Today Afghanistan, tomorrow the world?

Afghanistan's Taliban rebels blend a little Maoism into their Islamic fundamentalism

By Franz Schurmann

Published October 2, 1996 11:45AM (EDT)


the fall of Afghanistan's capital Kabul to the Taliban rebels has received far less coverage in the Western media than the latest round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians -- yet the Taliban victory may well prove a more influential event.

The Mideast conflict grapples with the age-old issue of using borders to separate hostile nations. The Taliban send out a different message: borders don't matter. The Taliban have come to power in one of Asia's most strategically located countries with one single-minded aim -- to redeem the entire Islamic world of one billion people.

What matters to the Taliban is creating a moral society, which they believe can come about only through religion, specifically Islam. Their most widely reported actions upon taking power -- including the public execution of former Afghan Communist leader Najibullah and the imposition of a strict Islamic code of dress and behavior on women -- don't exactly play well to the West. But their stunning victory in just two years of fighting reflects the huge popularity of their message at home. Wherever they fought in ethnically diverse Afghanistan, they were feared by the warlords but welcomed by ordinary people.

The word "taliban" is the Farsi-Persian plural of the Arabic word "talib," student. Their movement started in the late 1980s in Pakistan's numerous Afghan refugee camps. But its roots lie in the revolutionary fervor that gripped Afghan students during the 1960s. Like many of their colleagues all over the world at the time, Afghan students embraced Marxism-Leninism. But unlike most of the others, which focused on industrial workers, Afghan students were deeply affected by Chinese Maoism -- which preached an almost missionary moralism toward the poor.

When a brutal Communist government came to power in Afghanistan in 1978, Marxism-Leninism soured as an ideology among Afghan youth. Many turned to Islam, the faith of the vast majority of Afghanistan's poorest people. Students found that Maoism's "serve-the-people" doctrines fit in well with Islam, even as they found Mao Zedong's concepts of warfare highly effective in resisting the Communist regime and then battling post-Communist warlords.

The Taliban emerged as a new force in Afghanistan two years ago when they swept away Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, Afghanistan's most powerful warlord. Then they seized the country's westernmost city, Herat. Last week they claimed Kabul, thanks largely to the help of civilian residents fed up with war and official corruption.

International observers' key concern now is whether the Taliban will content themselves with running their own country. Pakistan fears the fact that the Taliban are predominantly Pushtun, an ethnic group that comprises roughly half of Afghanistan's population and a sizable minority in Pakistan (where they also dominate the Pakistani army). Ever since 1947, successive Afghan governments have demanded that Pakistan cede all their Pushtun-inhabited regions to form Pushtunistan, or a Greater Afghanistan.

But the Talibans are not nationalists; they are devout Sunni Muslims. They have offered the ethnic Tadjiks, their main opponents in Afghanistan, positions in their new government, in part because the Tadjiks are also Sunnis. On the other hand, they denounce their Shi'a opponents as infidels. Because of their fierce opposition to Shi'ism, the Taliban are loathed by Iran -- as well as by Russia, India and independent Tajikistan, which backed the now-deposed Rabbani government in Kabul.

For ordinary Pakistanis, who are also Sunni Muslims, the Taliban's fervent Sunni beliefs, along with their Maoist serve-the-people ideology, hold strong appeal. Should Afghanistan gain a new stability under a Sunni Islamic order, that appeal will be greatly enhanced as Pakistan itself descends into political instability.

Denounced and feared by the West as terrorists and "Afghan Arabs" indoctrinated by Arab radicals, the Taliban in fact are neither. They are dead-serious revolutionaries, just like Mao's Communists. Should they succeed in Afghanistan, their impact will be felt not just in neighboring Pakistan but in Tajikistan, Russia and India, where the vast majority of Muslims are also Sunnis.

Ironically, Washington's first reaction to the Taliban victory was mildly favorable, largely because of the Taliban's deep animosity towards Iran. But should Taliban revolutionary morality make inroads in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bosnia, the tables will turn. The fear of an Iranian-led revolutionary Islam will be as nothing compared to the prospect of a Taliban-led Islamic tidal wave.

© Pacific News Service

Quote of the day

Hollywood's ride to nowhere

"There's this phenomenon of the ride nowadays. It's almost as if every film
has to have a quote from Joel Siegel saying, 'The ride of the summer!' The
whole thing is getting kind of boring."

-- Shane Black, the action film screenwriter who penned the forthcoming
"The Long Kiss Goodnight" for Renny Harlin, on the decline of screenplay
quality in Hollywood.

Franz Schurmann

Franz Schurmann is a professor emeritus of history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He recently wrote about urban gardening in China and Uganda for the latest issue of Choices, a magazine published quarterly by the UN Development Program.

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