do was wait.

When a modern state has existed in Afghanistan it has been superimposed on a country of tribes and clans, and this is the case today. Around three-quarters of the population live in villages, where identities and loyalties are local and tribal. For these rural communities, which suffered the worst carnage of the war, the Afghan nation is a fiction.

This may explain the uncanny ease with which Kabul fell, which seemed to surprise even the Taliban. Knowing the weakness of the state, the real holders of power – local and regional governors, police chiefs and clan leaders – surrendered without hesitation. The Kabul government functioned principally as an instrument of kleptocratic elites. Aid funds were siphoned off on a stupendous scale. Ghost soldiers were invented and their salaries stolen while actual soldiers went unpaid. The legal system installed by the allies was slow and corrupt, forcing many Afghans to turn to Taliban justice instead.








The government did secure improvements in society, particularly for urban women. But these gains were dependent on keeping the Taliban at bay, which demanded a permanent, colonial-style military presence in the country. It was never a viable option. No democracy can sustain an indefinite loss of life for such an endlessly receding goal. The women and girls who are being denied a proper education and dragged off to sexual slavery are casualties of promises that could not be kept.


Some suggest Afghanistan’s new rulers are savvier now than when they were in power between 1996 and 2001. They may be, but that does not make them any less malevolent. The liberal West understands fanaticism as the result of ignorance and error; as human beings grow smarter, they will be less cruel and repressive. It is a dangerous delusion. Taliban forces are making house-to-house searches using handheld digital surveillance devices left behind in the allied retreat. Wherever they can, they deploy new technologies to enforce a virulent fundamentalist ideology. Nothing is more prototypically modern than fundamentalism – the attempt to recreate a crudely simplified version of an irretrievable past. Describing the Taliban as taking the country back to the Middle Ages does an injustice to the subtler cultures of medieval times.


The new self-declared Emirate threatens the West, its friends and its enemies alike. While delighting in America’s humiliation, China and Russia have jihadist threats of their own to contend with. India fears Afghanistan will become a base for terror groups like the one that carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Iran and Pakistan welcome American defeat, but worry about a further influx of refugees on top of the millions they already host. Unlike Vietnam, where American withdrawal failed to cause a domino effect for communism in south-east Asia, Afghanistan’s future is a crucial factor in regional and global power struggles.

Nation-building in Afghanistan demonstrated the limitations of a model of development that has mesmerised thinkers and governments from all parts of the political spectrum for generations. Modernisation means catching up with the West and adopting its institutions and values. Temporary deviations are permissible, given the imperfections of local cultures, but all societies are moving towards a single destination – an idealised replica of the kind of state and society that used  to exist in some Western countries.

This view of modernisation was promoted by Ashraf Ghani, Afghan president between September 2014 and August 2021, in the book Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World, co-authored with the British human rights lawyer Clare Lockhart (2008). The two founded a Washington-based consultancy, the Institute of State Effectiveness, in 2005. By the time of the American withdrawal, Ghani was a world-renowned expert on development. When the Taliban reached the outskirts of Kabul he fled the country, and now lives abroad.

Ghani’s model originates in 18th-century Europe, when economists such as Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-81) and Adam Smith (1723-90) presented human development as unfolding in a series of distinct phases terminating in commercial societies of the kind in which they lived. Progress consisted of transforming or eliminating any remnants of earlier and supposedly more primitive forms of life in their own societies, such as village communities, while others followed in the wake of this ongoing advance.


Later thinkers accepted the idea of all of humankind moving through the same phases of development, even if they changed the ultimate destination. Karl Marx, writing in the New York Herald Tribune in 1853, praised British imperialism for disrupting the “undignified, stagnant and vegetative life” of Indian villages. Though modified by Lenin, Marx’s view of pre-industrial life framed the Soviet effort to “catch up with and overtake” the capitalist West through forced-march industrialisation, which led to millions dying in the collectivisation of agriculture in the early 1930s. A generation later, a parallel concept known as “forced-draft urbanisation”, developed by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington, was applied as a strategy in the Vietnam War, resulting in the mass displacement of Vietnamese villagers.


The belief that modernising meant copying the West resurfaced during the short-lived Gorbachev era between 1985 and 1991, when jubilant liberals imagined post-communist Russia becoming a democracy like Canada or Sweden. This fantasy had an academic pedigree in the work of the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell (1919-2011) who, in The End of Ideology(1960), envisioned Soviet communism and liberal capitalism converging in some variant of social democracy. Bell’s analysis was revisited by Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order (2011), where the world’s central political problem was defined as “getting to Denmark”.


There are radical defects in this neo-colonial vision, which many in the ruling elites of developing countries, for all their anti-Western stances, have embraced. Liberal democracy developed over centuries in conflicts that included revolutions, civil wars, dictatorships and two world wars. The idea that this fraught history could be compressed into a couple of decades was delusional. Conceivably, a modern state could have been fashioned in Afghanistan by building on traditional structures of authority in villages and tribes. But that would have meant admitting that there could be more than one path of political development for the country, a possibility that seems never to have been seriously considered.


Today, the liberal mode of government is decaying in the countries where it originated. The US in particular shows many of the signs of a state in disrepair. An American cultural revolution has transformed the country out of recognition. Police forces are being defunded, and some cities, such as Portland, are not far from becoming ungoverned spaces. A combination of ultra-progressive social policies and neoliberal capitalism is turning others, such as San Francisco, into drug-sodden shanty towns, but without the informal communities that preserve some semblance of order in developing countries. Superficially at odds, neoliberalism and the prevailing progressivism have a common root in the privileging of individual choice over other human values. Together, they erode the social bonds that individuals need in  order to make meaningful decisions. The result is an acute form of anomie.


The esoteric liberalism of language-purification and thought-cleansing that has seized control of many American universities and institutions can be understood as an attempt to impose a kind of solidarity on the resulting chaos. Universities in particular are theatres for Maoist-style struggle sessions, while much of the media is engaged in agitprop. Practically all of America’s institutions are sites of political warfare. In these conditions, any attempt to export American ideas of government will be seen as the globalisation of America’s disorders.

But there is little likelihood of any future project of that kind. A country that has dissolved into warring ideological tribes lacks the taste for foreign adventures. Many expect these divisions will pass, and someday they will. But the world will not wait on America to resolve its internecine warfare, and in the meantime US foreign policies will need to be less erratic if the country’s international standing is to be salvaged.


Perhaps Biden has begun this renewal. On 1 September he announced: “The decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”


This “Biden doctrine” has been denounced as a stratagem aimed at the midterm elections in November 2022. But Biden has voiced doubts about the Afghan mission for at least a decade, and it could be that his new doctrine marks a turn to a more restrained and realistic American foreign policy.

To claim that US withdrawal could have been averted is to fail to grasp the necessity of what is now unfolding. It may be true that Afghanistan’s fate was sealed with Trump’s exit plan, which told the Taliban the war was over. But Trump proposed the plan because he knew promising to end foreign wars was a key lever in coming to power, while Biden knew that if he declined to implement the plan he would boost Trump’s chances of re-election.

