Religion & Liberty Online

The Taliban Exploit Islam to Protect Their Illegitimate Rule

(Image credit: Associated Press)

Authoritarian and dictatorial regimes have been using the hardest-line interpretation of the Islamic faith to oppress women and thereby prevent democratic reforms. It’s time for more Muslims in the West who enjoy democratic freedoms to speak up.

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Afghanistan, following the American withdrawal in 2021, has gained attention for several reasons, but the most prominent among them is the Taliban’s exploitation of Islam to suppress women and legitimize their illegitimate hold on power. The Taliban have banned women from working for the United Nations (UN) and other domestic and international aid organizations and have also barred Afghan girls from pursuing secondary education and attending universities. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesperson, has warned that all Afghans must conform to the “framework of Islam”and claimed that women will be allowed to work and study only within their prescribed boundaries.

Meanwhile, according to Sandra Gathmann’s report, approximately 850,000 female students have been prevented from attending secondary school, and women are obligated to wear a full veil that covers their faces in public. Furthermore, the Ministry of Women Affairs has been replaced by the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which is a matter of significant concern.

Sadiq Akif, spokesperson for the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, explained to Al Jazeera about the ministry’s policies, stating, “There were 20 years of occupation, which had a significant impact on people’s thoughts and ideas. And my aim is to rectify the mindset of my people through counseling. That is the objective of our endeavors.”

It is clear that the Taliban strategically employ gender oppression to establish themselves as traditional representatives of Islam. These policies, however, are not derived from religious doctrine but are instead driven by more politically calculated motives. Given that the predominant interpretation of Islam today seeks to restrict women to the private sphere and exercise control over their bodies, all authoritarian regimes exploit this version of the faith to restrict women’s mobility in the name of religion. It is crucial to examine how authoritarian rule in the Muslim world adversely affects women, subjecting them to state suppression as citizens of dictatorial regimes while also imposing institutionalized discrimination based on their gender. I do not contend that patriarchy directly causes authoritarianism; rather, my point is that it contributes to the consolidation of authoritarian rule.

Coming to terms with the political goals of Islamists and their strategic use of Islam is crucial in dispelling long-standing perceptions about Islam’s supposed incompatibility with democracy and modernity. Equally important is for Muslim societies to recognize the misuse of their faith and strive toward freedom and democracy.

Medieval Muslim scholars like Al-Ghazali (1056­–1111) and Ibn Taymiyya (1263­–1328) propagated patriarchal interpretations of Islam. Ghazali argued that “marriage is a form of enslavement; thus she [the wife] is his slave,” while Ibn Taymiyya, who remained unmarried, asserted that women are weaker beings and thus require male guardianship. These scholars continue to be widely read and respected in the Muslim world, influencing the interpretation of the faith of many Muslims worldwide.

My argument rests on the premise that such patriarchal interpretations of Islam, coupled with years of state-sponsored propaganda promoting gendered morality, have fostered a widespread societal acceptance of legislation confining women to their homes or to specific professions such as teaching. For example, Sandra Gathmann’s report also reveals that the position of the Taliban, as expressed by the spokesperson of the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, enjoys support not only from the Taliban and male Afghans but also from a number of Afghan women. Similarly, a 2013 PEW study on Afghanistan reveals a concerning trend, with only 30% of the population believing that women should have the autonomy to decide whether to wear a veil. Consequently, after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban progressively imposed decrees that further restricted women’s participation in public affairs. The same PEW study also indicated significant support for the establishment of Sharia as the official law among Muslims in various regions, including South Asia (84%), Southeast Asia (77%), the Middle East (74%), and Sub-Saharan Africa (64%).

These findings underscore the notion that a government based on Sharia would be perceived as legitimate by a substantial portion of the population in these regions. Therefore, different actors in different nations, such as Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran, and the Taliban in Afghanistan, seek to gain popular support by exploiting religion. To achieve this objective, they often implement patriarchal gender laws that curtail women’s participation in the public sphere.

