Taliban Treatment of Women and Minorities in Afghanistan with Farahnaz Ispahani

Afghanistan Under the Taliban: Should Minority Faith Communities Fear the Worst?
(Farahnaz Ispahani, September 11, 2021)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Farahnaz Ispahani is a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC and the author of the book Purifying The Land of The Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford University Press, 2017). In 2015, she was a Reagan-Fascell Scholar at the National Endowment for Democracy, where she worked on women and extremist groups with a particular focus on the women of ISIS.

A Pakistani politician, Ispahani served as a Member of Parliament and Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008-2012. She returned to Pakistan with Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 after opposing the Musharraf dictatorship in the preceding years. In Parliament she focused on the issues of terrorism, human rights, gender based violence, minority rights and US-Pakistan relations. The most notable pieces of legislation enacted with her active support include those relating to Women’s Harassment in the Workplace and Acid Crimes and Control, which made disfiguring of women by throwing acid at them a major crime. She was also a member of the Women’s caucus in the 13th National Assembly, which was instrumental in introducing more legislation on women’s issues than has ever been done before during a single parliamentary term.

Ms. Ispahani spent the formative years of her career as a print and television journalist. Her last journalistic position was as Executive Producer and Managing Editor of Voice of America’s Urdu TV. She has also worked at ABC News, CNN and MSNBC.

She has contributed opinion pieces to The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, The National Review, and others.

Transcript

Introduction

Robert R. Reilly:

Hello, and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director.

Farahnaz Ispahani is a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC and the author of the book Purifying The Land of The Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford University Press, 2017). In 2015, she was a Reagan-Fascell Scholar at the National Endowment for Democracy, where she worked on women and extremist groups with a particular focus on the women of ISIS.

A Pakistani politician, Ispahani served as a Member of Parliament and Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008-2012. She returned to Pakistan with Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 after opposing the Musharraf dictatorship in the preceding years. In Parliament she focused on the issues of terrorism, human rights, gender based violence, minority rights and US-Pakistan relations. The most notable pieces of legislation enacted with her active support include those relating to Women’s Harassment in the Workplace and Acid Crimes and Control, which made disfiguring of women by throwing acid at them a major crime. She was also a member of the Women’s caucus in the 13th National Assembly, which was instrumental in introducing more legislation on women’s issues than has ever been done before during a single parliamentary term.

Ms. Ispahani spent the formative years of her career as a print and television journalist. Her last journalistic position was as Executive Producer and Managing Editor of Voice of America’s Urdu TV. She has also worked at ABC News, CNN and MSNBC.

She has contributed opinion pieces to The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, The National Review, and others.

Farahnaz is joining me today to discuss, “Afghanistan Under the Taliban: Should Minority Faith Communities, Women, and Girls Fear the Worst?” Welcome, Farahnaz.

Farahnaz Ispahani:

I would like to start today by thanking Bob Reilly and the Westminster Institute for inviting me here today to speak about a subject very close to my heart. I think today most of us who work on Afghanistan or who have Afghan friends are deeply saddened. All of us here in the U.S. very recently observed the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on our soil, and just a few days before the commemoration of that terrible terrorist attack we saw the hasty, ill-prepared U.S. exit from Afghanistan, the land that had provided the space and refuge for the perpetrators of 9/11. Many scholars, senior military experts, and former government officials had agreed to the need for the U.S. to withdraw, but no one expected the hasty and painful scene the U.S. demonstrated to the world.

Religious oppression under the Taliban

At this historic time it is important to remember what life was like under the Taliban in Afghanistan before 9/11, twenty years ago. Why are we asking this question? Because the Taliban have not changed, their worldview has not changed, and what have we left behind, particularly for women and vulnerable religious minority populations, but also in terms of a security situation for the United States and other Western countries. So what the Taliban did before is likely what we are going to see again. There is no transformation in their core beliefs about what they consider to be Islamic teachings.

Afghanistan came under the harsh Taliban rule first in 1996. In the course of their military conquest of Afghanistan the Taliban massacred a community of Shia Hazaras. The last few Jews were harassed and sometimes arrested on various charges [and] because of that history the last member of Afghanistan’s Jewish community left the country a few weeks ago. Hindus and Sikhs were similarly harassed and sometimes extorted for money. Many of them have taken evacuation flights to India and Pakistan.

The Christian community in Afghanistan is small, but it has been growing, especially since the Taliban was beaten and we have had some form of civilian rule in Afghanistan. We have seen the underground churches, booming, blossoming. We have seen many different [Christian sects]. We have seen Catholics, we have seen Evangelical Christians, we have seen Mormons. We have seen many Muslim affairs actually having the strength to convert from Islam to Christianity and that as we all know is called apostasy, and apostasy (renouncing Islam) carries a death penalty.