A tragedy that can be avoided by willpower is not a tragedy. A crumbling Pax Americana is the logic of events, and it is not a process America can unilaterally reverse. An argument can be made that the end of the Afghan War enables the US to focus on China, and renew its military pre-eminence through the use of ultra-advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics. However, the next phase in world order will be shaped not by what the US plans to do but more by what other states are already doing.

Nations throughout the world that have relied on American power for their security will hedge their bets. In late August this year Saudi Arabia, a long-standing strategic ally of the US, signed a “military cooperation agreement” with Russia. Poland, disappointed and anxious since the US tacitly endorsed Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany earlier this year, has been forging closer links with China – a trend evident in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary for years. European leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen have talked of the need to develop European “strategic autonomy”. Yet after decades of declarations of intent, a European army remains a phantom. A creaking structure composed of 27 states cannot support a credible defence union. In practice, the pursuit of a chimerical independent defence capability will only strengthen Europe’s urge to seek an accommodation with Russia and China.


This strategic vacuum in Europe may be part of the rationale for the historic Aukus pact between the US, UK and Australia to build a new fleet of nuclear-propelled submarines and collaborate in the Indo-Pacific region. If China’s expansion must be contained, only the US can do it. But it should be clear that the upshot cannot be a renewal of American hegemony. The rise of China is part of an unalterable shift from Western dominance. We will continue to inhabit a world more like that before 1914, in which a number of great  powers compete with one another for status and resources.


There are many reasons for the Afghan debacle besides the fatal decision to install an army of occupation. Rigid Western military bureaucracies, profiteering Washington contractors, corrupt Afghan elites and the exigencies of American politics have all played a part. But the ultimate causes lie in the mindset which believes that humankind advances by becoming more like the West.




There is no universal human agent advancing through history. Human beings have common needs, but they also want different futures. Do Afghan villagers truly yearn for the personal autonomy pursued by a Westernised middle class in Afghan cities? Could it not be that much of the Afghan population remains attached to the tribal identities that have thwarted attempts to remake the country in the past? When the West looks at Afghanistan, might it be seeing a blurred image of itself rather than the complex and discordant truth?


For liberals these questions are akin to blasphemy. The “rules-based liberal order” was always in part an illusion. Power was more important than rules, but the illusion maintained a kind of stability until power moved elsewhere with the rise of China, Russia’s  re-emergence as a major player and India’s increasing role as a counter-weight to China. Any reference to the international community today demands a suspension of disbelief. The West has ceased to be the deciding force in world events without noticing the fact.

This blindness is not surprising. For figures such as Tony Blair who imagined a new humanity was emerging, globalised and progressive, understanding the present would destroy their self-image. Dreading this trauma, they remain transfixed by the alternate reality they have constructed in their minds. As a consequence, the West suffers from a chronic cognitive disorder, which prevents it from framing workable strategies for its own survival.


For all its crusades and self-destructive impulses, what remains of a Western way of life is worth preserving. But defending it effectively means renouncing the attempt to project our values into societies we do not understand. There are many ways of being modern. Some of them, like the Taliban’s attempt to impose a fundamentalist ideology on Afghanistan and the ensuing resurgence of worldwide jihadism, are a threat to the West. In a different and more profound manner, so is the high-tech totalitarian experiment under way in China. Balancing these and other threats such as climate change and the risk of future pandemics will be extremely challenging. What is needed, above all, is a sense of reality.


But unless the West can shed the delusion that the rest of humankind is a backward version of itself, tragedies like that enacted in Afghanistan will be repeated, in new and possibly more grandiose forms. 

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John Gray is a political philosopher, steeped in the history of ideas. He is lucid and erudite, and happy to provoke. I read his invariably fluent and well-expressed essays in search of illumination but also, as often as not, to disagree with him. In that struggle with a mind more muscular (and better informed or, at least, better read) than mine, I can better discover what I actually think myself. Sometimes, of course, Gray gets me to change my mind. But not on this occasion.


Throughout this essay, he condemns the American habit of attempting to remodel the world on its own limited terms. I certainly agree with Gray on this. What he refers to as liberal (surely neoliberal?) George W Bush's invasion of Afghanistan after 911, was the first step into a minefield that led inexorably to the madness of the invasion of Iraq. Yet, almost  inadvertently, the impact on Afghanistan of this invasion was not entirely negative. It rid the country of a brutal and incompetent regime of arms, the Taliban.  In the subsequent years, no American soldier forced Afghans to educate their daughters again, or to sing songs or fly kites or write poems or publish books fact to start to rebuild elements of a fragile but pre-existing modern civil society, in the space made available by an initially large yet soon to be shrinking international force.


Gray scatters the word "liberal" around his essay like confetti, with a whole range of different -- sometimes conflicting - meanings implied. Often, in Gray's hands, it appears to be an insult. He uses the word "Western" as if it were a philosophical term rather than a geographical one. And he uses "modern" as a word that Afghans, with their powerful tribes and their many villages, must forfeit as being irrelevant to their condition. They are not, it seems, ready for such concepts. In my extensive travels I have visited many thousands of villages across the world (I even live in one) and I have encountered many societies that might be called tribal, although it is rather to loose a term to define very much. In none of those places were villages and tribes a significant limiting factor on the level there of political or economic development. They were simply contextual elements.


I had only a short couple of weeks in Afghanistan, during the period of American and allied "occupation".  I was there to film material related to the education of children and young adults under the conditions of war, including the conditions that prevailed when the Russian and the Taliban forces were in control. Unfortunately, I was restricted mostly to Kabul and communities close by. An Afghan colleague tested the ground for me and declared that he would not allow me to risk visiting Taliban-held territory. It was far too dangerous, even for him.  But my time in Kabul gave me evidence enough that there was no single Afghan reality to experience, and certainly no sense that the people I met in the schools and universities I visited were incapable of understanding or living out the implications of democracy - liberal, modern or otherwise. In fact I saw much inspiring evidence of what people can achieve when they are given a break, even a short break, and are entrusted with a certain degree of agency.

Gray declares that Afghans are not yet fit for either democracy or modernity, although he suggests that extended feudalism might just work for a few generations more. But, surely, modernity is not a privilege you have to earn when you are ready, it comes crashing in on you whoever and wherever you are. Modernity is not an option it is an irresistible force. The American's supercharged update of modernity crashed into Afghanistan with maximum impact. Are then, when they scuttled out with shame, under a cloak of darkness, in the hope that the world would not witness their humiliation, they did not take modernity back with them. They simply left a vacuum. A vacuum that will soon be filled with the effects of starvation and anarchy - forces oblivious to cultural  traditions, levels of development or political sophistication. GD



































































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Taliban portrait, Kandahar, Afghanistan /

How close are the

Taliban to God?


What is happening in Afghanistan is so much more than a change of regime. It is the creation of a different order of state, an Islamic Emirate founded on Sharia law. The new Emirate of Afghanistan is not unprecedented. There were Emirates in the country through the nineteenth century into the early twentieth - when Afghanistan was the playground of cynical and callous empires.


The Taliban insurgency from1996 to 2001 called itself an Emirate. There are Emirates in the small states of the Arabian Gulf, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an Emirate in all but name. Its legal system is based on Sharia. The Mutaween, or the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (informally called the religious police) prevent the worship of any religion apart from Islam - despite the fact that up to two million Christians live in Saudi Arabia. 


