Taliban doesn't equal Islam: How news coverage of Afghanistan disserves a great religion

·5 min read
A Taliban fighter in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 16, 2021.
A Taliban fighter in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 16, 2021.

Like the dizzying speed with which events transpired in Afghanistan, so too has been the apoplectic invocation of terms used to describe the Taliban’s return to power.

News outlets and commentators have recklessly referenced Islam, fundamentalism, Islamic law and Shariah with little, if any, context, definition or understanding of the religion and its complex layers of teachings, laws and people.

And so, as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban this week, my heart broke twice. Once for all the work I did there building institutions that respect human rights in keeping with Islamic law and values, and a second time, for the way the media and politicians resorted to careless and often misleading rhetoric that stoked confusion, concern and outright fear of Islam and Muslims.

If we have learned anything in the two decades since 9/11, it should be that Islam is not a monolith, Muslims represent a sixth of humanity, and any simplistic reduction of Islamic law to savage brutality is woefully ignorant and unhelpful.

Although Islamic law is frequently equated with the Sharia, they are not the same thing. Sharia is an Arabic term that means “a path to the source of water” and is mentioned just once in the Quran; it is used to distinguish between an utterly whimsical path of lawlessness and a straight path bound by certitude.

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In other words, Sharia can be understood as God’s will for humankind.

Yet, most of what has been described as Islamic law – including that articulated by the Taliban – is really a body of law produced by scholars trying to understand God's will and the result of fallible human interpretation. There is no singular "lawbook" for Islamic law.

Instead, as I often teach my students, Islamic jurisprudence is a vast collection of different, often competing, interpretations of primary sources like the Quran and prophetic tradition, which is a separate and complex science.

Perhaps more important, because interpreting God’s will for humanity remains an ongoing enterprise, there is always new understanding to be derived, doing away with the stereotype that Islamic law is frozen, or locked in a particular place or time.

My students are not the only ones who have learned these lessons, so too have Afghans.

When the Taliban swept across stretches of Afghanistan in the 1990s, they brought promises of incorruptibility backed by force. Unfortunately, their earliest practices revealed an approach to Islamic law that was often inextricably entangled with the cultural traditions of the Pashtun people and led to the promulgation of various rules, among other things, resulting in the severe marginalizing of the role of women in society.

This week, when pressed on the issue, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, “The Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women within the framework of Sharia.” Of course, like media outlets, the Taliban could offer no specifics regarding the precise meaning of their interpretation of Islamic law.

The Taliban cannot merely invoke Islamic law to control a more cosmopolitan and religiously literate Afghan population than the one they governed three decades ago. Instead, the Islamic legal tradition demands that they articulate their positions and ensure such positions are consistent with the faith they claim to cherish.

Appeal to religious values is effective

Adhering to transcendental religious values might strike some as an anathema to our understanding of contemporary society. But against a sea of troubles in this incredibly diverse but landlocked country, I discovered in my years of work with the U.S. government, recourse to religious values could help address thorny problems such as women’s access to justice and constructing a way for people to speak about post-conflict justice.

The only way to substantively engage actors like the Taliban is a willingness to engage them where their claims to legitimacy lie: Islamic jurisprudence.

The future of Islam lies within Islam, between Muslim and Muslim. It is a debate about many things, but particularly significant is the discourse about the role of women in Islamic societies, especially considering fundamental questions about human dignity, economic potential and securing the needs of the next generation of Muslims.

We must leverage the fact Muslims live in democratic societies, in states led by women heads of state, with active groups putting forth political, legal and religious efforts to bring about equality and progress in the field of human development.

In sum, we must be willing to leverage the strength of the Islamic legal legacy against those claiming to invoke it.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid says they "will not allow any foreigners to harm or threaten Afghanistan."
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid says they "will not allow any foreigners to harm or threaten Afghanistan."

For instance, while at the U.S. Institute of Peace, I developed and executed pilot projects on women’s access to justice through Islamic marital contracts in Afghanistan and developed an innovative approach toward addressing post-conflict justice under Islam. The hope was that this Islamic law and values-based approach would work better given the cultural and historical context of the country and would live on regardless of which regime was in power.

Islamic legacy can keep Taliban accountable

As the Taliban assert authority in Afghanistan, let us not fall prey to simply demonizing Islam and Islamic law. Instead, for the sake of the Afghan people, let us help them employ this astounding religious legacy to continue keeping the Taliban accountable.

Since 9/11, Muslims and non-Muslims alike have come to more deeply appreciate the nuance that defines the 14-century legacy of one of the world’s most widespread legal systems.

The Taliban are not the same group we saw in 1996. So, let us hope that this Taliban 2.0 have broadened their perspective on Islamic law and values in keeping with the teachings that my colleagues and I worked so hard on for so many years.

Hamid Khan is an adjunct professor of Islamic law at the University of Michigan Law, a national security fellow with the Truman National Security Project and an attorney with the U.S. government.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Taliban and Islam: Why extremism doesn't reflect a great religion

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