The Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan, some 20 years after their ouster by the United States in 2001. Images on news networks showing desperate people flooding the Kabul International Airport trying to flee the country are heartbreaking. In an interview on CNN, Roya Rahmani, Afghan ambassador to the US, and a woman, said that it was not just the multitudes rushing to the airport who would like to leave, but millions of others are hiding in their homes.
Zarifa Ghafari, one of the first female mayors, told a journalist that she was waiting to be killed by the Taliban. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, fearing the return of terror, has called on the Taliban to exercise restraint and protect the rights of all people, especially women and children. Other countries have also expressed fears of a return to what an Afghan has described as “the darkest days”.
This universal fear is not a fanciful delusion. It is a well-founded fear informed by memories of the first Taliban reign. The fundamentalist regime prohibited girls above the age of 10 from attending school. Women could not work except in a few healthcare jobs. Music, TV, cinema and sport were banned.
Shaving for men was prohibited. Women leaving their homes had to be accompanied by a male relative. Adulterers were publicly executed. Thieves had their hands chopped off. Taliban moral police walked in the streets publicly whipping people deemed to be in contravention of extremist moral codes. Footage of the Taliban executing people, including women, on a football field, horrified the world. The UN also accused the Taliban of committing “cultural genocide” by destroying cultural monuments they deemed to be “un-Islamic”.
The Taliban were attempting to turn the clock of history back to a stone-age vision. In the 1970s in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge regime attempted to return society back to a pre-industrial agrarian existence. They executed and tortured millions in the name of ideological purity. The Taliban in the first reign tortured and executed millions in the name of religious purity.
The Nazis in the 1940s tortured and executed millions in the name of racial purity. The devil comes in different guises — ideological, religious and racial.
The new Taliban leadership is sending reassuring messages to the world. They now say that girls will be allowed to go to school and women to work. They have also given a general amnesty to those who worked for the disgraceful government of Ahsraf Ghani, including members of the armed forces. They also say that their new government will include non-Taliban members. These messages are greatly reassuring.
Perhaps the Taliban have moderated their medieval vision of the world and morality. Perhaps they recognise that they need the goodwill of the world to be able to govern and provide for their people. Perhaps. But for me, any governance informed by notions of tribal, racist, ideological or religious purity is fundamentally opposed to not only human progress, but human nature itself.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator