by S. Amjad Hussain
KABUL, Afghanistan - For many Americans, the Taliban appear to be ignorant, fundamentalist zealots who seem at least as fanatical as was the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Khomeini.
And indeed, they are people who imprison men who trim their beards, keep women secluded, and who last winter blew up what were regarded as art treasures the world over, the 800-year-old statues known as the Great Buddahs of Bamiyan.
"These idols have been gods of the infidels," was Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar's only comment when he was begged to spare them.
To be sure, even many Muslims feel that the Taliban are fanatics. But for many Afghans, they began not as tyrants, but as saviors delivering them from anarchy and terror. And when the Taliban burst on the scene, what the overwhelming majority of their nation desperately craved was not freedom, but order.
The watershed moment was in the spring of 1994, in the southern city of Kandahar, a city which, like Kabul, had degenerated into warring fiefdoms that in many ways resembled gangster-era Chicago. One day, a local Mujahid commander kidnapped two young girls, had their heads shaved, and repeatedly raped them. At that time, incidents like that were common across the desperate nation.
What followed, however, was different. A local village mullah, a young teacher by the name of Muhammad Omar, gathered 30 students from his religious school. Somehow they scraped together 16 rifles and together attacked the stronghold of the evil warlord and freed the girls. They hanged their rapist from the barrel of a tank. Another similar incident followed and another.
Suddenly, the poor and oppressed had a Robin Hood. And all this man, Mullah Omar, then about 35, said he wanted was the establishment of a just Islamic order. Gradually, the students and teachers from his and other religious schools organized and asserted their authority throughout the Kandahar region.
They became known as the Taliban, a Persian word meaning "students of Islamic knowledge." They restored law and order and disarmed the heavily armed populace throughout the whole Kandahar region. These religious warriors are Sunni, not Shiite Muslims like their counterparts in Iran - but their world-view is just as medieval. In fact, by comparison the religious regime in Iran is more tolerant.
Their roots date back to the 19th century, when the Muslims in India started a religious school, or madrassa, designed to inculcate religious values in their youth and counter the trend toward western education. Other similar schools were gradually established across India in what is now Pakistan, and these schools attracted a large number of Afghans as well.
The underlying philosophy of their education was as deeply anti-modern as it was anti-western. It is based on the acceptance of the old religious traditions and interpretations and deeply opposed to any new ideas or innovation in interpreting that message. That curriculum gives its believers a strong sense of continuity and comfort - but effectively rules out any accommodation with the modern.
And the Taliban has taken even this extremely reactionary philosophy to the extreme, especially when it comes to their view of women and their role in society and their fiercely negative attitude toward Shiite Muslims, who they regard as heretics.
Why are they so fanatical? One thing that is important to remember is that they are mostly young - and literally, the orphans of the Afghanistan war. Most of them grew up in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan during the war against the Soviets. They knew their homeland, but only from a distance, and then only through the prism of Islamic fundamentalism.
During the Afghan war with the Soviets in the 1980s, Pakistan's military ruler channeled large sums of money to establish religious schools, and Afghan students from the refugee camps were some of the most eager pupils. There, the young exiles learned nothing about their own history except for the recent war of liberation. For them, the "jihad," or religious war, that followed against the tyranny of the warlords gave their lives meaning, purpose, and the promise of a future. And they were lucky in that they burst on the scene at precisely the right time.
Pakistan, noting the Taliban's stunning success in the Kandahar region, decided to dramatically shift policy and back the Taliban. Why? Pakistan's leaders had dreams of easy access to the consumer markets of Central Asia, dreams that vanished in the bloody chaos of civil war and anarchy.
Could the Taliban possibly be the answer to Afghanistan's seemingly never-ending nightmare? Then-Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto decided to throw the dice and gamble that they were.
Saudi Arabia followed suit. Soon, the Taliban were beginning to move to conquer the entire country, taking aim at the capital, Kabul. But they first needed to decide how they would govern and be governed.
In the spring of 1996, 1,200 mullahs, or religious teachers, met in Kandahar to tackle these questions. Ethnically, most of them were Pushtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, though only 38 percent of the total population. Though there was some dissent, the majority wanted to install Mullah Omar, the young cleric who had started the whole movement by rescuing the kidnapped girls in 1994, as the leader.
But who was he really? Legends had started to grow around this somewhat shadowy and mysterious figure. Most accounts say Mohammed Omar was born about 1959. He is said to have fought against the Soviets, at one point losing his right eye.