The Gulf states, of course, are top-down enterprises, almost family businesses. They are founded, and sustained, as much on the oil and gas that has made them so wealthy, and self-indulgent, as they are on Islam. The new Taliban state comes from below, in a poor and harsh country. It has revolutionary tendencies and revolutionary aspirations. Now -with thanks to catastrophic decisions in Washington, the Taliban have an opportunity to create dramatic and long term change. The regime of 1996 to 2001 looks now to have been a trial run. But the question of governmental competence must remain open - not to say cruelty and mania that, thus far, have been characteristic of Taliban rule


The new Taliban state has already attracted immensely powerful friends, in China and Russia. And Afghanistan's neighbours, in Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, might think it better to have a stable and pliable neighbour rather than the fissiparous failed state that could emerge.

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Guardians of God

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Mona Kanwal Sheikh

OUP India

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It might seem paradoxical to start a sequence on the Taliban in Afghanistan with extracts from a book about the Taliban in Pakistan. In fact, it is not so strange. Although the political context is quite different, the Taliban members on both sides of the border are Pashtuns in language, culture and faith. Mona Kanwal Sheikh's book is rare and highly valued because it contains close-focus interviews with Taliban activists, both men and women. The author was born in Denmark, of Pakistani origin. She is also a practising Muslim. This has given her the unusual opportunity to gain the confidence of her interviewees:

"My impression was that the Taliban adherents wanted to talk to me because they expected a sympathetic portrayal. Although they seemed eager to get their viewpoint across, many of them refused to speak to Western journalists or researchers, either on principle or as a result of bad experiences... 


"The people I spoke with were often bitter, not only about trivializations and humiliations of this kind but also about Western ignorance of Islam... From my own upbringing in the West and my encounter with public stereotypes of Muslims, I recognize the frustration of being portrayed in a certain light. I, therefore, hope that I can fulfil my ambition [of] providing a nuanced portrayal of who the Pakistani Taliban are and how they justify their embrace of violence."

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Taliban Religious Ideology

and Discourse

Unlike other Islamist movements that appeared in the twentieth century, the Taliban has never had strong ideological or intellectual roots. While Islamic revivalism in Muslim countries has often been based on a tradition of scholarly debate and writing, the Taliban leaders and followers often were, and are, poorly educated in the corpus of Islamic studies. Indeed, although it employs an active religious vocabulary, the movement is often linked to outright criminal networks, smugglers, and gangs. Thus, ideologically and in practice, the Taliban remains a unique movement with no real precedent in Islamist ideas and movements. Nevertheless, some core aspects of the Taliban creed and ideology can be identified with and categorized among well-known positions within Islamic or Islamist thought. Most of the Taliban movements identify with the Sunni branch of Islam, which is the most common in both Pakistan and Afghanistan (accounting for approximately 75 per cent of the Pakistani population). Many of the groups that have joined the ‘caravan of the Taliban’ also have strong anti-Shiite sentiments. Thus these movements have a narrow definition of what it means to be a true Muslim...


Lacking a coherent ideological manifesto or intellectual foundation, the ideological inclinations of the Pakistani Taliban are best defined through their actions and communications.Since their inception in the 1990s, the ‘original’ Afghan Taliban have embraced a highly conservative interpretation of sharia propagating a view of true Muslim moral behaviour cleansed of what they regard as bad influences, especially from TV and music (which they see as corrupted by cultural influences from the West). Further, they have promoted a conservative view of the rights and conduct of women, enforcing the wearing of the burka in public and often (though not unanimously) opposing women’s education and their participation in public and political life. And finally, they have defended or actively created parallel justice systems to enforce the Taliban interpretation of sharia, with harsh summary punishments meted out to offenders. The use of stoning, whipping, and amputation of body parts has been one of the main means of establishing a Taliban social order. Still, their understanding of Islamic thought is blurry and incoherent, and it is unclear how their vision of an ideal punishment system connects to doctrinal interpretations in other areas ... 


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An Afghan judge whips a woman in front of a crowd in Ghor province, as a joint punishment with

a man for committing adultery. REUTERS/Pajhwok News Agency

The Taliban started out in the 1990s as an idealist reform movement, intended to stop the ex-mujahedeen and warlords from fighting each other rather than cooperating to establish a stable Afghan society. They introduced the idea of divine law as the guarantor of peace and order and thus promoted a highly legalist and formalist concept of sharia, which they placed at the very heart of Islam. This ideology offered a simple and relatively successful means of uniting a country divided by affiliations to particular tribes, ethnic or linguistic groups, and clans. The concept of sharia, literally meaning ‘path’ or ‘way’, carries a wide range of connotations and has been implemented in widely different ways in different historical periods and geographical contexts.


It remains the basis of many battles over private religious practice and the role of religion in public life. One common interpretation of the concept is ‘divine law’, but another view represents it as an inflexible set of divine laws that can be directly implemented as ‘the law of the land’ (qanun). When the Taliban opted for a larger role for religion in Pakistan, they adopted this latter concept of sharia. In the Taliban interpretation, the sovereignty of sharia (as the law of the land) is equivalent to the sovereignty of God. So when the Taliban represent themselves as the guardians of sharia, they are simultaneously casting themselves as the guardians of God. 


In Pakistan, the Taliban allies itself with religious–political movements that criticizes the state for its failure to implement sharia, which they regard as a constitutional obligation of an Islamic state. As such, the Pakistani Taliban is part of a century-old battle about the role of religion in state and society,


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Besides sharia, another central concept of Taliban religious vocabulary is jihad. This has often been a catalyst for political change in Muslim societies, for example, during the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, and today in parts of Pakistan. Contrary to the common public perception in the West, where the term is often mistranslated and oversimplified as ‘holy war’, jihad is a complex concept that has had many different connotations throughout Islamic history.66 The word literally means ‘striving’, and such striving can take many forms. However, as David Cook observes, central to the concept is a struggle that has some sort of spiritual significance.


In some Muslim discourses, jihad refers mainly to an inner struggle against the lower soul, whereas other discourses use the term to refer to actual warfare, waged with a religious or spiritual purpose. While early Muslim legal scholarship, which is the source of formalistic interpretations of sharia, was concerned mostly with jihad as warfare, the mystical tradition embraced by the Sufis in the first half of the ninth century stressed a struggle against lust and worldly passion, which were seen as the main obstacles on the path towards God.


Following the tradition of the famous Muslim theologian and Sufi Al-Ghazali (d. 1111), this struggle against the lower self is widely known as the greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar), whereas the militant struggle is known as the lesser jihad (al-jihad al-asghar). The two main discourses on jihad are often presented as diametrically opposed: jihad is conceived of either as a militant struggle against human enemies or as a moral and spiritual struggle against the Devil and personal sins. In reality, the distinction is less clear-cut. Though many interpreters of the main Islamic legal sources (the Quran and Hadith literature) deal with jihad as a militant doctrine, the concept of jihad as warfare does not exclude the idea of a cosmic struggle against evil or the quest for self-purification.

