Destitution in 2001

So going back to Afghanistan, it was depleted completely by 2001, dependent on foreign aid and almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world. It was beset by drought and on the brink of famine. Only three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – recognized the Taliban regime at that time. According to a TIME Magazine reporter who was in Kabul on 9/11, the city of Kabul felt dead, crushed by poverty and trauma. Everyone who could afford to leave this formerly cosmopolitan city had emigrated elsewhere. Electricity was sporadic and there was no phone service or personal service.

Under Taliban law men had to grow beards and wear turbans. Girls could not attend school anymore. Women had to wear burqas and their shoes could not make any noise, no heels allowed. Most women were forbidden to work outside the home, and going outside meant they had to be accompanied by a male relative. So look at this medieval atmosphere that the Taliban’s first regime [created].

The Taliban’s dreaded religious police employed by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice drove around Kabul in black Toyota highlands pick-up trucks, looking for anyone breaking their laws, goading people to pray, sometimes beating them for good measure, thieves’ hands were amputated, and public executions took place in Kabul’s main stadium.

In the months leading up to September 2001 the Taliban regime had been lashing out more and more in issuing odd and order edicts, banning the internet, banning nail polish, banning white socks on women, even lobster, which is not available in the landlocked country, got its own ban. Television, photography, kite flying and music had already been prohibited. For years the massive and impressive Bamyan statues going back centuries were blown up by the Taliban.

Given that track record I do not think that things would be much better under the new Taliban regime. Afghanistan will become a major human rights and a major security concern for the world, including the United States. It has already become a human rights problem in some parts of Afghanistan within just a week or two of taking over. Already we have reports that the Taliban have been executing people, lashing women, and shutting down schools, but they have been cleverer this time. Most of what they are doing is in the provinces. So far they have not been as violent in Kabul itself because there is still foreign journalists reporting from Kabul.

Basically, you know the reason behind the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 was the Taliban refusing to hand over Osama Bin Laden, considered by Washington to be an international fugitive. We have no guarantee today nor has the rest of the world that Afghanistan will not once again become a safe haven for terrorists, either those intent on doing harm to the U.S. or other foreign powers. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently offered a very blunt assessment. He said the Taliban are terrorists and they are going to support terrorists if they take control of Afghanistan. There is no question in my mind that they will provide a safe haven for Al-Qaeda, for ISIS, and terrorism in general, and that constitutes frankly a national security threat to the United States.

As we have witnessed recently, the Taliban have already released thousands of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State prisoners from Afghan prisons. Many have returned to the field. So what was the process for all this? We have seen the mess at Kabul airport as poor Afghans who worked for the United States in good faith as translators and many other posts for the last twenty years were hanging on to U.S. aircraft, but being left behind on the ground or literally falling to their deaths.

So what brought this about?

We have to go back now obviously to the Trump administration. As we know, President Obama first announced the interest in withdrawing troops and then President Trump’s administration pushed forward the Doha Accords of the Doha peace deal, which I am going to talk about. Now, the much celebrated Doha peace deal, signed between the U.S. and the Taliban during the Trump administration (and the U.S. deemed as terrorists until recently), reflects for me not just American military withdrawal from Afghanistan but also an abandonment of women, children, and religious minorities.

The Trump administration’s desire to withdraw American troops after eighteen years of war is understandable. The U.S. went into Afghanistan to locate and destroy Al-Qaeda’s safe havens in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. It has been two decades now since 9/11 and most Americans have lost a sense of urgency in confronting the radical Islamist extremism that led to the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. Still, there was no reason to give up on the rights of Afghan women and religious minorities to education, employment, and a place in the political process which the Taliban’s ideology denies, and the pre-Taliban Afghan constitution, which was written with U.S. help, protected [minorities].

So we all know what women and religious minorities went through in the last Taliban regime. All Afghans basically suffered, except for those who joined the Taliban, and as we know women and Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, some Baha’is, the Hazara Shia community, all of these religious communities suffered terribly; torture, death, beheadings, being hunted down, and they did not know a moment’s peace to just follow their faith.

So since 2001 what did the U.S. do?

The U.S. gave $29 billion dollars, which is a huge amount of money, in civilian assistance to Afghanistan to make it a better country for its people. This was an investment in creating an environment that did not breed terrorists. As a result of U.S. civilian assistance more than 3.5 million girls were enrolled in primary and secondary schools, and a hundred thousand women attended universities, and eighty-five thousand Afghan women started to work as teachers, lawyers, law enforcement officials, and in healthcare.

Until just a few days ago the Afghan constitution, importantly adopted in 2004 with U.S. support, guaranteed equal rights and duties for men and women, barred discrimination, and required a balanced education for women. While Afghan society of course remains conservatively Islamic, the constitutional and legal framework enabled human rights defenders and social modernizers to reform their society.

