Inside the Taliban campaign to forge a religious emirate
The Washington Post February 18, 2023
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the group quickly launched what officials called a "purification" campaign aimed at stripping the country of civil laws and institutions to build an entirely Islamic society.
A year and a half later, the Taliban has gutted the country's justice system in its campaign to forge a religious emirate, by scrapping the constitution and replacing the legal code with rules based on a draconian interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban has filled prisons to overflowing, deprived men and women of basic civil rights, and eroded social safety nets meant to protect the most vulnerable Afghans. It is also seeking to transform the media, using it to promote its vision for the country and restricting content deemed un-Islamic, including music and the presence of women.
The Taliban's critics say this effort has replaced a social order based on rights with one maintained by fear and intimidation. Taliban officials and some Afghans, however, credit the campaign with improving security and eliminating corruption.
"We have returned humanity to the country," said Mawlewi Ahmad Shah Fedayii, a prominent imam with close ties to the Taliban, speaking outside his mosque in Afghanistan's second city of Kandahar. He said Taliban rule has improved the lives of all Afghans, including women, and given the people greater freedom of speech. "Before, women were forced to work, to labor, but now they are kept at home and treated like a queen," he said.
Fedayii, who has preached in Kandahar for over a decade, blamed Afghanistan's problems under the previous government on "man-made laws," which allowed corruption, violence and poverty to flourish. "They had a constitution half taken from Islamic law, but the other half was corrupt laws," he said. "If you had half a glass of pure milk and then poured dirty water into it, you wouldn't drink it. It makes the entire drink dirty. It was the same with the constitution."
Taliban judges say they either burned the books containing laws from the previous government when they moved into abandoned courthouses after the 2021 takeover or left the legal volumes untouched on the shelves.
Within recent months, the purification campaign has escalated further, with the Taliban formalizing these legal and policy changes. The group's supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, has become more vocal about subjecting alleged criminals to Islamic law, and this has translated, for instance, into more frequent public beatings.
"The rulers are compelled to make efforts to create an Islamic sharia system and bring reforms to [Afghan] society," a deputy Taliban spokesman, Qari Muhammad Yousef Ahmadi, told The Washington Post. He said imposing the Taliban's interpretation of Islamic law "is a blessing for the government, the people, and it pleases God."
"Courts are the main source of purification for an Islamic government," said Mufti Fazlullah Asim, a 35-year-old judge in the criminal wing of the Kandahar court.
In the main courtroom, the outlines of the previous government's crest - hastily painted over - are visible above empty bookshelves. In Asim's office, his desk is stacked with handwritten statements and photocopied forms.
Before the collapse of the previous Afghan government, Asim ran Taliban social media platforms. Now, he passes judgments based solely on the interpretation of Islamic law he was taught in a Taliban madrassa in the countryside outside Kandahar. "We consult Allah's law and only Allah's law," he said.
Afghan society has yet to become purely Islamic, as shown by the continuing presence of crime, he said; he decides dozens of criminal cases every week. Most are minor, such as petty theft. But he also rules on allegations of murder and extortion and has the authority to order corporal punishments, like public lashings and amputating hands.
With each decision, Asim said he believes he is bringing the country one step closer to eliminating the outside influences introduced by U.S. and NATO forces after they invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and ended the Taliban's previous time in power.
"It will take some time, because over the past 20 years our people were trained with a different mind-set," he said.
So far, the Taliban's purification campaign has yet to reprise the brutality of the group's earlier tenure, such as the widespread stoning of women for alleged adultery. But recent changes suggest that the Taliban could be moving in that direction.
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As Afghanistan's legal framework shifts, the Taliban is also filling up the same prisons the group emptied more than a year ago when taking power.
"The biggest difference with the inmates now is that we don't hold political prisoners," said Naimatullah Siraj, director of Kandahar's central prison, referring to the Taliban fighters incarcerated by the previous government. Siraj himself was once imprisoned because he was found transporting explosives to build a roadside bomb.
Most of those locked up under Taliban rule are accused of what Siraj called "moral crimes" such as drug abuse and theft. Many were arrested in large sweeps of urban areas conducted by Taliban forces. The Interior Ministry said some 10,000 drug addicts had been "collected" from across the country in the past year. In contrast, under the previous government, apprehended drug users were mostly sent to rehabilitation centers.
The Taliban spokesman, Ahmadi, said prisons and detention centers serve the same purpose as rehabilitation centers, despite the facilities lacking adequate medical personnel and supplies.
The large number of arrests have overwhelmed facilities like Kandahar's central prison. Siraj said the complex holds more people than it ever did before.
