Equipped with a science laboratory, a library and a computer room, the Abdul Hai Habibi High School was considered one of the most modern and respected state schools in south-eastern Afghanistan.
But since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, the secular school in the city of Khost has been converted into a madrasah, or religious seminary, forcing many of its 6,000 students and 130 teachers to leave.
“It upset people,” Sainullah Siyal, a graduate of the school, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “It is wrong to turn secular schools into madrasahs.”
Abdul Hai Habibi is among dozens of government schools, public universities and vocational training centers that the Taliban have converted into Islamic seminaries across the country.
Critics say the Islamist militant group’s goal is to eradicate all forms of modern secular education, which thrived in Afghanistan after the US-led invasion toppled the first Taliban regime in 2001.
Transforming Afghanistan’s education system has been one of the Taliban’s main goals since regaining power. The militants have banned girls from secondary school, imposed gender segregation and a new dress code at public universities and promised to overhaul the national curriculum. The Taliban have also unveiled plans to build a vast network of madrasahs across the country’s 34 provinces.
Madrasahs hold a special place in the Taliban’s worldview. The word “Taliban” means madrasa students. Many members of the Taliban who first emerged in the 1990s studied at radical Islamic seminaries in neighboring Pakistan.
During the brutal Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, the group banned secular education and replaced it with religious education. No girls were allowed to go to school and women could not go to university. The madrasahs run by the Taliban promoted militant ideologies and taught boys to recite the Koran by heart.
During their nearly 20-year insurgency, the Taliban reestablished their madrasahs in mostly rural areas under their control. It also bombed or burned down secular schools in government areas.
“A Great Tragedy”
A teacher in eastern Afghanistan, who spoke to Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the Taliban were turning teacher training centers into madrasahs. He said the centers, which follow the previous government’s existing curriculum, offered training for new teachers. Every province has at least one teacher training center.
“In certain provinces, the [Taliban’s] The Ministry of Education has already handed over training centers to be converted into jihadist madrassas,” he said.
He said the Taliban had already turned training centers in northern Baghlan province and eastern Kunar province into madrasahs.
“This is a great tragedy and amounts to a war on education,” another teacher in eastern Afghanistan, who also requested anonymity for security reasons, told Radio Azadi. “The Taliban’s attitude towards education is destructive.”
However, the Taliban have shown no signs of halting their policies.
Earlier this month the Taliban transformed the offices of Metra, a private television station in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, into a madrasah.
Noorullah Munir, the Taliban’s education minister, said religious education is a priority for the group.
“We have 20,000 [secular] Schools across Afghanistan, but the seminaries registered with the Islamic Emirate are no more than 1,000,” he was quoted as saying by private TV channel TOLOnews, using the Taliban government’s official name.
Earlier this month, the Ministry announced plans to build state madrasahs for 1,000 students in each province.
“The claim that we are turning schools into madrassas is false,” Aziz Ahmad Rayan, a spokesman for the Taliban Ministry of Education, told Radio Azadi. “[Secular] Schools are important in themselves.”
Rayan said the aim of the plan is to prevent Afghan students from seeking religious education abroad. Over the years, many Taliban fighters have studied at hard-line outlets in Pakistan, which are often accused of providing foot soldiers for militant groups in the region.
But the Afghans are not convinced. Mohammad Mohiq, an Islamic scholar, accused the Taliban of using “social engineering”. He said the Taliban had a systematic plan to “brainwash” the next generation in madrasahs by undermining secular schools.
“That way they can keep recruiting [madrasah] Students to be their soldiers and build a medieval theocratic system,” he said.