U.S. negotiators during their jobs with the Taliban unfortunately remained narrowly focused on discussing American withdrawal in return for the Taliban’s promise not to host Al-Qaeda. Women and religious minorities of Afghanistan were not only not at the table of the so-called peace talks, but they were not even on the minds of the American negotiators. Even the democratically-elected Afghan government was not at the table and kept at arm’s length. So it was almost as if after spending billions of dollars on rebuilding Afghanistan, creating democratic institutions, the U.S. just wanted to walk away.

So as we have seen in more recent times, right after the signing of the Doha accords up till the inauguration of President Biden and till today, there have been dozens of attacks by the Taliban as they marched across Afghanistan, and they have been killing and beheading and torturing people all the way across till they marched into Kabul.

So here, now, today, I am just going to touch on exactly who makes up the so-called ‘Taliban interim government.’

The new Taliban interim government consists of thirty-three ministers, out of whom seventeen – I repeat seventeen – government ministers were named recently as UN-designated terrorists. The Taliban still dispute whether Osama Bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and not just Al-Qaeda but ISIS-K or ISIS Khorasan is still very much in evidence and growing stronger in Afghanistan. So we will see now as the Taliban adhered to a strict interpretation of Islamic laws, we are going to see not just conflict between the Taliban and ISIS Khorasan, perhaps at times between ISIS Khorasan and Al-Qaeda or all three.

We are going to see a decimation of people of faith, decimation of all people of faith who do not belong to or ascribe to the extremist Islamist faith of the Taliban. So now I would like to turn to the heart of this talk. We have all witnessed the scenes of chaos, unfolding at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in recent days as thousands of Afghans tried to escape their country, illustrating the fear gripping the country after the Taliban’s takeover.

Women and religious minorities that bore the brunt of the Taliban’s brutality during the 1990s when the Taliban was last in power feel particularly vulnerable. Among their first acts upon returning to power, and as the Taliban marched through a Shia neighborhood of Kabul, they pulled down a religious banner marking the Shia observance of the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussein. The Taliban’s interpretation of Islam sees Shia Muslims as heretics and their religious observances as haram or forbidden.

Contrary to assertions by Western diplomats who engaged in talks with Taliban representatives, setting in motion the current debacle, there is nothing moderate about the new Taliban. Their prejudices and intolerant outlook seems still to be the same as in the past. So we are seeing now a re-imposition of their rule from 1996 to 2001, the re-imposition of strict Sharia law, just the starting to ban girls and women attending schools and colleges, forcing women to keep their faces covered and to be accompanied by a male guardian, and the demand that minorities be forced to convert or be killed. Afghans remember well the brutal Taliban years when anyone who broke the rule suffered some public beatings, stoning to death, and public executions.

[Amid] all the American help over the last two decades we witnessed a whole new generation of Afghans. We saw a blooming of women and girls, of minorities who had not before had the courage to even apply or be part of any government or any public roles, and we saw this very, very different group of Afghans show promise for the future.

Over the last one year while negotiating in Doha while negotiating with the U.S. administration the Taliban has conducted targeted assassinations of women, civil society activists, and journalists. After victory the Taliban have already knocked on the doors of many well-known faith leaders of minority faith communities and the doors of women and human rights activists. The Taliban have lists of women who held high office and have indicated that they will not leave them alone. In July when the Taliban started their current military offensive and took over border outposts, the Taliban cultural commission issued a diktat, saying all imams and mullahs in captured areas should provide the Taliban with the list of girls about 15 years of age and widows under 45 to be married to Taliban fighters.

Over the last year we have witnessed dangerous signs that bode ill for Afghanistan’s small and varied religious faiths, numbering Hindus, Christian, Sikhs, and Shia Muslims, Hazara among them. Taliban rule will be a disaster for Afghanistan’s small religious minorities and the Shia Hazara. For the Shia Hazara their distinctive looks and profession of their faith easily identifies them. The last time the Taliban were in power they declared jihad against the Shia Hazaras who ended up facing repression and persecution, including mass killings. Over the last two decades we saw the Hazaras making major gains in education and social status. Like women they were seen as sympathetic to the West and hence this has now left them open to reprisals.

The minuscule Sikh, Hindu, and Christian communities in Afghanistan that have been provided some form of protection over the last two decades also have reason to fear the return of the Taliban. Soon after the Taliban entered Kabul they sent letters (as I mentioned earlier) to not just the heads of minority groups, but also those of other activists like women’s activists and human rights activists.

