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The Taliban and Islamic Governance in Afghanistan

How malleable are the Taliban on issues of governance?

Taliban Shariah Islamic Law Women Pompeo Baradar
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with the Taliban Delegation in Doha, Qatar, on September 12, 2020. (Image Credit: U.S. Department of State)

As the second Taliban regime in Afghanistan enters its seventh month, the group has yet to make clear its vision for an Islamic state in the country. The possible reasons for this are many.

For starters, the Taliban have their hands full: the U.S. withdrawal has precipitated a severe economic crisis in the country. There also might be internal disputes within the Taliban on what an “Islamic” system should look like.

And then there is the issue of the Taliban’s search for international legitimacy. Ambiguity might be the group’s best bet right now to avoid an international backlash. And this is likely why it continues to refer to itself as an “interim government,” in a bid to suggest that aspects of its rule may be up for negotiation.

The Taliban and Sunni Hanafi Islamic Traditionalism

So how malleable are the Taliban on issues of governance? To answer that question, it’s key to recognize where the Taliban come from within the Islamic intellectual tradition.

The Taliban are Sunni Hanafi “neo-traditionalists” — not Salafis or “Wahhabis.” While the Taliban can be regarded as an “Islamist” group, their views on Islam and governance are largely shaped by the premodern Sunni Hanafi legal tradition and an insular rural Pashtun culture. These traditions predate the emergence of concepts like popular sovereignty and universal suffrage.

It’s the Taliban’s premodern traditionalism that distinguishes them from Islamist groups like Pakistan’s Jamaat-i Islami and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that emerged as a result of Muslim engagement with modern political theory and attempts to reconcile Islam with constitutionalism, democracy, and the nation-state.

A new report by scholars Andrew March and Clark Lombardi, published by the U.S. Institute of Peace, seeks to find pathways within the Sunni Hanafi tradition and modern Islamic constitutionalism through which to gain modest, but meaningful concessions from the Taliban on issues of freedom of expression, the rights of religious minorities, and women’s role in the public sphere.

Reviewing the Taliban’s public statements and behavior during their rule over Afghanistan, Lombardi and March argue that the group is “indebted not only to classical texts but also to many modern assumptions about the role and structure of constitutions for modern states.” And this, they propose, could provide a basis for limited Taliban flexibility on issues of political rights and participation.

Gaining Taliban Concessions on Civic Freedoms Women’s Rights

Lombardi and March by no means argue that the Taliban will embrace democracy or absolute freedom of speech. They are pragmatic. They probe for institutions and mechanisms that have emerged out of modern Islamic constitutionalism that could be palatable to the Taliban and may open up civic and political space in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, their suggestions are modest and tentative. They propose the potential establishment of “hybrid institution[s] of Islamic review” in Afghanistan like Pakistan’s Federal Shariat court, that fuse secular and Islamic jurisprudential expertise. And they suggest that modern Islamic constitutionalist broader re-conceptions of the “People Who Loose and Bind” — the traditionally male electors who provided legitimacy to Sunni rulers — could serve as a basis to expand political participation in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

The report by Lombardi and March is valuable as it provides realistic guidance on engaging the Taliban on their own terms. But with that said, the prospects for meaningful concessions are limited. While the language of modern Islamic constitutionalism might be intelligible to the Taliban, it is unlikely to be one that they accept as their own.

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