The jihad-as-warfare discourse often also draws on the self-purification discourse, and hence jihad is a multilayered concept with an attraction and effect that can be understood properly, only if these layers and their interplay are identified and disentangled. For instance, militant movements and ideologues often stress the redemptive aspect of jihad: a mujahid who has sinned throughout his life will be forgiven if he repents and joins warfare jihad. The Arab term ‘fidayee’, which has been adopted by the Taliban, draws more directly on the idea of self-sacrifice. The infinitive fida means ‘redemption’ and the noun ‘fidayeen’ is widely understood to mean those willing to sacrifice themselves for a religious cause. It thus carries an altruistic and spiritually noble connotation...

Among militant movements like the Taliban, being a mujahid carries considerable spiritual prestige, as expressed in martyrdom praise and miracle stories. Among some of the stories that flourished during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan were, for example, that the wounds of mujahedeen heal miraculously quickly, a martyr’s body has a sweet smell, light shines from martyrs’ graves, mujahedeen are assisted by divine or angelic intervention through dreams and prognostications, and so on.


In Islamic historical literature, Islam’s first conquests are also often described as miracles confirming the truth of the religion. Similar imagery is evident in Taliban narratives. The Taliban concept of jihad also incorporates an apocalyptic and messianic aspect. What triggers the necessity of jihad, apart from the imperative to spread the faith or to defend it from hostile attack, are signs of the last days, which may include moral decay, political injustice or instability, natural disasters, or the appearance of an Antichrist (in Muslim terminology, the Dajjal).


The apocalyptic basis of jihad raises the expectation of the appearance of the Messiah (imam Mahdi), who will lead the battles of the last days. In this view, jihad is also seen as a path to salvation, since the last days are expected to separate the righteous from the damned. The belief in an approaching apocalypse is especially germane to the Taliban view of jihad, since traditional literature on the apocalypse relates messianic expectations to the geographical area historically known as Khurasan, of which Afghanistan is a part.


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Muslim Khan: One of God’s



The valley of Swat in northwestern Pakistan became known to the world when the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen while riding in a school bus in 2012. Muslim Khan, who was known as the ‘Butcher of Swat’ at the height of his Tehrike Taliban Pakistan (TTP) career, was part of the TTP leadership and the spokesman of the TTP Swat faction before he was arrested in April 2009. I interviewed him on his satellite phone shortly before his arrest and during the period when the TTP had taken control of Swat.


My conversation with Khan demonstrates the centrality of the concept of defence in the Taliban discourse on jihad. When I introduced myself and my interest in his reasons for embracing violence, he claimed: ‘We have never attacked anyone unprovoked. They [the US] come and impose war on us.’


In their conversations with me, Muslim Khan and other militants frequently invoked the image of Islam being under systematic attack. When I asked Muslim Khan about how to stop the growing violence, he began by complaining that the Taliban view on this point would never be published, since the global media represents only the viewpoint of the US and European countries. He went on to stress that ‘the simple solution to this war is that the European countries and the US forces take their armies out of here and return to the regions of the North Atlantic Ocean. Then I will give the world a hundred per cent guarantee that all these mujahedeen will go to sleep in peace and live peacefully.’







Khan’s perception of the conflict established a clear link between the military presence of the US and NATO forces on the one hand and the jihad of the Taliban activists on the other. From his responses, I immediately sensed that the reason he had agreed to talk with me—a Muslim with Pakistani roots, born and raised in the West—was his frustration about being misrepresented in the Western media. To Khan and the other militants 

 I talked to, it was clearly very important to stress that their war was justified...

He was one of the fiercest critics of an anti-polio campaign organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2008. Khan publicly stated that anyone who became crippled or died of polio would become a martyr, honoured for refusing to take a vaccine containing forbidden materials (the vaccine, according to Khan, was derived from pig tissue). In the Pakistani media, he questioned the motives behind the vaccination campaign: ‘There are other diseases also—like hepatitis, typhoid, etc. Why is everyone concentrating on polio? See, this is an American conspiracy.’


His position was consistent with that of the TNSM leader Fazlullah (the leader of the TTP since 2013), who, in a radio sermon, deemed the immunization campaign a US conspiracy to make Pakistanis impotent and infertile.


The reason Khan originally joined the TNSM movement was, he explained, to implement sharia (nifaze sharia) in Pakistan. According to him, the purpose of the TTP and the TNSM was the same: ‘Our aim is to establish the law of God in this country. That was the reason why this country was established. The law the government has not implemented. We only want the system of Islam.’


‘Muslims cannot stay Muslims without an Islamic system,’ said Khan and argued that it is, therefore, a religious obligation (fard) for Muslims to establish a system like the one established by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Hence ‘those who engage in the struggle for an Islamic system’ are the only true Muslims according to his viewpoint.


Khan put this obligation on an equal footing with the five pillars of Islam: the declaration of faith (kalma/shahada), prayers (namaz), pilgrimage (hajj), the fast (roza), and giving alms (zakaat). Further, he was keen to convince me that:


"To believe in other systems or base any decisions on other systems amounts to idolatry (tagruth). This is why Allah is not accepting our [the Pakistani people’s] deeds. In my opinion, this is like living as animals, or as the foreigners live, like the Jews live or like the Christians live. We are Muslims, and we only have one system with us, which is Islam." 


Specifying what he meant by an Islamic system, he explained that ‘our parties want a system which is based on the heavenly revelations. That means the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet. Not just for our sake, but there are benefits in it for everyone. The decisions that are based on such [a] system are both taken faster and bring inexpensive justice.’
























Thus for him, an Islamic system entailed the enforcement of sharia as the basis on which disputes are resolved and criminals punished. The framing of sharia as a formalized justice and punishment system in turn is a very narrow interpretation of the concept and one of the main characteristics of the religious ideology of the Taliban. In public debates in the West, there is often an erroneous tendency to accept the Taliban’s (and other extremist groups’) very particular framings of religious concepts as representative of all believers. The interpretation of sharia is a vivid example. From the twelfth century onwards, sharia was conceived by the Sufis [participants a mystical branch of Islam]as a set of spiritual and ethical guidelines, in reaction to the legalist interpretation of the concept maintained by the more orthodox class of the religious elite (the ulama).


Although the Taliban’s legalist interpretation is in one sense quite orthodox, their heavy emphasis on sharia as a system of quick and efficient public justice is a reading coloured particularly by the situation in the tribal belt of Pakistan. According to Khan, the US attacked Afghanistan in response to the Taliban’s embrace of sharia. I noticed that he did not mention 9/11 at all. The US, he explained, was on an offensive and aggressive mission to ‘prevent every Islamic system from existing in the world’. For Khan, there was a fundamental doctrinal difference between Islam and other political systems. This difference was the real reason for the attacks by the enemies of Islam, whom he also described as the ‘crusaders’. Hence Khan, like the other militants I spoke to, was convinced that US military actions in Afghanistan were part of an expansionist religious crusade.

Becoming increasingly eager to convince me about the real nature of the conflict, Khan stated: ‘It is in reality a war between religions that Bush has started.’ Even though he believed that militant jihad need not be only defensive, he kept stressing that the jihad fought by the Taliban (and other mujahedeen groups) was indeed purely defensive: ‘History is witness that Muslims have always fought defensive wars.’ Still, he argued, somewhat paradoxically, that the ultimate object of jihad is to ‘bring about God’s

law on earth’.







