Following twenty years of war in Afghanistan, the Taliban swept through provincial capitals and took over control of virtually the whole country in a matter of weeks. The Taliban’s fast pace to victory in Afghanistan has been attributed to many factors, amongst which are rampant corruption, lack of political will to fight, internal fragmentation of the Kabul political elite, and the ill-devised plans of withdrawing international troops from Afghanistan.
Far less discussed in this context is the issue of widespread radicalisation through mosques, madrassas (Islamic religious schools), educational institutions and even state universities that both directly and indirectly contributed to the Taliban’s victory.
Widespread religious extremism in Afghanistan’s institutions
The direct consequence of widespread religious extremism has been to create a readily available pool of religiously charged sympathisers that the Taliban could draw on for various purposes. These extremist views were often compounded by opposition to values such as democracy, women’s rights and freedom of speech, which were associated with the former government. As such, over a period of years, extremism propagated through formal and informal institutions. This undermined the legitimacy of the Afghan government, aiding the Taliban’s victory.
Since 2001, the country has witnessed an unprecedent increase in the number of mosques and madrassas. According to the Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs, only 3,500 mosques out of 120,000 were registered in 2014. This meant that while thousands of youths received religious training and education in these mosques, the government had little to no control over them.
These madrassas have a strong outreach and significant popularity, which have challenged policies of the former government and the civil society in Afghanistan. For example, a popular Mullah in Herat city managed to prevent a singer from giving a concert in the city, deeming the event un-Islamic.
There are numerous examples of extreme views associated with the Mullahs, mosques and madrassas resulting in violence. For example, in 2011, a mob provoked by Mullahs—not associated with the Taliban or any other organised group—attacked the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
Educational institutions have historically been at the heart of resistance movements in Afghanistan. For example, in the 1980s, Mullahs, mosques and religious scholars played a pivotal role in mobilising the public against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Historical accounts point to the formation of radical Islamic movements led by university professors who were trained at Al Azhar University in Cairo and were under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. These movements—often split along ethnic and ideological divides—originally focused on recruiting university students. Likewise, the Ulema mobilised their network of madrassa students and teachers to join mainstream Islamic parties (some founded and led by the intelligentsia as mentioned above) to fight against the Soviet troops and the Communist supporters.
The spread of extremist material in the media
Organisations propagating extremist material in Afghanistan have extensive and diversified media outreach. Socio-religious organisations formally registered with the previous government—for example Jama’at-e Eslah (commonly referred to as Eslah), which has roots in 1980s jihad against Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—operate a number of radio stations, magazines, DVDs, CDs, online platforms and so forth with country-wide reach.
This type of media often takes a very strict interpretation of religion, based on the Salafi school of thought. It is usually highly critical of the previous government and international coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Many young people with extremist views wanted to replace the democratic political order with a sharia-based government since they viewed democracy as anti-Islamic. These sentiments are reflected in one of the brochures by Eslah, which refers to the Bilateral Security Agreement between the US and former Afghan government signed in 2014 as un-Islamic and anti-Sharia. The brochure also criticises the Afghan media for broadcasting movies and music.
Furthermore, Eslah also organised rallies, protests and gatherings on various political issues such as anti-Israel protests, a sentiment shared with violent extremist jihadi groups
Indeed, the Taliban devised a comprehensive and elaborate media strategy aimed at radicalising, raising funds and building an image of the group as nationalist freedom fighters. Taliban sympathisers were in abundance prior to the group taking over control of the major cities in the country. For example, Ismail Khan, a former warlord and the leader of the resistance movement against the Taliban in Herat city, prior to the fall of the city to the Taliban, stated that religious scholars from Herat met with him in an attempt to convince him not to oppose the Taliban.
Women, too, played a significant role in the social and political polarisation of Afghan society, as both active and passive supporters of radical views. As seemingly opposite forces (the communist regime versus the Mujahidin, the novice democratic government versus the Taliban) struggled to dominate the country, each side attempted to win women’s support to varying degrees. In the absence of solid statistics, it is safe to say that Afghan women who support the Taliban most likely were, and are still a minority. Even so, the number of women who adhere to extremist ideologies more generally is probably larger than those directly supporting the Taliban as a political entity.
For example, in the 1980s and early 1990s, Afghan women played critical roles as mobilisers, sympathisers and direct and indirect supporters of jihad. On one hand, the pro-communist government tried to promote women’s participation in public life and in politics. On the opposite side, various Mujahidin groups fighting against the Soviet troops and the pro-communist regime in Afghanistan had female supporters who provided logistics, acted as informants, and had various supporting domestic roles.
Although women’s participation in jihad against the Soviets certainly existed, the Taliban officially discouraged women’s active and direct involvement in its struggle. In the words of Mawlawai Qalamudin, the Taliban’s former head of the Department of Preventing Vice and Promoting Virtue: “We did not need women’s sympathy and assistance as we had the public support. There are religiously and traditionally accepted roles for women in our society and being in the battlefield is not one of them.” Nonetheless women in these “religiously and traditionally accepted roles” still played a part in shaping the anti-government attitudes and resisting reforms and gender policies.
In the period between 2001 and the fall of the country to the Taliban this year, many civil society organisations, NGOs, and the former Afghan government launched widespread programmes to improve women’s rights in the country. At times, some women resisted these programmes. They viewed them contradictory to their religious convictions. For example, in 2013, hundreds of women affiliated with one of the Islamic radical groups in Kabul carried out a demonstration against the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women who viewed the law as a “plot by the West to strip Muslim women of their Islamic dignity”.
Furthermore, the popularity of madrassa amongst Afghan women in the past twenty years has been unprecedented. In Herat city, for example, the number of madrassas for women saw an increase of 50 per cent in 2013 compared with to the decade before. During a period when women’s political participation, such as voting, was severely restricted in some Afghan communities, women educated in these ultraconservative Islamic schools were politically active. In fact, some Afghan women, living under strict customary norms and traditional practices that confines women’s roles to the domestic sphere, found education at madrassas, and activism legitimised by madrassas and religious institutions, as a means of exercising agency. Hence, it comes at no surprise that following the fall of Kabul, in response to anti-Taliban protests by women, a number of women dressed in black burqa protested in support of the Taliban with slogans in favour of the hijab and Islamic caliphate and “no to gender equality”. Likewise, many women & men, on social media supported these pro-Taliban rallies by women.
A complex set of factors both directly and indirectly led to the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. An overlooked issue is widespread gradual radicalisation over the past two decades. The number of mosques and madrassas had skyrocketed in the country since 2001. Attendance was popular, and while some of these organisations remained apolitical and merely tended to religious affairs and practices, a great many were infiltrated by and spread extremist ideologies. Sermons and teachings that undermined the former government and its associated liberal and democratic values became a regular state of affairs. Furthermore, organisations promoting extremist interpretation of religion had been operating in the country, some falling merely short of promoting violence.
This led to a wave of religiously charged men (and to a lesser extent women) gradually amassing. They offered sympathy and support to the Taliban’s cause.
In the backdrop of this wave of radicalisation, the former government was distracted. Their primary concern was to ward off the Taliban’s offenses and fight the group militarily. Hence, they left unaddressed the extremist ideologies propagated through various channels and adopted by different segments of the society that eventually facilitated Taliban’s rise to power.