"Taalib" is an Arabic word meaning schoolchild. The Taliban were the generation of students in Afghanistan's religious schools who were too young to join the Mujahedeen (the older students) in their war against the USSR. Having sat out the war in an environment isolated from reality, the Taliban built an Islamic worldview similar to Saudi Arabia's Hanbali Sunnism, except they practice it like they're on crack. Then they took over the place. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

At the beginning of March 2001, the Taleban began a campaign to destroy all statues and monuments in Afghanistan that belonged to other religions. This is for the fairly logical reason that these ornaments are un-Islamic.

Two large statues of Buddha at Bamiyan have been completely dynamited away.

As one might imagine, devotees of those un-Islamic religions are apoplectic, the (Indian) Hindu Nationalist Party (BJP) is incandescent with rage, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is grumbling, various aid packages to Afghanistan are under threat, and the whole story is even now ricochetting around the global media.

Interestingly, the Taleban have been dynamiting away at the civil rights of Afghanistan's female population since they came to power. Nobody talked about cancelling aid packages when 50% of the country's population was barred from studying, working, or freely moving outside their homes. The cries of outrage on this matter have been decidedly muted, and it would appear that the world's movers and shakers care more about the rights of statues than those of women.

It's worth noting that the Taleban are an Islamic group in the loosest, most fanatical sense of the word, and they're at least as loathed in much of the Muslim world as they are elsewhere. In particular, Iran, which shares a border with Afghanistan, has come very, very, close to an all-out shooting war with Taleban-controlled Afghanistan on a few different occasions over the last few years, and low-lever border conflicts continue to simmer away between them even now. Not surprising, since Iran is a shi'i state, and the Taleban are ultra-fanatical sunnis.

Equating the actions of the Taleban with that of the Islamic community as a whole is a bit like blaming the atrocities of the Lord's Resistance Army in the Sudan and Uganda or abortion clinic bombers in America, on all of Christianity - we're talking about a fringe of a fringe here. The Taleban are adherents of the Wahhabi school of sunni thought and jurispudence, which is the most conservative, and which only Saudi Arabia aside has attempted to build a state on, with, to gloss over the complexities, very mixed success. Even beyond this, they're mostly from isolated little tribal hamlets in the Afghan hills, and the draconian and oppressive laws which they've enacted since coming to power have more to do with the customs and taboos in their tribal homes than any school of orthodox Islamic thought.

As far as I know, only three Muslim countries even recognize Taleban-run Afghanistan as a legitimate state, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan1. The Saudis do so because they're both (nominally) Wahhabi states, and the Emirates have a long and venerable tradition of following the Saudi lead, politically. The Pakistanis do so more for regions of geopolitics than anything else; Pakistan and Afghanistan share a long, porous, mountainous, and badly defensible border, the sort of terrain that the Taleban are most adept at running a guerilla campaign out of, and northern Pakistan is rife with heavilly armed and militarily trained Afghan refugees and gun-runners. The Pakistani government helped set up the Taleban in the first place, and finds them impossible to wholly disavow, despite the huge political embarrassment they've become.

The much-publicized destruction of statues which has been going on lately is nominally grounded in the sharia, if you sort of squint at it right. Muslims are forbidden to have and worship graven images, especially of gods. However, most Muslim scholarship makes a distinction between idolatry and preservation of the past; Egypt, for instance, goes to great lengths to preserve the graven images of their gods that the Ancient Egyptian civilization left behind, though this is hardly surprising given the amount of tourist money they bring in.

The Taleban's attempt to create the world's purest Muslim state is probably totally foredoomed. Not simply because of foreign outrage and pressure from human rights abuses, but also because the laws and customs they bring are as alien and backwards to most of the cosmopolitan lowland Afghans they've conquered as they are to foreign observors.


1 This, obviously, is no longer the case. Recent events have left the Taleban almost wholly isolated on the world stage; Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both rescinded that recognition, and Pakistan is an active participant in the military efforts to remove the Taleban.

A note on the name

This comes from the Arabic word for student, t.âlib, which has two plurals t.âlibûn and t.ullâb. It comes from a verb meaning seek, but it is an ordinary word for student. It applies to you if you go to classes to learn Arabic or flower-arrangement.