Inside, prison yards and cells are packed. Dozens of young men, many teenagers, crowded recently in the shade of an awning for a class on Islamic values. At the main health clinic, patients filled the hallways, resting on the floor and leaning against walls.
One man crouching outside the doctor's office said he had been arrested two months earlier and hadn't seen a judge or been formally charged. Prison guards - who forbade him from giving his name or any further details - confirmed that it is normal for inmates to wait months to be charged because there are so many of them. This wait is legal under Taliban rule.
As advancing Taliban forces moved into cities across Afghanistan, the group's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice closed shelters for women who had escaped abusive relationships. Taliban spokesman Ahmadi refused to answer questions about the closure of women's shelters, but said women are "not shelterless" in Afghanistan.
One 21-year-old woman recounted how, before the Taliban took power, she had left a physically abusive marriage and took refuge at a women's shelter. Later, she started working there herself. The job allowed her to provide for her young daughter and mother. But when Taliban fighters took control of her city and closed the shelter, dozens of women were forced out onto the streets, according to the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of Taliban reprisals.
"The Taliban are putting some of them in prison. Others are just being killed," she said. Some women who previously lived at the shelter were charged with running away from home, others with prostitution.
The woman said she has only managed to avoid arrest because she moves from apartment to apartment every few months with her daughter.
"If I wasn't able to run away [from my husband's home] to a safe place, I wouldn't be alive right now," she said. "Without shelters for women to go to now, their fate is only prison or death."
Former social workers, lawyers and other women who had lived at the shelters confirmed that arrests of women trying to escape domestic abuse have risen under the Taliban.
One former social worker said all the women she had counseled under the previous government have disappeared. At least one, she said, was found dead.
"No women have been imprisoned without committing a crime" under the Taliban, Ahmadi said. "No injustices have been done to women here."
Since taking power, the Taliban has also severely restricted female access to education and barred women from working for humanitarian organizations.
The rulings sparked global outrage and initially forced many aid groups to halt operations delivering assistance to millions of Afghans struggling to keep their families warm and fed. The Taliban has said that other countries should not interfere with its domestic affairs, and, on balance, the international backlash has been relatively modest.
While assurances from local Taliban authorities or ministry-level officials have allowed some women to return to work and aid groups to continue distributions, the restrictions on education have not eased. So, for women determined to continue their studies, the only options left are religious schools called madrassas.
At a girls' madrassa in Kabul, the classes are packed with students sitting in neat rows bent over religious texts marked with Post-its and notes in the margins. In one room, young women chant Quranic verses into a speaker and rock back and forth hypnotically.
The school's director, Zarsanga Safi, said attendance has soared since the Taliban takeover.
"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is cooperating with us," she said. Licenses to open new religious schools are easier to obtain from Taliban officials, and she said many of her older students have gone on to open their own madrassas. For many of her newest students, the past year was the first time they considered studying the Quran.
Benfsha Sapi, 16, enrolled after the Taliban last year banned secondary education for girls. She said she never considered a religious education before. "In the past, I had other things to do in my life," she said, dressed in a black robe, gloves and a veil that revealed only her eyes. "But now that I don't have anything else, I come to this madrassa."
Raised as a conservative Muslim, she said she was always interested in learning more about Islam, but her dream is to return to high school and one day become a lawyer. "I want to make sure people have their rights respected and protected," she said. "I care about what is right and what is wrong."
While she hopes girls will be allowed to resume secondary education so she can study law, Sapi acknowledges that she's not the same person she was before she began memorizing the Quran. "This school has really changed my life and how I think," she said. "I know more about my religion now; I have a better understanding of what God says is the correct thing and what is wrong."
While rulings stripping women of their rights have further undermined the Taliban's reputation on the international stage, inside Afghanistan the group is overhauling the media to promote a positive image of the emirate, its new leadership and ultraconservative beliefs.
Television programs that the group deems immoral have been outlawed. Afghan films are no longer allowed to include women or music. And Afghan news outlets that broadcast critical stories are routinely threatened with legal action, forcing dozens to shutter, according to former employees.
Ahmadullah Wasiq, director of state media under the Taliban, defended the restrictions and said the role of the press "should be to promote stability and promote our government." But he said the news outlets that have closed did so because of economic difficulties, not because of Taliban pressure.
Wasiq said the Taliban closely monitors all local and foreign media outlets in Afghanistan for "violations" of Taliban policy such as "insulting anyone in a position of power."
"If someone goes against the rules by broadcasting content against our values, they will face consequences," Wasiq said.
"We are committed to freedom of speech," he added, "but only within our guidelines."
The Washington Post's Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.