During my conversation with Muslim Khan, I repeatedly found myself in a kind of verbal game in which I sought to turn him towards elaborating the ‘offensive’ dimension of his jihad, where the implementation of sharia was seen as mandatory for Muslims, while he tried to move the conversation towards the actions of the West and thus constitute his jihad as a defensive action. However, his specific interpretation of the duty of jihad remained conditioned by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Khan individualized the duty of jihad by making it incumbent on every Muslim. When there is no country in the world left with a real Islamic system, he argued, no proper authority exists to declare jihad, as originally prescribed in Islamic jurisprudential literature. Without such an authority, according to his logic, jihad can be undertaken only if it is defensive, and ‘in a defensive war every Muslim is obliged to participate, both men and women’.


During my conversation with Khan, he used the term ‘jihad bil qital’. The Arabic term ‘qital’ means ‘fighting’, and this usage implies a distinction from other types of jihad, for example, jihad bin nafs (the jihad of the soul) or jihad bil lisan (the jihad by word). However, he used the word ‘qital’ interchangeably with jihad, thus centring the jihad discourse on the militant struggle. By framing jihad as a response to an emergency and as an individual obligation, he distinguished the present struggle of the TTP from the quest to establish an Islamic system—though both, according to him, could in principle be part of jihad bil qital...


While he argued for offensive or system-transforming jihad as one meaning of the term, he also maintained that using force to create an Islamic system was allowed only at the instigation of a just imam. Khan’s position contained some inherent inconsistencies, because he wanted to stress that his jihad was defensive while holding on to the premise that with a just imam, offensive jihad was legitimate. It remained unclear whether he considered Mullah Omar to be a just imam.


Despite the fact that the TTP had had several violent clashes with the Pakistani authorities and security forces, Muslim Khan insisted that the main problem was foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thus he linked the objectives of defending territorial borders (and thereby ‘life and property’) and political autonomy with the Islamic system that, according to him, was the main target of the US–NATO invasion. He also argued that the former American president George W. Bush launched the war for ideological reasons, because otherwise it would not make sense that ‘the CIA-sponsored mujahedeen of yesterday suddenly are the terrorists of today’. He was referring to the Afghan militants who fought the Soviets with covert US support. From the Taliban’s perspective, Muslim Khan stressed, ‘[t]here is after all no difference. Back then we were chasing out foreign occupation forces, and today we are chasing out foreign

occupation forces.’







When we discussed the role of suicide tactics in jihad, he told me that he had ‘no doubt’ that they were legitimate means not only in a situation of desperation but also in other non-defensive situations, so long as they were accompanied by the right intention (niyat): ‘to fight along the path of God and pave the way for His system.’ Niyat is a very powerful concept in Islamic theological discourse. It is traditionally regarded as the main premise for validating an action as pious. In the Sahih al-Bukhari volumes, the Prophet Muhammad is quoted in the very first Hadith as saying that ‘actions are according to their intentions’...

Besides stressing the importance of a sincere niyat as the condition for lawful jihad, Muslim Khan further made a point of distinguishing between suicide, which he regarded as unlawful (haram) according to Islam, and self-sacrifice. Yet, although he argued that voluntary death was permissible in the fight against the enemies of Islam, he gave me no references to religious texts, maintaining only that the divine permission was ‘clear’ in the Quran and Hadith literature. He justified extraordinary measures such as suicide or self-sacrifice primarily by linking them to the importance of defending the Islamic system. The measures he was discussing (suicide, violence, and so on) were implicitly justified by the importance of the ideals he was defending (religion and the sovereignty of God). This means that Khan invoked both religious and security justifications (that Islam is under deadly attack) for such actions, invoking the latter when his theological arguments or references to religious texts were weak.









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Two men accused of theft are paraded by the Taliban through the streets of Kabul, with their faces blackened and nooses around their necks.

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The wreckage of a Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers' vehicle, which he used to ram a police truck. REUTERS

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The Taliban's war 

on women

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"Freedom!" Women demonstrate to demand their rights under the Taliban. Kabul, September, 2021  Wali Sabawoon) / AP

In the next weeks and months, the world, and terrified Afghans, will discover quite what the Taliban mean by freedom, participation and justice. One other thing that we await with suspended breath is the discovery of just how unified and coherent the Taliban are in their judgements of what is acceptable, what is permitted. Will things be different in the city when compared with the village, the valley when compared with the mountain, with the man holding a gun to your head when compared with policy statements statements from Kabul or Qatar.  

What we do have is access to evidence of life under the Taliban between 1996 and 2001. 


THE TALIBAN’S WAR ON WOMEN A Health and Human Rights Crisis in Afghanistan


This is a report by the Physicians for Human Rights, based in Boston and Washington DC. It was published in1998. The Forward of the study is an interesting counter-argument to the justifications of violence reported by Mona Kanwal Sheikh: 


For a Credible Islamic Affirmation of the Universality of Human Rights


As a Muslim man from Sudan, I vehemently condemn the gross and systematic persecution of women and other violations of international human rights law in Afghanistan, documented by Physicians for Human Rights in this report. I also affirm my unqualified endorsement of the essential premise of the vitally important work of this and other human organizations around the world: that international human rights standards are universally valid and applicable as the legal entitlement of every human being, without discrimination on such grounds as gender or religion.

However, what is happening in Afghanistan today clearly shows that it is not enough for Muslims like myself to simply associate ourselves with the principled and highly professional efforts of organizations like Physicians for Human Rights. In addition to being proactive in making our contributions to such efforts, Muslims everywhere must equally vehemently challenge and rebut any alleged Islamic justification for any violations of human rights and humanitarian law. Muslims and their governments must strongly condemn human rights violations wherever they occur and whoever commits them, and not only when speaking out is convenient or politically expedient. This is particularly important, in my view, when violations are committed in the name of some alleged Islamic agenda. Otherwise, how can Muslims legitimately protest against negative stereotypes of

Islam in the media as sanctioning terrorism, cruelty and inhumanity?


Debates about Islam and human rights continue in many Islamic societies around the world today, but that has nothing to do with what is happening in Afghanistan today. As even the most conservative or radical Muslims around the world know, most of the policies and practices of the Taliban government documented in this report have no Islamic justification whatsoever. Human rights organizations like Physicians for Human Rights are condemning these policies and practices from a human rights point of view. Unless Muslims do the same from an Islamic point of view as well, the Taliban will get away

with their false claim that these heinous crimes against humanity are dictated by

Islam as a religion.

Abdullahi A. An-Na’im, Ph.D.

Professor of Law, Emory University. Formerly of the University of Khartoum, Sudan

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The report is extensive and revealing, but I am going to concentrate on the

first-hand accounts of 40 women who were interviewed by one of the medical team conducting the survey. Twenty of the women were interviewed in Kabul, twenty in Pakistan, where they had found refuge after fleeing Kabul. I shall include personal statements from some of the Afghan medical professionals who were also interviewed.