It was borrowed into Persian. The short i becomes short e in Persian, so tâleb, plural tâlebân, using a native Persian plural ending. The main language of Afghanistan is a form of Persian called Dari.

The Taleban then were the Students, in particular students of Islamic studies. When they took up arms they formed a movement called the Taleban Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, the official name for the ruling body of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in the time they held power. So this is the spelling officially used by them (in their English-language material), and which is slightly more accurate for their own language.

The Arabic script, also used for Persian, does not write short vowels. The name could be read either way. For the reasons given here I believe Taleban is more accurate, but both are very common and equally acceptable in English-language reporting. I have merged the two nodes here with a firmlink from Taliban, because we want all our write-ups in one place, but that doesn't mean you have to spell it this way.

The vowel â in Persian is back and somewhat rounded, so the name would be pronounced rather like (British) English tol-eb-ON. However, Afghans heard speaking in news bulletins all seem to stress it TOL-eb-on. Some speakers use the Persian low rounded vowel; these are presumably speakers of Dari ofr perhaps the related Tajik. Spokespeople of the United Front ("Northern Alliance") tend to use an unrounded AH vowel, thus TAHL-eb-ahn; they might be speakers of the unrelated language Uzbek and thus not have the Persian sound.

Later: I've now seen a book specifically on Dari, and the short e is quite similar to an i in this dialect.

For all practical purposes, the Taliban has placed the female population of Afghanistan under house arrest.

Under the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic Law or Shari'a, women are not permitted to appear in public unless a)escorted by an adult male relative and b)wearing a burqa, a full body covering with only a mesh opening for seeing and breathing. This heavy garment by itself restricts women's movement, limiting their range of vision, physical movement and ability to breathe freely.

Thanks to the Taliban's Catch-22 style edicts, women are unable to obtain medical and dental care. A woman may not be seen or touched by a man outside her family, but neither may she be attended by a female doctor, dentist or medical technician since none are permitted to provide services. Only a few poorly staffed and equipped hospitals are permitted to admit women. The results are disastrous for women's physical and mental health. Widows, without adult male relatives, who fall ill are practically under a death sentence.

One of the first edicts issued by the Taliban when it gained control of Kabul in 1996 was to forbid women and girls to attend school. Although humanitarian groups rushed in to fill the gap, establishing private schools where girls and women were taught to weave and sew, the Taliban shut down these schools in 1998. Thereafter, girls' education was limited to the Koran and only up to age 8.

Taliban policies and edicts are enforced by the "religious police" (Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice) often in the form of public whippings. Every Friday, the city of Kabul is witness to the public punishment of offenders in the Kabul sports stadium; public attendance is required at the floggings, shootings, hangings, beheadings, and lopping off of limbs. The Taliban's Shari'a courts lack any semblance of due process; torture is frequently used to extract confessions.

Sources: Physicians for Human Rights investigative report "The Taliban's War on Women: A Health and Human Rights Crisis in Afghanistan Executive Summary" found here: http://www.phrusa.org/research/health_effects/exec.html.

The Taleban (usually spelled "Taliban" in english news media and pronounced "tahl-e-baan") are a group that once came to power and ruled Afganistan.

From 1979 onward, Afghanistan was left in ruins from a Soviet invasion and 10 years of an all-out war to drive them out, followed by fighting by indiviual warlords who carved out fiefs. Lawlessness, banditry and chaos became commonplace. Enter the Taliban in 1996. They were a group of students from refugee religious schools (strongly influenced by the Deobandi way of thinking that is popular in India and Pakistan) who wanted to change things. They organized and recruited other Afghans who were sick of the suffering, and eventually the Taliban steamrolled over most of the warlords. They were able to seize something like 95% of the country, aside from Northern Alliance strongholds primarily in the northeast.

