In the middle of the night on Sept. 26, 1996, the Taliban militia entered the Afghan capital city of Kabul and took control. Afghanistan is now known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and has been politically restructured under Sharia, strict Islamic law.
Five years later, the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic movement, estimates their control of Afghanistan at 90 percent, a figure thought to be exaggerated but undoubtedly growing after opposition leader Ahmad Shah Masood’s recent death by Arab suicide bombing.
Strict leadership, fuzzy borders
Although the Taliban has almost full political control over Afghanistan, the CIA classifies the country as having “no central government; administrated by factions.” This definition is not false, but is wholly misleading.
Islamic law has far more social and religious reach than any Western definition of government could encompass, said Ahmed Ali, president of the Madison-area Islamic community.
“A Muslim believes Islam is more than a religion; it is a complete day-in, day-out way of life,” Ali said.
Since taking de facto power, the Taliban has introduced widespread radical reforms, particularly in the areas of press freedom and the status of women.
UW-Madison associate history and religious studies professor Michael Chamberlain said the social reforms the Taliban implemented had widespread positive structural effects and stabilized many aspects of the poverty-stricken and fragmented country. For example, Afghanistan was the world’s largest opium producer and distributor in 1999. Since then, the Taliban has effectually crippled opium poppy cultivation and distribution, stripping Afghanistan of its rank.
Communications have also been standardized. Unfortunately, the order is restrictive — to the point that Afghanistan has only one radio station, which broadcasts only religious programming and strictly controlled Taliban propaganda.
Reporters Without Borders, an international journalist-watchdog organization, called Afghanistan “a country with no news or pictures.” One of the Taliban’s first moves during its ascent was banning all TV broadcasts. The country has no Internet — not because most of the population is poor rural agrarian farmers, but because the rulers prohibit it.
“They have really established peace, but it has been peace at a cost,” Chamberlain said.
Using what UW history and political studies professor David Morgan called “an eccentric interpretation” of Islam, the Taliban, self-classified as a faction of the Sunni Muslim faith, restricts women’s freedom. Women cannot hold jobs, engage in public entertainment — where it exists at all — or appear in public unveiled.
“America, think why you are hated”
Recent news media has made clear the Taliban’s — as well as many of the Islamic near-eastern community’s — contempt for Western culture. A UW-run forum to educate the Madison community on commonly misunderstood aspects of Islamic culture addressed this phenomenon Wednesday night.
UW assistant professor of African languages and literature Moneera Al-Ghadeer said a general American misconception of Islam is longstanding, but the recent terrorist attacks have driven the rift of stereotypes further.
“There is a clear binary position between the Western democratic world and another world already marked as savage, backward and full of restrictions,” she said.
Several professors and Arab Americans drew references to U.S. foreign policy’s negative effects on established middle-eastern lifestyles and governments. They stressed that Muslims are not uniformly opposed to modern education, communication or even democracy, but rather stand firmly against restrictive U.S. government actions.
“The U.S. speaks of democracy, but at the same time supports dictatorships in the Middle East. In Egypt, it supports a regime where the president was elected by 98 percent of the population,”
Charles Hirsckind, UW assistant professor of anthropology and religious studies said. “In terms of human rights … the embargo enforced on Iraq has cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives, including an estimated 5,000 children a month.”
Just days ago, pro-Taliban protestors hung a banner in Pakistan reading, “Americans think why you are hated all over the world.”
The United States worked hand-in-hand with factions that would eventually become Taliban less than a decade ago. Afghanistan was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union in 1979, at which point the United States began to supply and train Afghan and Pakistani fighters with the goal of suppressing Communism. The USSR forces withdrew 10 years later, but fighting within Afghanistan continued.
After the Soviet withdrawal, the coalition put together by Pakistan and the U.S. government unified into the Taliban movement, which turned against the establishments that created it. A civil war continues to hold Afghanistan in what the CIA calls a state of “enormous poverty, a crumbling infrastructure and widespread live mines.”
Bush gave Pakistan a difficult choice: side with us or side with them. “Them” is the mutated Taliban coalition they created, which occupies much of the arguable border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Chamberlain called the border “a figment of geographers’ imaginations” because families and cultural/language groups straddle the border. Pakistan has pledged “full cooperation” with the United States, but is facing ominous resistance at home for this. A Pakistani delegation has been instrumental in negotiations with the Taliban, which is commonly accepted as harboring terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden.
U.S.-Near East relations are a tight thread strained by retaliatory threats for “holy war” by the Muslim community or “sustained military attacks” by President Bush; a snap is likely.
Where will America turn?
Its resources are bleak, with few true allied Arab nations. Although 57 Islamic countries officially denounce the terrorist attack, few nations in the Middle East or Near East would be willing to side with the United States if drastic military strikes against those “harboring” the terrorists are taken.
In an interview with CNN, John Garnett, chairman of the Center of Defense Studies at London’s King College, said the United States will be pressed for security informers and political allies in such a war.
“If the Americans decide to widen the conflict to attacking countries that might harbor terrorists, and there are many of them around the world — one thinks of Syria, or Algeria, Iraq perhaps, even Pakistan — then I think sympathy for the United States might begin to evaporate,” Garnett said.
“The country most hostile to the Taliban government isn’t the U.S., it’s Iran,” Morgan said.
Islamic law denounces violence of all sorts, according to Ali, the president of the local Islamic community, who stressed that terrorism is completely prohibited by most all interpretations of the Quraan, the Muslim holy book.
For this reason, Morgan said, “The U.S. has a very promising, but unlikely ally in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
In fact, there was a large-scale pro-American demonstration Wednesday in Tehran, Iran’s capital.
This is fortunate, because U.S. security is lacking resources, said Andrew Emley, a UW student fluent in Arabic, a common Islamic holy language spoken in Afghanistan only in mosques. Afghanistan has three major languages and over thirty minor languages and dialects, while Pakistan has two official and eight other major languages, only some of which overlap. Iran has six.
When U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., visited the UW campus Tuesday, she asked Emley for his estimate of the FBI’s domestic resources.
“What sources of information do we have inside the United States?” she asked.
Emley said only nine students graduated with a proficiency in Arabic in the United States last year. He ventured to guess that bin Laden probably speaks Arabic, Yemenese, Saudi dialects, English and French in varying degrees, depending on who he associates himself with and how often he travels.
Neither bin Laden nor the Taliban harboring him have been officially tied to the terrorist attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York, but Bush is delivering an address tonight to either confirm or deny the ties investigators and the news media have drawn. Regardless of the announcement or its undoubtedly historic outcome, awareness of Muslim culture will grow within the United States. Whether misconceptions and stereotypes balloon at the same rate is in the hands of the uneducated public and the government whose statements it hears.