In the vast majority of cases, the women were enthusiastic, although somewhat fearful, about speaking out on their living conditions. During the interviews, about two-thirds of the women cried openly as they described their situations. They typically became very upset during the interview, and expressed considerable anger and outrage over the Taliban policies regarding women. Some of the anger was projected on the interviewer; many women felt that the international community was not responding to their plight as women. However, many were hopeful that something productive would result from PHR’s effort. It was this reason that many of the women risked talking, for most had fears about their names and opinions falling into the Taliban’s hands.

One woman who lost her position as head nurse in a Kabul hospital reported that she never regained employment even after female health workers were granted permission to work. One reason for the continuing limitations on employment among female health care providers is the brutal harassment they, like other woman, receive just by being out of their home. An Afghan physician described the effort to work at a clinic:

"I now restrict my actions quite a bit, despite the fact that I am working in a clinic and leave the house every day. I am always worried about getting arrested or beaten. Working outside the house, even though we have permission from the Ministry of Health, is still a big risk. The Taliban are very unpredictable. One day the religious police may stop me on the street and ask where I am going. At that point, the fact that I have 'permission' may mean nothing to him; he can beat me or harass me or arrest me at his whim. Every day, I leave my house and I pray that I might get back home safely at the end of the day."

Another woman described drastic measures taken by the Taliban:

"[The Taliban] beat my husband and myself, because we were working in the same clinic, and they wanted me to shut down the clinic and not work. When I tried to reason with them, they beat me and told me that they would hang me if I showed up again in the clinic."


As a consequence, she and her husband shut down the clinic “within twenty-four hours,” stopped working as physicians in Kabul and eventually [fled] to Pakistan. Neither of them are currently employed. “We are nearly losing losing our minds staying in this small room hoping that some clinic will accept my husband or me even as an assistant to be able to work.

An internist stated that when Taliban authorities shut down most of the health services for women and transferred all of the women into one facility, dozens of ill women were sent home without a treatment plan or medications. As a result some women were permanently disabled, some women died of lack of treatment, and many had to suffer from their problems and pain without receiving medical attention. She said, “I treated several women at my home. Some patients who knew my ad- dress showed up at my door. I had to see them. Unfortunately, some of them I just couldn’t treat at home. I don’t know what happened to them after I came here [Pakistan].


Paradoxically, despite the decline in traumatic injuries from shelling, and the availability of beds in hospitals, the quality of care has also deteriorated dramatically. Physicians and other health providers have left the country, medical supplies have become unavailable and adulterated medications are used with alarming frequency. An Afghan pharmacist described the situation:


"The quality of health care has changed over the past two years. Almost all experienced and qualified physicians have left the country. Doctors working in the public hospitals are not paid enough and therefore, their mind is not on their patients’ care. Some of them have to work another job in order to provide a living for their family. The quality of medicine is outrageously bad. Most of the drugs in the market are imported from Pakistan. There is no control or analysis of the imported medications before they are distributed in the market. I found chickpea powder inside capsules of Ampicillin. Most of the drugs are fake."

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A pediatrician confirmed this state of affairs:

"The majority of hospitals have no medical equipment and tools. The drugs are very expensive and ineffective. Incentives for the health centers that are funded by foreign NGOs are OK, but public clinics have almost non-existent incentives for their medical staff. The salary of a doctor is equivalent to $5 per month. Salaries are not paid regularly. There are very few qualified and experienced doctors. The training for medical doctors is very poor. Most quali- fied doctors have immigrated to Pakistan or Iran. There is no training for the new doctors due to lack of medical facilities, equipment and tools, qualified trainers and medical personnel."

A 35-year old professional woman described what she had seen:


"The patients are not treated properly. There is very little attention to patients. I witnessed one patient who was in desperate need of some pain medication but there was no pain medication. There is a great need for experienced doctors, more hospital facilities, blood banks, and medicine."


One physician described her jailing by Taliban authorities:


"One day [in June 1997] a few other Afghan women colleagues and I were stopped [by Taliban police] on the way to work, and our driver was questioned. Then all of us were jailed for three days. They made us feel that if we were caught again the punishment would be severe. That was it for me. My husband and I decided to leave Kabul and come to Pakistan."

An Afghan pediatrician reported:


"Four months ago, two of my former colleagues were injured in car accident. One had trauma of neck and the other was also seriously injured. They were refused treatment in five hospitals because they were female."

UN surveys (which are limited by the current constraints on accurate data collection) estimate that only ten percent of Afghan women receive any type of formal prenatal or maternal care and less than six percent of deliveries are attended by trained birth attendants. And as one physician noted:


"Under current policies, this situation will only get worse. Already there are a limited number of female obstetricians that women are supposed to see exclusively. And now the training of more women health professionals has been halted completely, so there is no way there will be women doctors for future generations."

Afghan women are thus caught in the paradoxical bind of being compelled to seek care only from female providers at the same time that governmental decrees ensure a dwindling supply of such providers. Health professionals from Afghanistan see the effects in the lives — and deaths — of women. A nurse who has since left Afghanistan reported that many women died at home during labor, and an Afghan pharmacist who remains in the country explained:

"It is very difficult for pregnant women since male doctors are prohibited from seeing pregnant women and performing delivery. A lot of pregnant women die at home and in hospital and clinics."

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A nurse who had been working in Kabul for one year related an incident that occurred in early 1998:


"I recently referred a child—a boy—with a facial tumor to Maiwand Hospital to see a surgeon. As the only possible caretaker for this child was his mother, his mother accompanied him to the appointment. Even though the child was a boy, both he and his mother were not allowed to enter the consultation room, since the doctor was a male working in a male ward."

When women do gain access to male health care providers, proper examination and treatment is all but impossible because men are not permitted to see or touch women’s bodies: 


"But even [when a women is accompanied by a male chaperone] the treatment is limited to office consultation and over-the-clothing examination. Male doctors are not allowed to do surgical procedures, even if a patient’s life is at stake."

A male physician, [when] asked how he would treat an ailing woman patient, indicated that in some cases, a male relative could point on his own body to places where the patient felt pain; and he would prescribe medication for the male relative to procure for her. In other cases, the doctor would examine a woman through her clothing, not touching her skin.


A dentist assured PHR that he did see female patients, but was unable to explain how he was able to examine their teeth under the all-enveloping burqa. Though visibly frightened, he eventually acknowledged that he did upon occasion lift the veil and treat women, but only if his own lookouts posted outside the clinic gave the “all clear” sign. When asked what would happen if he were caught treating a woman, he answered straightforwardly that police would beat him and the patient, and likely close his office and throw

him in jail.

Before the Taliban, women worked as teachers, nurses, physicians, pharmacists, and held other essential jobs in society. Now, most are relegated to unemployment and destitution.  A widow explained her plight:


"Women are literally forced to beg on the streets. For most widows who have nobody close to look after them, begging is the only way to feed their children."


Another woman reported:


"I have economic problems, mental distress, loneliness and a lot of health problems. Five months after my husband’s death, my younger brother was injured by another rocket attack in Kabul city. In the last two years, my sufferings have doubled due to the harsh and strict policies of Taliban on people in Kabul, in particular on women. As a widow, I have no support system in this society and I am about to lose my mind. . . .


