David Loyn David Loyn

How Muslim are the Taliban?

(Photo: Getty)

I first met Haji Mir, a tribal elder from Helmand, in Herat in western Afghanistan in 2002, not long after the fall of the Taliban. He had come to Herat to ensure the safety of Helmand under the new American-backed administration. At the end of the trip he protected us when we were stoned by a mob after filming a large outdoor event marking Eid.

Mir was a decent local leader in a system that valued his skills. But when I tried to track him down ten years later, at the height of British military involvement in Helmand, I was told he had been targeted and killed by the Taliban.

Mir was one of thousands of elders and traditional Muslim preachers and mullahs culled by the group, in a ruthless reshaping of the Afghan cultural landscape, as profound as their assault on more progressive areas of life such as women’s rights.

One Taliban minister asked me in 1997 ‘Why are you westerners so obsessed about “our” women?’

Across the Islamic world there are different ways of organising Islamic institutions. In Afghanistan the ulema, nationally and locally, is an institution composed of Islamic scholars and mullahs which decides social and religious issues. When Afghanistan was an Islamic Republic, governed by Sharia law before the Taliban took power on 15 August, the ulema were acknowledged guardians of that tradition.

But the Taliban have a singular interpretation of Islam, not shared by many other countries, and alien to Afghan traditions. After taking power this year they arrested the national head of the ulema appointed by the Ghani government, Maulvi Mohammad Sardar Zadran, and released humiliating pictures of him, blindfolded with his hands tied. This was consistent with their long-term violent policy of replacing the traditional religious and tribal elders of the country with their own more hardline leaders, educated in Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan.

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