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Taliban

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Taliban

    The Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996 and ruled major portions of the country until they were forced out by the United States in October 2001 . The group gained notoriety for providing haven to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network and for destroying ancient Buddha statues in Bamyan Province in 2000 . The Taliban's strict and conservative interpretation of Islam led to severe restrictions on women and on most cultural and entertainment activities. Although many of their policies have been attributed to Islam, they can be better understood as expressions of the ethnic Pashtun culture to which the group belonged.

    Origins.

    The Taliban (which means “students”) hailed from the poorest, most conservative and least literate Pashtun provinces in Afghanistan. The group led by Mullah Muhammad Omar , which gained the spotlight in 1994 , came from Kandahar. The women in this region wore traditional garments that covered their bodies completely, except for their eyes, and the girls received no education. The Taliban believed these practices were required by the Qur'an and sought to impose them throughout the country. In their view, control over women and the exclusion of women from the public sphere was the hallmark of a truly Islamic society—as well as a symbol of manhood.

    Though known as religious students, most Taliban members had little exposure to Islamic teaching and scholarship. Their education was limited to basic instruction in the Qur'an, Islamic law, and early Islamic history. As a result, they flatly rejected modern values, ideas, social structures, religious diversity, and modern political and economic theories. They did not engage in scholarly writing or debate and produced no systematic ideology.

    The Taliban have often been identified with Wahhabism, the conservative interpretation of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. In fact, the Taliban are Deobandis, followers of an Indo-Pakistani school of thought, but they have also been influenced by Wahhabi puritanical tendencies. The Taliban embraced and carried to an extreme the Deobandi opposition to Shi'ism, commitment to the implementation of Islamic law, and restrictions on the role of women. They discarded the Deobandi traditions of education and reform.

    Taliban Rule.

    When the former Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 , the warlords (regional chieftains) who had previously fought the Soviets turned against each other and battled for control of the country. These warlords represented various ethnic groups and interpretations of Islam and were backed by different foreign countries. A short-lived coalition government between two of the warlords was followed by civil war.

    The Taliban arose as a response to the rising lawlessness and ethnic conflict. They claimed that the mujahidin—those who had fought in the holy war against the Soviet invaders—had lost their right to rule by failing to obey Islamic law and by contributing to the rampant corruption and disorder in Afghanistan. By contrast, the Taliban presented themselves as purifiers and restorers of an Islamic way of life that would bring peace and prosperity to the country. The Taliban captured the Afghan capital of Kabul on September 27, 1996. Once in power, they used this claim of purifying Islam as a justification for persecuting other ethnic groups, particularly the Shi'i Tajiks.

    Two of the legends surrounding the Taliban's initial appearance on the political scene center on their protection of women and the poor from rapacious warlords. Because of their willingness to physically confront those who abused the poor and defenseless, the Taliban were viewed by many as Robin Hood–like figures. The only “reward” the Taliban asked for was assistance in establishing a just Islamic system. They neither expected nor received monetary reimbursement for their deeds.

    During their time in power, the Taliban did bring law and order back to Afghanistan. Their main achievement was to restore security on the roads, facilitating the transport of food and commercial goods. They also sought to disarm the general population, believing that the massive inflow of arms into Afghanistan was partially responsible for the social chaos and insecurity. In addition, their implementation of strict and conservative Islamic law, with harsh punishments such as the amputation of hands for theft, provided a structure for the legal system. The war-weary populace initially welcomed these developments.

    The Taliban proved as incapable of governing as previous regimes, however. They had no effective programs for education, public health, finance, or communications. They believed that their policy of Islamic reform combined with the strict and literal implementation of traditional Islamic law would resolve all social issues and restore order and prosperity to Afghanistan.

    In the early years, the Taliban ruled through a system of collective leadership based on consultation and consensus building. By 1996 , however, the decision-making process had changed to one of secrecy, centralization of authority, and dictatorship. Mullah Omar declared himself the “Commander of the Faithful,” asserted his exclusive right to interpret Islamic law and run the country, and distanced himself from both the general population and day-to-day politics. He refused to broaden the base of Taliban leadership or talk to members of the opposition.

    The Taliban association with Osama bin Laden began only in December 1997 . Bin Laden's influence on the Taliban can best be seen in the shift from their original goal of restoring law and order and rebuilding Afghanistan to their embrace of a Pan-Islamic ideology that included the declaration of support for the global jihad against the United States. See also Afghanistan; Bin Laden, Osama; Qaeda, al-; Wahhabi.

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