"It is worse than two years ago. The high cost of living is depressing; you can’t even afford to buy wheat, flour, cooking oil, etc. . . . I need to work to support myself and family, but there are no jobs for women. With no husband, no job, no other source of income, the economic situation is bad for me. I barely survive without any support and income. There are beatings for showing up in public without a male chaperone or showing your face. Worst of all is not being allowed to work. How can a widow survive like this?"

A widow who finally fled to Pakistan described her effort to survive in Kabul after the death of her husband:


"He was sitting in his office when a bullet passed through the window and hit him in his heart. After his death our home was destroyed by a rocket, and we moved to a different part of the city. I suffered a lot from the loss of my husband. My children were young when their father was killed. The pressure was too much on me: I had to be a father and a mother for them.


"I was working two jobs, and we had an okay living until 1996 when another disaster happened. The Taliban took me out of work and my daughters out of school. This was unbearable and sickening for me and my entire family. I almost lost my sanity, and I did not have anyone to support me financially ... Without a source of income and with the dramatic rise in prices, I didn’t have a way to support my family. If I hadn’t left, I would have gone crazy."



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A state of confusion -
sacred and secular

The two most significant figures in the creation of the modern Indian state - Nehru, its first Prime Minister and Gandhi, its most revered and respected martyr.

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Throughout history, and no doubt long before, political rulers and religious leaders have maintained a symbiotic relationship. Not always an easy relationship but an essential one.The Pharaohs of Egypt proclaimed themselves to be gods on Earth, as did the Emperors of Rome. The Emperor of Japan is still said by some to be a direct descendant of the sun goddess, Ameratasu. The Kings and Queens of England assumed the god-given right to rule, until realpolitik took over and Charles I was beheaded, for acting as an absolute monarch who had blessing from on high to supersede Parliament  Even today, with British monarchs reduced to ceremonial duties, they are anointed with holy oil at their coronation. This symbolically connects them to a divine source of power, and confirms their legitimacy. They become the anointed ones, in a tradition established by the Biblical kings, Saul and David, some 3,000 years ago. That last sentence is unlikely to be true because there is o strong evidence that David or Saul were historical figures, but that does not tseem to weaken the tradition.

At its moment of independence, the United States of America separated church from state, but even there, in that most "progressive" of nations, the division has never been a clean cut. 

"The constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state is a uniquely American contribution to government. It means that government has no authority to invade the field of religion, that government agencies may neither advance nor inhibit religion, and that government may not take account of a person's religion or lack of it in determining qualification for holding public office or for government employment. The only function of government with respect to religion is that of protecting the right of conscience, worship, autonomous control over doctrine, governance and resources of

religious groups... 


"Separation of church and state does not mean separation of religion and politics. The religious or nonreligious person or group may freely engage in political speech and action that criticises or supports government policies." 


JOHN M SWOMLEY Author, The Politics of Liberation

Yet that most sacred of American items, the dollar bill (in all its denominations) has written upon it IN GOD WE TRUST, implying a shared national agreement. Even the humble nickel and dime bear the slogan. And, to blur the distinction even more, between spiritual and temporal power, every President in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has declared himself a pious believer in God. This places his faith, alongside his regard for mother and apple pie - at the centre of his self-presentation, whatever he believes in his heart. You have to go back to Presidents James Monroe (1817-1825) and Ulysses S Grant (1869 - 1877) to find an open dissenter. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) reportedly called the Book of Revelation the "ravings of a maniac", but even some devout Christians might agree with that.

In the twentieth century the collapse of the global empires and the upheaval of two world wars triggered the birth of many new nations, or old nations that gained a new autonomy. This has proved to be a process which has challenged the modern conviction that the growth of secularism was not only rational but inevitable. Today conflicts between the religious and secular have become global phenomena, to some extent defining the times we live in and the dangers we all face. 

In 1948 Israel was born out of the ashes of the Holocaust and the collapse of the British empire, with the help of deep commitment to the visions of Zionism, highly disciplined militias of devastating efficiency, and a policy of Palestinian displacement that amounted to ethnic cleansing. The Israelis refer to the creation of a Homeland for the Jews, in the newly-founded state of Israel, as their Independence. The Palestinians still refer to it as al-Naqba, the Catastrophe. 






Despite the fact that David Ben-Gurion, the founding figure of Israel, and its first Prime Minister, was proudly atheist, he presided over the foundation of what is effectively a religious state, in which Jews will always have privileged status. This privilege was reinforced in 2018, by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, with a new nation-state law:

It states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel 

is “unique to the Jewish people.”

It establishes Hebrew as Israel’s official language, and downgrades 

Arabic to a “special status.” 

It establishes “Jewish settlement as a national value” and mandates that 

the state “will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.”


It will be argued by many that Jewishness has superseded religious allegiance with political and cultural identity, ethnicity. I find the word "ethnicity" in an argument such as this to be too slippery to trust. It is surely based on fictions and myths rather than history and science. If someone believes that the Jews are a people uniquely chosen by God that is surely a religious belief. If non-believers act as if the statement were true, without subscribing to the ultimate source of this "truth", then we end up with the catalogue of contradictions and atrocities that have made the East Mediterranean so tragic a part of the world - with the ever-present potential to set off a fissile

global explosion.










In June,1947, a year earlier than the creation of Israel, Muhammad Ali Jinnah announced on All India Radio that he would establish and then lead the new state of Pakistan as a Homeland for Muslims, detaching its territory from the soon-to-be independent India. This Partition triggered the mass migration of millions of Muslims from the south and millions of Hindus from the north. It unlocked unprecedented violence, with massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions and savage sexual abuse. More than a million people were killed and up to twelve million were displaced. 




















Then, in 2014, Narendra Modi became India's Prime Minister, and the mood shifted dramatically. He set about consolidating what had been, throughout the years of post-independence, the increasing influence of Hindu nationalism on Indian politics, and on daily life. Modi's BJP party had grown out of the RSS, which itself had been created in the 1930s under the influence of Mussolini's Fascism. In Modi's second term in power, after an electoral landslide, he instituted a law that challenges the secular principle, testing it almost to destruction. This law has provoked new waves of the violence that has continued to haunt India since the bloodbath of Partition. 

Some of the dangers threatened by this new law are described here by Samanth Subramanian, published in The Guardian, in February, 2020. 


























































The first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru presided over a constitution that

was secular in intent, although the government retained enough powers over the Hindu establishment to protect low caste and Dalit people from discrimination by the temple authorities, and wider society. Nehru was profoundly secular, as an individual as well as a public figure. The story is told that he rejected advice to remove the Muslim cooks from his kitchen because he refused to define anyone by their faith. A dozen years after Nehru's death, in 1976, India finally formalised its status as a secular state, in a constitutional amendment.

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How Hindu supremacists are tearing India apart


"The Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by parliament on 11 December 2019, provides a fast track to citizenship for refugees fleeing into India from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Refugees of every south Asian faith are eligible – every faith, that is, except Islam. It is a policy that fits neatly with the RSS and the BJP’s demonisation of Muslims, India’s largest religious minority. To votaries of Hindutva [the Nationalist ideology], the country is best served if it is expunged of Islam. The act was both a loud signal of that ambition and a handy tool to help achieve it...