The Taliban inherited a country where people were starving, cities were in ruins, and the economy was of Stone Age proportions. Women were just as poor and desperate as the men were. Their idea for reform was that first husbands and fathers had to become stable with steady work and then women could take their place in society as well. Unfortunately, their logic backfired, and the lot of women worsened while that of their men failed to improve. One such example was they decided to create schools segregated by gender, which would comply with what the conservative religious leaders wanted. Unfortunately, they didn't have enough money for two schools, so only kept them open for males and prohibited women from participating. They simply implemented policies as they saw fit. In their devastated land probably nothing they could have done would have worked. As of today, a famine threatening five million people has blanketed the nation's countryside. Under such circumstances, can any reform work for men and women?

Many Muslims and the international community criticized the Taleban for going overboard, in many ways. They made beards mandatory for all men, and banned all women from working, and required women to cover themselves in large robes called Burquas. They banned music and the internet. They sentenced two missionary women to death for preaching Christianity. According to CNN reports, they killed adulterers and gays. It is important to note that the before the events of September 11, 2001, many Muslims and other groups had already condemned much of the Taliban's actions. Muslims worldwide had criticized the Taliban for years for oppressing women. Also, when the Taleban decided to destroy antique buddha statues, a large delegation of muslim scholars went to Afghanistan to try to persuade the Taleban to stop. Plenty of muslim groups condemned the Taleban, and television preacher Sheikh Qaradawi said that it was permissible for muslims to fight in the US military against the Taleban.

None of the Taliban's decrees concerning women is rooted in authentic Islamic Law, such as the forcing of women to wear Burqas. The Taliban leadership admitted as much when their representative in the United States remarked, "We are following Afghan customs that go back thousands of years." They are a product of their national experience, and their policies show that their culture takes precedence over their religion. Some have accused the Taleban of being too wahhabi, when it is a combination of Deobandi ideas and culture. There are plenty of Muslim leaders who have publicly spoken out against the Taleban, too many to list here or link to. I will however provide the link to a fatwa where a person asked a scholar's personal opinion on the Taliban at http://islam-online.net/fatwa/english/FatwaDisplay.asp?hFatwaID=35010

British Journalist Yvonne Ridley was critical of the way Afghanistan under the Taliban was ostracized. The Afghans told her that nobody cared for them when they needed food for their people, but when they decided to destroy some "rocks" (the Buddha statues), "suddenly the whole world wanted to talk to us." Interestingly enough, she was arrested by the Taleban for sneaking illegally into the country for reporting, and later told of how respectfully they treated her. On an interesting note, she later accepted Islam some months later when she returned to the UK and decided to study Islam.

The Taliban were not considered politically legitimate in most of the Muslim world. Only 3 countries had recognized them, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Pakistan. Within an extremely short time, the US declared Osama Bin Laden as the prime suspect behind the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He had been exiled from Saudi Arabia since 1996, and was in Afghanistan since. The US asked the Taliban government to hand him over to US authorities for questioning in his involvement and to charge him. While condemning the terrorist attacks, the Taliban refused, saying that since he was a "guest" they would not hand him over without proof of his involvement, with which he would be tried under the Taliban's laws. The US threatened military action unless the Taliban complied. Neighboring Pakistan rushed delegates over to help persuade the Taliban not to oppose the US, but they didn't relent. A few days later, the United Arab Emirates withdrew support for the Taliban, giving them only two countries that recognized their government. Saudi Arabia withdrew their recognition later as well.

Subsequently, the US launched Operation Infinite Justice (which was later changed to Operation Enduring Freedom because it was offensive to Muslims). The stated goals were to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden and dismantle the Taleban. The US tried to carry out their second goal by backing the rebel Northern Alliance. Before November 2001, the Taleban withdrew from the major cities in Afghanistan and the US detained hundreds of Taleban fighters, sending hundreds to Camp X-Ray. It was declared that the Northern Alliance would eventually take over control of Afghanistan (with US military and support). As of today free elections have not happened yet.

Once the situation stopped making headlines, the US began making preparations to invade Iraq, withdrawing thousands of its troops from Afghanistan and moving them to Iraq. That was a disadvantage because the troops looking for Osama Bin Laden and Taleban forces were scaled back. Most experts speculate that Taleban forces are in hiding on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are also rumors that the Taliban is amassing in the rural areas, building up strength and support to retake the cities.

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