Who is afraid of the Taliban? Anyone who is on the wrong side of their religiously homogenising project should be, warns Mariz Tadros.
Since the seizure of power by the Taliban following the downfall of Kabul on the 15 August 2021, alarm bells have sounded with respect to the future of freedoms: for women, the press, the political opposition and civil society organisations. But we should not forget about the risk to religious equality for minorities as well as the freedom of conscience and belief for the Muslim majority.
The Taliban, like all political forces with totalitarian ideologies, will begin sooner or later to “cleanse” politics and society of anyone and everyone who defies their project of political homogenisation. The Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) has been committed to opposing all religious and cultural homogenisation projects, independently of the religious ideology behind them.
These are some of the risks associated with the succession of the Taliban:
1 . Hazara Shias and religious minorities will become targets of intolerance
The Hazara Shias are an ethno-religious Muslim minority amounting to roughly 9% of the population of Afghanistan. They have been the targets of a series of violent attacks. In May this year Daesh was responsible for killing 85 mostly female Hazara Shia students outside a school. The Taliban have also been responsible historically for attacking the Hazara Shias. Their ideology on Shia minorities is no different to that of Daesh.
2. There will be a witch hunt of Sunni Muslims who refuse to be Talibanised
You don’t have to be a member of a religious minority, or a woman, or a political opponent, to be on the wrong side of the Taliban’s ideology. They have no tolerance for followers of the same faith (Sunni Muslims) who do not conform to their version of Islam that is officially enforced as “correct”. There is no freedom of conscience for Sunni Muslims who interpret or express their faith differently. They will be hunted down and accused of blasphemy or heresy or worse.
3. The establishment of an Islamic Emirate will embolden other radical Islamist groups in neighbouring countries and worldwide to revive their activity in targeting religious minorities
The political ascendency of the Taliban will energise Islamist militias elsewhere. With the circulation of jihadists and arms, and encouraged by the victory of the Taliban, groups in neighbouring Pakistan may be emboldened to increase their attacks on Hazara Shia, Christian and Hindu minorities. Despite the political disputes between the Taliban and Daesh, at such critical junctures when an Islamic Emirate is being established, the potential for entities to support Daesh elsewhere cannot be dismissed as conspiratorial.
In Egypt, the assumption to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, though they distanced themselves from violent movements, ‘coincided’ with the resurgence of jihadist activity in Sinai, with increased killings and assaults against Coptic Christians living in the area. The rise of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan may result in the increased targeting of religious minorities in the Middle East, in particular Libya, Syria and Egypt.
Dominic Raab, the UK First Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary, has said that British foreign policy will “try and moderate and exercise some form of positive influence around the regime”. Raab is among other voices who are hopeful that the Taliban may moderate their radical stance for pragmatic reasons: to acquire international recognition of their new Islamic Emirate and to minimise open conflict with those components of Afghan society that will not wield easily to the complete closure of civic space.
What history tells us
But history tells us that when movements with a vision of instating Shariah-based governance seize power, it is those among its ranks who yield the more radical stance, not the moderates, who tend to monopolise political power. In Egypt, analysts bet that once the Muslim Brotherhood (a movement whose manifesto included a belief in the rotation of power through elections and a commitment to a civil state) came to power, the moderates with diplomatic and political skills would come to democratise the movement. Yet the political ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood proved the opposite; the radical elements were empowered, drawing on a populist basis for support and a sense of championing a righteous cause.
The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi; AKP) in Turkey was initially hailed as a reformist Islamist political moderate, controlled by its “moderates”. At the beginning this may have seemed to be the case, but consensus today is that the AKP is implementing a policy of comprehensive and insidious Islamisation, with major implications for inclusivity, freedom of expression and women’s rights.
Iran, more than four decades after the Islamic revolution, has recently elected a hardliner for president, against the backdrop of the dominance of hardliners in all key state positions.. Even the most progressive Islamist political party in the Middle East, Al Nahda in Tunisia, gave way to its more conservative elements in the designation of a substantial number of political positions in governance.
Across the political spectrum of Islamist movements assuming power, whether “moderates” or “extremists”, the inclination, once in power, is to adopt a hard-line ideological stance.
Whether it happens immediately upon political ascendency, such as in Egypt, or gradually, as in Tunisia, or later down the line, as in Turkey. We should expect nothing less of the Taliban. To the contrary, they are now better positioned than they were two decades ago to advance a project of religious homogenisation.
What can be done?
At this stage, damage control seems all that is doable.
First, let us not be naïve about the potential of using “carrots” (be they aid or any other form of soft power) for “moderating” the Taliban. Like any other Islamist movement, the Taliban’s ideology is proactive. It is not susceptible to accommodation at the lure of slushes of funds.
Second, the UK government needs to leverage its influence on Pakistan on account of the latter’s special relationship with the Taliban. We need to keep an eye on the rhetoric of militias in Pakistan at a community level and improve our monitoring of the situation of religious minorities.
Third, the UK government needs to increase its surveillance of the circulation of jihadists and weapons from Afghanistan into the Middle East, particularly in conflict hotspots where religious minorities are already vulnerable to assault.
Fourth, we need a NATO-wide strategy to accept asylum seekers and refugees fairly, equitably and at a scale that is proportionate to the crisis that the Afghan people are facing.
For further information on the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) visit www.creid.ac