"In its [74] years as a free country, India has never faced a more serious crisis. Already its institutions – its courts, much of its media, its investigative agencies, its election commission – have been pressured to fall in line with Modi’s policies. The political opposition is withered and infirm. More is in the offing: the idea of Hindutva, in its fullest expression, will ultimately involve undoing the constitution and unravelling the fabric of liberal democracy. It will have to; constitutional niceties aren’t compatible with the BJP’s blueprint for a country in which people are graded and assessed according to their faith. The ferment gripping India since the passage of the citizenship act – the fever of the protests, the brutality of the police, the viciousness of the politics – has only reflected how existentially high the stakes have become."

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RSS members at a rally in Hyderabad STR/AFP

According to a Pew Research Centre report, more than 80 countries favour a specific religion, either officially as a state religion or tacitly through special treatment. 


Islam is the most common state religion – 27 countries have it as their official religion, including 16 of the 20 countries in the Middle East-North Africa region.

13 countries have Christianity or a specific Christian denomination as their official religion.


40 countries “favour” a particular religion, through legal, property or tax benefits, or through punishing minority religious groups more harshly. 

10 countries treat religion with “hostility” – China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and the six former Soviet countries in Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan.


A Lebanese Army soldier carrying a child while civilians fled as gunfire erupted near a protest in Beirut

.Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

Lebanon plunged deeper into

darkness as militias fatally 

clash in Beirut 

Ben Hubbard and Marc Santora, New York Times

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Shia fighters take cover during clashes in the area of Tayouneh,in the Southern Suburbs of Beirut  

Anwar Amro/AFP

Posted October 14, 2021


Armed clashes between sectarian militias briefly turned Beirut neighborhoods into a war zone on Thursday, killing six people and raising fears that new violence could fill the void left by the near-collapse of the Lebanese state.

Rival gunmen, chanting in support of their leaders, hid behind dumpsters to fire automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at their rivals. Residents cowered in their homes, and teachers herded children into the hallways and basements of schools to protect them from the shooting.

The fighting marked a new low in the small Mediterranean country’s descent into an abyss of interlocking political and economic crises. Since the fall of 2019, its currency has collapsed, battering the economy and reducing Lebanese who were comfortably middle-class to poverty. Instead of finding solutions, the country’s political elite has resorted to increasingly bitter infighting. A huge explosion in the port of Beirut last year exposed the results of what many Lebanese see as decades of poor governance and corruption.


Thursday’s clashes broke out at a protest led by two Shiite Muslim parties — Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group that the United States considers a terrorist organization, and the Amal Movement. The protesters were calling for the removal of the judge charged with investigating the Beirut explosion and determining who was responsible.


As the protesters gathered, gunshots rang out, apparently fired by snipers in nearby high buildings, according to witnesses and Lebanese officials, and protesters scattered to side streets, where they retrieved weapons and went to shoot back.

The resulting clashes raged in an area straddling the line between two neighborhoods, one Shiite and the other a stronghold of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party that staunchly opposes Hezbollah. 


Hezbollah officials accused the Lebanese Forces of firing the initial shots, and in a statement, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement accused unnamed forces of trying to “drag the country into a deliberate strife.”

The head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, condemned the violence in posts on Twitter, saying that the clashes had been caused by “uncontrolled and widespread weapons that threaten citizens in every time and place,” a reference to Hezbollah’s vast arsenal.

Violence between religious groups is particularly dangerous in Lebanon, which has 18 recognized sects, including Sunni and Shiite Muslims, various denominations of Christians and others. Conflicts between them and the militias they maintain define the country’s politics and have often spilled over into violence, most catastrophically during the country’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.

The Sunnis, Shiites and Christians are Lebanon’s largest groups, but Hezbollah has emerged as the country’s most powerful political and military force, with an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets pointed at neighboring Israel and thousands of fighters who have been dispatched to battlefields in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

After about four hours of fighting, the Lebanese army deployed to calm the streets and the clashes appeared to subside, but residents remained in their homes seeking refuge from the violence. In addition to those killed, about 30 people were wounded.



I know well the Beirut streets where the fighting broke out today. I first walked them when Lebanon was in the midst of its terrible civil war, the scars of which have still to heal. Back then, most of those streets were closed to pedestrians. Very closed. They were in what was then called the Green Zone, as defined on a military map. This zone separated - in the simplest, not to say crudest, terms -the Muslim West Beirut from the Christian East Beirut. 


On rare occasions, back in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, when the civil war defined everyone's life and quite possibly their death, people could dash by car, taxi or even on foot across the zone. But mostly they could not. People who tried to cross on the wrong day (never on the wrong night, because that would be insane) could be disappeared, never to return, or taken away to be executed, briskly or mercilessly. The reason for this informal execution? Their identity pass had the wrong designation on it, affiliating the holder to the wrong religious group. It wasn't until a decade after the end of the civil war that religious identity was excluded from the compulsory ID card in Lebanon. During the 15 years of civil conflict it could be like being obliged to carry a death sentence in your pocket.

In those few times that I crossed into the Green Zone - during weeks and even months of relative ceasefire, accompanied by momentary optimism - it was a shocking experience. The appropriately-called dead centre was empty of almost any sign of life. The buildings looked chewed and hollowed out by the effects of artillery and rocket fire, and the occasional aerial bombardment. The ruined churches and mosques were the very essence of desecration. Anyone in the Green Zone for more than a fleeting visit was a member of a militia. These were people who often filled their long nights and empty days with pointless fusillades directed at the enemy. The enemy could be Maronite Christian or Greek Orthodox, Sunni or Shia Muslim, Druze or Palestinian, Nasserite or Communist, a Syrian conscript or an Iranian Revolutionary Guard - and that's a short list.

Today, I had a cold feeling that those far off times might soon be revisited. The details of any new conflict would be different but, I suspect, the bloodshed and the weaponry would be even worse. The global political disorder that was manifest throughout the Lebanese Civil War (1976 - 90) has been replaced by much more dangerous disorder. The stakes are higher. The cynicism maybe more entrenched. 

In his lucid and brave analysis to Aljazeera of the short battle in the streets of Beirut  - and the dangers they represent - Professor Mark Daou helps us to put the chaos in context. Of course, you have to be expert in Lebanese politics to really make sense of these things. And even then you will probably fail. Perhaps there is no sense

to be made.

Lebanon is blessed with lucid and brave people like Mark Daou. I encountered many such during the civil war and after, when I made films for international television. Quite a few of these people work in the American University of Beirut, which is where Professor Dao teaches


Despite its name the AUB, as it is most often called, often with affection, is no stooge of post-imperialism. It is an institution with a global reputation for seeking the truth and pronouncing it without fear or favour. The beautiful golden pink limestone of the campus, with a sheen on in its pavements caused by the footfall of generations, and its palm trees and small courtyard gardens, offerings glimpses of the glittering Mediterranean down the hill, make it a beautiful place to enjoy civilised discourse and strong coffee. When I was first there in the eighties, the soundtrack would be the gentle banter of passing students, the crark of crows, nearby traffic and the not-so-distant rattle of gunfire, the very sounds you could have heard in Beirut today. GD