Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice
At a recent press conference, a written statement attributed to the Taliban’s ‘commander of the faithful’, Haibatullah Akhundzada, said that the incoming government of Afghanistan will ‘work hard to uphold Islamic rules and sharia law’. In Arabic, ‘sharia’ implies a path to salvation, and ultra-pious Muslims don’t abandon that road willingly. But the rules to be upheld are less obvious. They’ve been contested for at least twelve hundred years. Some jurists have been tolerant and inclusive; others not. One prolific scholar popular in Taliban circles, Ibn Abiʼl-Dunya, a stern tutor to several princes in late ninth-century Baghdad, wrote seven tracts on prohibition alone. Among the frivolities he thought hateful to God were stringed instruments, chess, pigeon-fancying and sitting on seesaws.
Akhundzada leans heavily towards intolerance. In the late 1990s, he worked closely with the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which outlawed activities from beard-trimming to kite-flying. He went on to write a legal justification for suicide bombings. Among those apparently persuaded by it was his 23-year-old son; in July 2017, he drove an explosive-laden Humvee into a Helmand military base.
With spiritual guidance that fierce, there’s little the Taliban can’t authorise itself to do. Isolated verses of the Quran can easily be cited to justify the disadvantaging of women and minorities. Ninth-century texts condemning pursuits that distract from God are reason enough to outlaw frivolities from soap operas to Snapchat. And brutal punishments can always be labelled divine: symbolic floggings, amputations and executions excite the Taliban’s supporters as much as they appal its critics.
The Taliban’s pick ʼn’ mix approach to jurisprudence shouldn’t be underestimated, though: its sharia courts are an established feature of Afghanistan’s legal landscape. With a view to delegitimising politicians in Kabul, over the last fifteen years the movement established a three-tier judicial structure in territories it controlled. And according to an Overseas Development Institute survey published in May 2020, which drew on several earlier analyses, the system was typically seen ‘as more accessible and easier to navigate than state courts, as well as quicker, fairer and less corrupt’.
Taliban judges in those courts didn’t need to be impeccable. All they had to do was inspire more confidence than the alternatives – courts sanctioned by the state or tribal authorities – and they were flexible enough to do so. Rather than suppress local customs, sharia courts tended to accommodate them. Harsh punishments were exceptional. Rulings that honourably resolved potentially poisonous disputes were usually respected, even by the losing side.
The cleric who oversaw that wartime effort, Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, has been appointed minister of justice. Now that the Taliban looks set to establish an entirely new state judiciary, the fiction that hardliners maintain about the sharia – that it benefits everyone, all the time – is about to come under unprecedented strain. Will Afghanistan’s new courts be ‘quicker, fairer and less corrupt’ than the old ones – or just more spectacularly repressive?
The signs aren’t good. With a humanitarian catastrophe looming, Taliban ministers have failed to engage with international agencies and started feuding among themselves. Even the fate of Haibatullah Akhundzada is unclear: he’s not been seen since the Taliban takeover, and rumours of his untimely death are rife. Such gossip isn’t worth much but it reflects widespread unease. Ordinary people, braced for sectarian violence since Islamic State’s vicious bomb attack at Kabul Airport on 26 August, aren’t confident that lasting legal order is at hand. Far from calling for the Taliban to go easy on repression, some have been demanding that it step up its security patrols and make its enforcers wear uniforms.
Even if the Taliban’s efforts to realise heaven on earth are doomed to fall short, the calls in Afghanistan for implementation of sharia law aren’t about to end. In a war-torn country mired in poverty and starved of opportunities, dreams of stability are intense. Any movement that claims to know God’s eternal laws – and how to give them effect – will always have its appeal.