Sadakat Kadri | Promoting virtue and preventing vice LRB September 20, 2021

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At a recent press conference, a written statement attributed to the Taliban’s “Commander of the Believers” Haibatullah Akhundzada said that the new Afghan government “will work hard to comply with Islamic rules and Sharia law.” In Arabic, “Sharia” means a path to salvation, and ultra-devout Muslims do not voluntarily leave this path. But the rules to be followed are less obvious. They have been fought for at least twelve hundred years. Some lawyers were tolerant and inclusive; others don’t. A prolific scholar popular in Taliban circles, Ibn Abiʼl-Dunya, a strict teacher to several princes in Baghdad in the late ninth century, wrote seven treatises alone on the ban. Some of the frivolities he believed to hate God included stringed instruments, chess, pigeon shows, and sitting on seesaws.

Akhundzada is very prone to intolerance. In the late 1990s, he worked closely with the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which banned activities from trimming beards to kite flying. He went on to write a legal rationale for suicide bombings. Among those who apparently believed so was his 23-year-old son; In July 2017, he drove a Humvee laden with explosives to a military base in Helmand.

With such vigorous spiritual leadership, there is little that the Taliban cannot empower themselves to do. Individual verses of the Koran can easily be quoted to justify the discrimination against women and minorities. Ninth-century lyrics condemning diverting aspirations are reason enough to ban frivolities from soap operas to Snapchat. And brutal punishments can always be called divine: symbolic flogging, amputations and executions excite the supporters of the Taliban as well as their critics.

The Taliban’s pick-and-mix approach to jurisprudence should not be underestimated, however: its Sharia courts are an integral part of the Afghan legal landscape. In order to delegitimize politicians in Kabul, the movement has built up a three-tier judicial structure in the areas it controls over the past fifteen years. And, according to a May 2020 survey by the Overseas Development Institute, based on several previous analyzes, the system was typically seen as “more accessible and easier to navigate than state courts, and as faster, fairer and less corrupt”.

Taliban judges in these courts did not have to be impeccable. They just had to instill more trust than the alternatives – state-sanctioned courts or tribal authorities – and were flexible enough to do so. Instead of suppressing local customs, the Sharia courts tended to accommodate them. Harsh punishments were exceptional. Decisions that honored potentially toxic disputes were usually respected, even by the losing side.

The clergyman who oversaw this war effort, Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, was appointed Minister of Justice. Now that the Taliban want to build an entirely new state judiciary, the fiction hardliners claim about Sharia law – that it benefits everyone, anytime – will come under unprecedented pressure. Will Afghanistan’s new courts be “faster, more just and less corrupt” than the old ones – or just spectacularly more repressive?

The omens are not good. Faced with an impending humanitarian catastrophe, Taliban ministers have failed to cooperate with international organizations and have started feuding among themselves. The fate of Haibatullah Akhundzada is also unclear: he has not been seen since the Taliban came to power, and there are rumors of his untimely death. Such gossip isn’t worth much, but it reflects a widespread discomfort. Ordinary people, who have been prepared for sectarian violence since the vicious Islamic State bombing of Kabul airport on August 26, are not confident that a lasting legal order is in place. Instead of demanding that the Taliban deal with the repression, some are demanding that they step up their security patrols and that their enforcers wear uniforms.

Even if the Taliban’s efforts to make heaven on earth a reality are doomed, the calls in Afghanistan for implementation of Sharia law will not end. In a war-torn country that has sunk into poverty and has no opportunities, one dreams of stability. Any movement that claims to know God’s eternal laws – and how to implement them – will always have its appeal.


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