A return of Taliban rule: implications for religious freedom

A return of Taliban rule: implications for religious freedom

Mohammad ‘Musa’ Mahmodi | 19 October 2021

Blasphemy accusations have a dreadful impact on freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association in Afghanistan. They are a fear-based practice intended to threaten and silence opponents and solidify government power. It is often dangerous to talk about blasphemy in Afghanistan, but information about the impacts of blasphemy laws and policies, and the social and religious contexts in which they operate, should be freely available.

In this blog, I briefly describe why such awareness must be raised. I explain why we must stand against the weaponisation of blasphemy, demanding that it not be used against people and their human rights. While I reiterate the importance of protecting religions from defamation, I emphasise the need to protect human rights and freedoms against policies and misuse of power by any government or radical group.

In August 2021, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, and there are genuine fears that they might make laws or use their interpretation of Shari’a law to harshen punishment against those who exercise their freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion. These fears are well founded: Afghans who have lived through the Taliban’s previous rule and insurgency know all too well of their capability of committing crimes towards people and their human rights.

Blasphemy under the Taliban

The Taliban is a radical militant group composed of students of religious madrasas in Pakistan, hard-line religious scholars and Mullahs, and violent militants. They are motivated by two drivers: extreme violence in pursuing their political and religious goals, and their belief that their actions will be rewarded by God. They are mostly so-called traditionalists (AHL HADITH) claiming that they follow the tradition of the Prophet Mohammad, and believe that return to the early days of Islam will make their lives glorious and pious. Their violent extremism makes them intolerant towards anything they deem contrary to their thoughts, policies, and beliefs. In fact, they regard such things as un-Islamic and deserving of punishment.

In this regard, blasphemy is particularly dangerous. The Taliban has not and will not allow any room for tolerance for religious researchers to question or say anything that is contrary to popular and current beliefs of the Taliban. In the past, the Taliban displayed the harshest of reactions towards anyone who even believed in something different than their school of thought, let alone against them. A bloody history of assassination of Mullahs who confronted them, students and scholars, and even journalists and human rights activists are a testimony to their malign and horrific conducts.

While blasphemy is also a criminal offence in other countries, under the Taliban, blasphemy accusations would not follow the principle of legality and due process as they apparently do not recognise the formal civil and criminal laws of Afghanistan. Any proceedings by the Taliban would be adjudicated in accordance with Shari’a sources which are wide open to various interpretation and differ based on various sects of Islam.

I am worried that the Taliban will resort to their strict policy of harsh punishment without regard to due process, Afghan law, or international human rights law. Criticising even their restrictive and imposing policy of promotion of virtue and anti-vice may result in conviction on charges of blasphemy.

The impact of Taliban rule on minority groups

Afghanistan is a country of minority groups, but the Taliban and its violent tactics have displaced the harmony and coexistence between these groups and substituted them with division, loyalty to traditions, and strict religious zeal. Under Taliban rule, activities of other religions may be illegal; for example, preaching and proselytising may be considered apostasy. Such threats have been realised in the past: bombing attacks against several NGOs before, between 2012 and 14 and even after are the examples of this. As this shows, exercising freedom of religion under the Taliban is risky.

The Taliban’s intolerant policy was not, and is not, targeted at non-Islamic religions only. In fact, the Taliban has shown intolerance and violence against the Shi’a Sect of Islam. The Hazara minority and other Shi’as were largely persecuted and perceived as non-believers to the true tenants of Islam, therefore, they deem the Shi’a sect and the ethnic group as apostates. During the first Taliban government from 1996-2000, Hazaras and other Shi’a minorities lost many of their freedoms and were subject to persecution, massacres, and systematic and widespread killings which could amount to genocide and crimes against humanity.

Recognition of the Hazaras’ religion as an official branch of Islam, which was a hard-won inclusion in the 2004 Constitution, may be lost by the Taliban’s annihilation of the Constitution. According to the Taliban, Hazaras’ possession of property and even marriages are against Shari’a, and could be confiscated without any due process. The historical confiscation of Hazara lands, massacres, and mass displacement are rooted in the Shari’a interpretations of the Taliban and Taliban-like groups. Looking back at Taliban attacks on the Hazara community, they are justified on this common belief that Hazaras are blasphemers because they allegedly curse the Islamic figures or saints (Sahaba), that they are apostates because they allegedly do not believe in Qur’an or Mecca and instead go to Karbala, and a long list of other false accusations.

ISIS, DAESH & the Taliban

In the past 6 years since the announcement of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) presence in Afghanistan, most of the responsibility for attacks against religious places and minorities have been claimed by ISKP or DAESH. These claims have made it easier for the Taliban to avert a public relation crisis; however, this does not mean that the Taliban had or has changed.

ISIS and the Taliban may benefit from an unholy coalition of demonstrating harsh and violent opposition towards people with different sets of belief, thoughts, and religions. By pursuing their uncompromising position on Islamic and Shari’a believe in defiance of international law, both the Taliban and ISKP may continue to attack those pursuing and exercising freedom of thought and freedom of religion, as well as activists who promote human rights.

There are equally dangerous predictions for women, sexual and gender minorities, and other socially marginalised and minority groups. Women’s rights may be denied, and the laws and programs that were developed to support their protection may no longer apply. Further, anyone advocating for women’s rights may be punished and put in restraints: the recent attacks on the women’s rights protestors in Kabul and Herat attest to this. These realities, and the public executions of four people in Herat and several others in Panjshir, herald the dark beginning of an era in which the Taliban are eager to retain their policy of killing, intimidation, and fear.

The international community is obliged, and have a legal, moral, and ethical responsibility to take action against the Taliban so that a dark age is not repeated. Without a credible and acceptable system of democratically elected government, and by preventing the active and meaningful participation of all Afghans, including women, youth, and minorities, the Taliban will transform Afghanistan into a State of fear in which freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association would be denied. We, as Afghan citizens, also have a responsibility to stand against the tyranny. To advance the freedoms of all in Afghanistan, we must support the human rights defenders.

Mohammad ‘Musa’ Mahmodi is a human rights lawyer. He served as Executive Director of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission for ten years, providing strategic direction for programs and activities to monitor, protect, and promote human rights in a conflict-affected country. As part of his work, he focused on transitional justice, women rights, children rights, human rights education, and investigations of human rights violations and abuses by all parties to the conflict. Musa also advocated for reviews of laws and policies of Afghanistan to comply with the international human rights instruments. He previously worked with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, whereby he led and ran programs strengthening democracy and political parties in Afghanistan. Musa is a Research Fellow in Law at the Schell Centre for International Human Rights at Yale Law School.

Read more about the religious freedom in Afghanistan and beyond in Eleos Justice's new report, ‘Killing in the Name of God: State-Sanctioned Violations of Religious Freedom'.