It is noteworthy that Islam encompasses various sects, each with significant disagreements on fundamental doctrinal questions. Hence, achieving a unified stance on significant issues within Muslim-majority nations has proved challenging. For example, the ongoing hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia, originating in the 1980s, highlights the clash between dominant Sunni and Shia ideological perspectives within Islam. Interestingly, despite the divergent interpretations of Islam, there yet remains a consensus among religious Muslim elites regarding the limited role assigned to women within the religion. Regardless of their ideological leanings, these elites predominantly adhere to a patriarchal understanding of Islam. This shared understanding about women’s roles in public life eventually facilitates the process of authoritarianism in these societies.

Authoritarianism requires certain kinds of moral and political justifications. The Taliban in Afghanistan, like many other autocratic rulers in the Muslim-majority countries, rely on a rigid interpretation of Islam for this purpose. Notably, Waheedullah Hashimi, a senior Taliban leader, has unequivocally stated that Afghanistan will not have democracy and that the political system will be solely based on Sharia law. In this context, there is a widely accepted patriarchal, if not misogynistic, interpretation of Islam that gives the regime enough cultural capital to introduce socially repressive policies. These policies, like restricting women’s mobility, eventually contribute to justifying the denial of democratic reforms in the country.

Is there any hope? In the words of Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Without willpower, an inspired vision, and a moral commitment, there can be no democracy in Islam.” Abou El Fadl’s assertion is based on the fact that Islam does not prescribe a specific system of governance. However, it does require Muslims to establish a system based on consultation, which implies a representative form of government. Additionally, classical Islam upholds individual freedoms and advocates for minimal state intervention in restricting those freedoms.

During its advent, Islam served as a liberating force that differentiated between individuals and tribes, emphasizing the rights and dignity of individuals. In the formative phase of Islam, individuals were empowered to exercise their will, markets operated independently and women were merchants, and scholars critiqued rulers who failed to provide justice to their people.

However, the Taliban seek to impose an “orthodox” version of Islam from the post-11th-century era. This version suppresses subjects, denies rights to minorities and women, and demands unconditional submission. The Taliban do not support holding elections or being accountable for their actions. They have found an interpretation of Islam that aligns with their historical perspective and political aims.

As noted, in the post-11th-century Muslim world, a patriarchal and suppressive notion of Islam emerged, with scholars like Ghazali playing a significant role in providing ideological cover for the rising Sunni orthodoxy and militaristic state. These scholars defended an interpretation of Islam that advocated for a strong state capable of imposing Islamic beliefs, with the ruler holding absolute authority. This period marked the alliance between the religious class (ulema) and the state (political class), which Ahmet Kuru refers to as the ulema-state alliance. This alliance continues to hinder creativity, individual freedoms, and entrepreneurship, as it promotes a regressive understanding of Islam that calls for a powerful government capable of regulating all aspects of people’s lives.

It is our moral, intellectual, and political responsibility to speak out against this religiously inspired authoritarianism and demand rights for Afghan women. The Taliban will continue to misuse Islam if they are not challenged both ideologically and politically. There is a need to promote an understanding of Islam that acknowledges basic rights and individual freedoms. Muslim scholars such as Mustafa Akyol, Ahmet Kuru, Asma Afsaruddin, and Zahra Ayubi who live in free societies like the United States have been playing an important role in promoting a more tolerant and inclusive understanding of Islam. They engage in scholarly discourse, interpret Islamic teachings in a contemporary context, and highlight the importance of individual freedoms and human rights within the Islamic framework. We need more such scholars and thinkers to contribute to this cause.

It is important to recognize that bringing about change in the understanding and practice of Islam requires a long-term and multifaceted approach. It involves empowering individuals, challenging oppressive ideologies, and fostering an environment that respects diversity, human rights, and individual freedoms. Collaboration among various actors, both within Muslim-majority countries and at the international level, is crucial to achieving these objectives. It is also important to note that the actions of individuals and scholars alone may not bring about widespread change. Collaboration with sympathetic organizations, interfaith partners, and community members is crucial to amplify the impact and create a broader movement for positive change in Afghanistan.

Saleha Anwar

Saleha Anwar is a member of the Acton Institute’s 2023 Emerging Leaders class and a Collins Center Summer Fellow. She is a Presidential Graduate Research Fellow and a graduate student at San Diego State University, specializing in international relations and comparative politics. Her research focuses on authoritarianism and patriarchy in Muslim-majority countries.