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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

The Taliban: War, Religion, and the New Order in Afghanistan
Peter Marsden

London: Zed Press, 1999
160pp. Hb.: ISBN: 1856495213

This relatively short, concisely-written new book is particularly useful in attempting to disentangle ethnic, religious, superpower, and historical threads in Afghanistan. Peter Marsden is an unusual combination: An Arabic specialist with extensive experience in community development and humanitarian assistance, particularly in Afghanistan, and many years' experience as Information Co-ordinator of the British Agencies Afghan Group. His book draws on all this experience. It describes the ethnic complexities of Afghanistan and its history, reflecting particularly on the importance of Pushtun rural culture as a source of Taliban puritanism. He draws comparisons between the Taliban and a number of historical radical movements within Islam, including the Wahhabi, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian revolution, and Moamar al Gaddafi. Marsden presents a convincing case for the influence on the Taliban of these various historical precedents, not in order to over-simplify, but to re-contextualise our view of the Taliban movement. He emphasises particularly that the Taliban are consistent in their words and actions that their focus is Afghan society and its purification. "The Taliban can be seen as distinct from the Islamist Mujahidin parties in that they are not trying to create a political ideology. Rather, using Shari'a law as their sole guide to action in governing the country, they are looking to the Ulema [the learned men who interpret Shari'a] to provide guidance as to how they should proceed in any given situation. [? The movement is thus inward looking and is exclusive of what may be happening in the outside world." Taliban efforts to make Afghan society a pure, Islamic state by protecting it from outside influences, and their simultaneous protestation of having no designs on the rest of the world, run directly counter to the expectations and understanding of the rest of the world. Marsden repeats the well-known history of external interference in Afghan affairs, including the empire-building of the British, the Russian competing imperialism, the Soviet imposition of socialism and eventual invasion and war, and the roles of the USA, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in particular in arming specific Mujahidin parties and movements to fight the Soviet army. Marsden reveals a pattern of events in which the Taliban act according to their own rather limited and rigid aims: everything else is subordinated to the determination to take control of the entire country and to purify society. Education of women, for example, is not opposed in principle, but will not be permitted until the Ulema has created an acceptable curriculum and infrastructure, and this is not at the moment a high priority. The consequences for individuals and families are grave and immediate, and many have fled into exile accordingly. One of Marsden's gifts, however, is to know and to remind us that, just as hundreds of thousands of Afghan families now leave for Pakistan to prevent their daughters suffering from extremes of Islamic imposition, so their predecessors fled the Soviet imposition of socialist values in 1979. The Taliban severity in enforcing dress and behaviour codes on the population, and particularly their limitations on women, evoke in the West not only human rights-based concern for individual liberties, but stereotypes of oppression, patriarchy, and even terrorism. Marsden is particularly helpful in juxtaposing this confrontation with the actual difficulties posed for Afghan families by the strict Taliban codes. For poor families, the requirement of additional cloth is too expensive, the garments unwieldy for engaging in agricultural work, the prohibition against women working has driven the fragile family income into destitution. As a consequence, the children must replace the women's previous earnings with their own work or begging, all the easier when all girls' schools and even most boys' schools have closed when deprived of women teachers. "The Taliban are not unusual within the Islamic world in insisting on conformity to a particular code of dress. However, they are at the extreme end in the degree to which they enforce this. The periodic practice by some elements within the Taliban, particularly the religious police, of beating women with sticks in the street if they do not comply has had an enormous impact on the mobility of the female population. [? There has also been a marked decline in women and children attending health facilities." Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of this book is that it brings in Marsden's experience in Afghanistan as a Western development and humanitarian aid worker, and the perspective of such agencies. This is a particularly illuminating perspective, since it reveals the confrontation of value systems which are somewhat blind to each other, in working with and on behalf of the most marginal of the local populations. While humanitarian agencies are faced with Taliban practices which often seem severe and inhuman, they have at their backs Western governments and public opinion with stereotypes of Islamic fundamentalism and a rigid unwillingness to recognise the Taliban government, even as they judge its actions. There is here a useful reminder that ethnicity and fundamentalism do not belong only to them. 1 Marsden, p.85 2 Marsden, p.90

Sue Williams, INCORE

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