Afghanistan’s Christians are today estimated – though it is difficult to get real numbers because there has not been a proper census of that kind and many Christians even during the 20 years where things have been so much more peaceful have been nervous about identifying as Christians – Afghanistan’s Christians are estimated to number between 10,000 and 12,000. The vast majority of them are converts from Islam to Christianity. For decades they have largely practiced their faith underground as conversion is considered a crime punishable by death under Sharia law, yet since the Taliban fall in 2001 the Christian community had not only been growing, it had become emboldened in part because of the modicum of security that was lent to them by the U.S. presence on the ground. In 2019 as the number of children born to converts grew, dozens of Afghan Christians decided to include their religious affiliation on their national identity cards so that future generations would not have to hide their faith, but only about thirty Christians had successfully made this change before the Taliban’s takeover.

Now, today, the United States’ highly criticized withdrawal has left Afghan Christians with no choice but to join those who cooperated with the U.S. and Afghanistan governments in attempting to hide. The memories of public executions, floggings, and amputations of Christians and other religious minorities under the Taliban’s previous rule remain vivid. As the Taliban is reportedly already working to track down the known Christians on its list, some local church leaders are counseling their communities to stay inside their homes. Even they know the best and perhaps only long-term hope is to somehow flee the country. Other Christians are reportedly escaping to the hills in an attempt to find safety. Although some reports say the Taliban is already conducting targeted killings of Christians and other minorities as well as executing anyone found with Bible software installed on their cellphones, I do not have any verified information about this, but Christian publications have been documenting stories of this kind.

So finally Christians also fear for the safety of their children with the Taliban already publicizing plans to eradicate the ‘ignorant irreligion’ by taking non-Muslim women and girls as sex slaves, and forcing boys to serve as soldiers. As those of us who remember ISIS and ISIS rule, we also remember what they did to Christian, Yazidi, and young Shia girls, and the Taliban has already expressed an intention of doing the same. So without any clear plan from the United States to have evacuated Afghans under special threat, not to mention the remaining thousands of American citizens who refuse to leave, some because they were missionaries and wanted to stay with their flock and continue their good work. Afghan Christians and many other religious minority groups are stranded today. [The] Taliban is seeking them and we are today at a very, very, sorry, sorry and fearful time for all minority faiths, for women, and for all those who were friends to the United States in all of its years in Afghanistan. Thank you very much.

Legitimacy

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you very much. Let me begin with a slightly different question. You rightfully criticized this, the withdrawal, the way in which the United States withdrew from Afghanistan and the enormous problems it has created for the people whom it was supporting until it withdrew, and you also referred to the reconstitution of Taliban institutions. According to what I have heard, the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has already been reconstituted, though it is unclear what exactly its powers are going to be.

But one thing that stayed in my mind from 2001 was this statement from a man called Nabibullah Rabbani, who was part of that ministry. So it is quite extraordinary that in December of 2001 he said this, quote, “People understand we are the righteous ones and they know we could come back to power soon,” unquote. Who would know it would take 20 years for Rabbani’s prediction to come true? But unfortunately, it has and the question is Rabbani referred to the righteousness of the Taliban, in other words that was their claim to legitimacy, and as much as we can criticize the way in which the United States left Afghanistan, we need to also address how the Afghan government and institutions collapsed so quickly, why the military fled, and is that a reflection that that government was unsuccessful in establishing its own legitimacy?

Firstly, to address the the comment going back to the head of the ministry for I believe ‘Protecting Virtue,’ now they have abolished the women’s ministry and the women’s ministry has been reconstituted as this very ministry that you were talking about, the ‘righteousness’ we have seen of all these extremist terrorist groups. Each one of them espouses some form of what they call Sharia law and whom they consider infidels, whom they consider people of the book who from it differs, you know from ISIS to the Taliban to Al-Qaeda, but basically all of them are united in hatred towards the other.

And the way I see it, yes, the the Kabul government, the elected-government, was absolutely corrupt. When people in the United States saw images of how quickly the Taliban conquered Afghanistan and saw the Afghan National Army that the U.S. had spent so many years training just leave in disarray, running to themselves just become part of the general population, there is another side to that. And one of the things that people who belong to the Afghan government often say [is] they had asked for air power, which they did not get, and as we see today when a recent attack took place, we saw what we think are Pakistani ISI drones that were being used in the Panjsher valley to murder all the people of that civilian opposition who stayed to fight. So the one thing that the last government kept asking was for air power because they understood that in that hilly terrain of Afghanistan the only way to beat the Taliban, who knew this terrain inside out, was from above, so that is one of their main contentions.

And also a second one; you are a military man, Bob, so you will understand this. One of the things the U.S. did not do right was they did not make units within the military based on ethnicity so that really, so people in these units did not feel like the person I am fighting next to is my brother, is my kin, is from my neighborhood. They suddenly looked at each other and said, you are Tajik, you are Uzbek, I am Pashtun, I am not dying for you. So that was another suggestion that had been given by friends of Afghanistan and Afghan people.

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