According to one account, after his eye was damaged by shrapnel, he pulled it out, wiped the blood on the walls of a mosque, and kept fighting.
Admirers say he eats simple food, sleeps on the floor, and never utters a sentence without mentioning Allah's name. He is, by all accounts, shy and reclusive.
Initially, Mullah Omar was said to be reluctant to lead the Taliban, but relented under pressure. But he felt he needed unanimous support - and came up with a way to get it. He appeared before the gathering wearing a robe attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Immediately, the assembled mullahs took allegiance to Omar and elected him Amir-ul-Momineen, or Commander of the Faithful.
After that, it took the Taliban six months to capture Kabul and unify most of the country under their rule. By the time the Taliban laid siege to the capital, the Communist government had been toppled and its leader, Najibullah, imprisoned in the United Nations compound in Kabul.
With the Taliban at the gates of the city, President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a nonfundamentalist guerrilla leader, fled to the north, where his "Northern Alliance" still controls a tiny strip of territory. Najibullah was then summarily executed and his body was left strung up in the bazaar for days.
Most of the people throughout the nation were initially eager to see the Taliban take power, for the same reason they were greeted as heroes in Kandahar. Tired of anarchy and lawlessness, the people welcomed them as God-sent holy knights in shining armor.
And indeed, they restored law and order. They disarmed the population throughout the nation as they did in Kandahar. But they insisted on enforcing a strict and harsh version of Sharia, the Islamic law that allows no room for argument or discussion.
They banned music, closed schools for girls, forbid women to work outside the home, and ordered every male to grow a beard. They instituted public executions for murderers and cut off the hands of thieves.
Afghanistan under the Taliban is not governed in the same way as most modern states. While the government is still in Kabul, Mullah Omar returned to his village near Kandahar, where he presides over a 10-member Supreme Shura (council). It includes the chief justice, foreign and interior ministers, information minister, and other political and financial officials. Two other councils - the military and the cabinet shura based in Kabul - report to this body; many top members of them serve on the Supreme Shura.
Those high officials based in Kabul make frequent visits to Kandahar to report and seek guidance from their leader. Today, Afghanistan is truly a theocracy. Orthodoxy is enforced by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtues and Prevention of Vice. The ministry, modeled after a similar one in Saudi Arabia, even has its own religious police independent of other law enforcement agencies.
These police have broad powers - and are the final arbiters to decide the difference between virtue and vice. The punishment for some of the minor offenses are hilarious - so long as it isn't you who is being punished. Those, for example, caught with a music cassette get seven days in jail - and have their heads shaved. A man without a beard is thrown in jail until he grows one.
Two years ago, the religious police arrested an entire Pakistani soccer team and shaved their heads. Why? They had violated the rule against public immodesty by playing in shorts. Afghanistan apologized after the government of Pakistan protested.
The Taliban also frown, as fundamentalist Muslims, against making any kinds of human images or taking photographs. The ministry of foreign affairs requested that I not take pictures of any living being. I was advised to not keep my camera in the open.
Education has suffered enormously. Women are essentially not being educated at all. But a vast part of an entire generation of boys is growing up uneducated because female teachers have been forcibly retired, and there are not enough male teachers to do the job.
With the education system in shambles, many Afghan parents have sent their families to Pakistan so their children can be educated. But only a small minority can afford or manage this. And even they are trapped between their natural desire to educate their children and the demands of a system that is willing to deny or set aside all such immediate needs in return for an uneasy and uncertain future Islamic utopia.
There are voices of dissent, but they are severely muted. People are reluctant to talk openly because of a vast network of informers. But it is worth noting that the common man on the street refers to the Taliban as "they," not "we."
Repeatedly, kind souls warned me to be careful I wasn't seen taking pictures. One taxi driver said he was grateful to the Taliban for restoring order - but was openly critical of their policy toward beards and music. What, he asked, does our religion have to do with that?
And once, when I was visiting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I briefly saw a distinguished Afghan with a flowing white beard, a long frock coat, and an astrakhan hat of lambskin. Our eyes met. He whispered how lucky I was not to be living in this hellhole.
But before I could respond, he turned and walked rapidly away. In Afghanistan, any open challenge to the Taliban regime doesn't seem likely any time soon.
[Surgeon-writer S. Amjad Hussain lives in Toledo, Ohio where he writes a
bi-weekly column for the Op-Ed pages of The Blade.]