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Book Review

Understanding the Taliban: detailed look at their rise and impact on Afghanistan

Iqbal Siddiqui

FUNDAMENTALISM REBORN? AFGHANISTAN AND THE TALIBAN edited by William Maley. C Hurst & Co (Publishers) Ltd., 38 King Street, London, UK, 1998. Hbk: UK31.50.

One of the tragedies of the Muslim situation today is the extent to which we have to rely on non-Muslim sources of information to understand our own world and movements. All too often, especially in discussions of issues such as Iran, Sudan, the Hizbullah, the Taliban and other Islamic movements, the western media and academia are all too happy to present blatant propaganda as facts and analysis in order to misrepresent us to others and mislead us ourselves.

Most western books on Muslim subjects have at least an element of such misrepresentation (sometimes inadvertent), which Muslim readers have to filter out in order to extract what useful information and perspectives may accompany them. A few books, of course, consist entirely of such misrepresentation with no redeeming factors whatsoever.

However, the fault does not lie entirely with the non-Muslims. The almost total failure of Muslim commentators and writers to produce high-quality, balanced analyses of such issues from an Islamic perspective is also a factor. The admitted difficulties of getting such material published and distributed outside the western mainstream does not mitigate our failure to produce enough of it in the first place. Until Muslim intellectuals produce and publish sufficient high quality material from a movement perspective, readers will have no option but to get what they can elsewhere.

But Muslim readers are also at fault, partly for demanding too much from Muslim writers and partly for using different standards to assess the works of Muslim and non-Muslim writers. Muslims seem to understand that non-Muslims have their own perspectives, which will inevitably be reflected in their writings; and Muslim readers are happy enough to filter it out as and when necessary. But from Muslim writers, particularly those trying to write from the Islamic movement perspective, they demand absolute orthodoxy and agreement with their own point of view (whatever that point of view may be), otherwise the writer and his/her material are dismissed out of hand as being useless, unbalanced and maybe even heretic. The intelligent open-mindedness, flexibility and balance applied in reading the works of non-Muslims tend to disappear when presented with the writings of Muslims.

Compared to this, the more obvious problem of judging a book by its cover and production quality - areas in which the smaller Muslim publishing houses inevitably lag behind the major western companies - fades to near insignificance.

This is a vicious circle: which must come first, good Islamic material or a good Muslim market for such material? Until this issue is resolved, readers will have no option but to look to the better quality non-Muslim materials for information and analysis. And, in the case of the Taliban, one could do much worse than look at Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, a collection of essays on various aspects of the Taliban’s rise to prominence and power, edited by William Maley, an Australian academic who has written widely on Afghanistan.

In his substantial introduction, ‘Interpreting the Taliban’, Maley states that the book’s object is to rectify the problem that ‘the characteristics of the Taliban have received far more attention than one might have expected... Are the Taliban a transient phenomenon, or a permanent fixture with which the international community will have to deal for years to come? Do they reflect intransigent ôfundamentalismö, are they a recrudescence of tradition, amenable to reform by persuasion and example, or are they simply a manifestation of the totalitarian drive to subordinate the whole of private life to public control?’ (p. 3).

This is a fair summary of the questions the book’s contributors seek to address. Several focus on the Taliban’s emergence, their relations with other countries and/or the influence and role outside powers have played in their emergence. The nature and characteristics of the movement, in particular their understanding of Islam and its social implementation, is another major theme. A third is the future Afghanistan may face in the event of a Taliban takeover, the book having been written before the Taliban’s recent successes.

In his introduction, Maley provides an excellent overview of ‘The social and doctrinal roots of the Taliban’, before going on to consider whether they are predominantly fundamentalist, traditionalist or totalitarian. He reaches no firm conclusion, but his discussion, based on intelligent and critical consideration of different western understandings of those terms, sheds (for Muslim readers) as much light on western attempts to understand and interpret Islamic movements as it does on the Taliban.

He also emphasizes the need to look past the stark images of the Taliban presented by both their supporters and their opponents, and to consider their ideas and attitudes in view of their performance and actions instead of their words, let alone those of their enemies.

This is a need which most other contributors seem to have understood. As usual in books of this type, the quality and perspectives of the contributors are varied, but the overall standard is undeniably high. The emphasis is on international attitudes and influence on Afghani affairs, particularly the rise of the Taliban.

These include an examination and critique of the performance of the Rabbani government by Amin Saikal; an examination of the military rise of the Taliban by Anthony Davis; an excellent discussion of the Taliban’s links with Pakistan and Pakistani political influences by journalist Ahmed Rashid; a critique of the US’s attitude towards the Taliban by Richard Mackenzie, which is one of the weaker essays in the volume; a much better contribution on the Russian and Central Asian perspective by Anthony Hyman, of the Central Asian Survey magazine; an uneven essay on the Saudi and Iranian interests and

perspectives by Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady; a highly critical consideration of the role of the UN by Maley himself; and an essay on the problems and ethical dilemmas facing western humanitarian agencies working in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, which Muslim readers will probably appreciate more for its revelations of western attitudes.

It is of course, impossible to consider each of these disparate contributions in detail. However, two stand out for different reasons, highlighting both the benefits and disadvantages of Muslims using non-Muslim sources.

Nancy Hatch Dupree’s essay on gender issues and the position of Afghan women has many of the rhetorical clichs about the Taliban’s attitude to women which characterise western writings on Afghanistan. But these seem to be there almost apologetically, in order to avoid accusations of being soft on the Taliban. In between, there is also a considered and intelligent discussion of the subject which considers both Afghan traditions and the realities on the ground in the country. Many Muslim readers, if they could look at the essay open-mindedly, would find insights which would help them both to understand the issue better, and to respond more effectively to the plethora of less intelligent western comments on the subject.

Olivier Roy, the French ‘Islamicist’ whose book, The failure of political Islam is regarded as a definitive critique of the Islamic movement by many westerners, provides another lesson for Muslim readers: the dangers of being fooled by western political propaganda given a sheen of academic credibility. His essay purports to examine the future of ‘Islamism’ in Afghanistan, concluding of course that that it has none.

This is his usual line: that ‘Islamism’ or ‘political Islam’ has proved a failure everywhere, has burnt itself out, cannot solve any problems facing Muslims, and will only undermine and destroy any community which seeks to implement it. In a book of otherwise high standard, the presence of Roy’s thinly-disguised polemic is a useful reminder to Muslim readers of the inevitable limitations of any western examination of Muslim issues.

In view of his excellent introduction, it is a pity that Maley does not provide a conclusion drawing together the works of other contributors. M Nazif Shahrani’s exploration of a possible future for Afghanistan, taking a political/ecological approach, is not an adequate substitute and, for Muslim readers in particular, somewhat vague. Overall, however, this is a book with a great deal of good information and analysis, and perspectives which can inform Muslims seeking to develop their own understanding of the situation in Afghanistan.

Certainly it is memorable for far more than just one of the classic typos in the history of publishing: the publication and copyright date being given as 1988 instead of 1998. This too is a lesson for Muslims... We all make mistakes, but a book should not be judged solely by such superficial criteria without deeper consideration.

Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 17

Rajab 11, 14191998-11-01

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