On Wednesday, December 7, most of the Taliban regime’s top leaders, including their diplomatic officials, took center stage in a soccer stadium in the Western province of Farah. The event was not related to soccermania induced by the ongoing World Cup in Qatar. Instead, the Taliban leadership and hundreds of spectators were in the stadium to witness the brutal execution of a person.
According to eyewitness accounts, the Taliban asked people to attend the public execution of two men and the stoning to death of a woman. However, and thankfully, due to undisclosed reasons the stoning either did not happen or was carried out in a more discreet location, and only one man was executed. After the execution, the regime’s spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, announced that the Taliban had acted righteously under divine law.
At a time when the regime is seeking international recognition to lessen the prevailing humanitarian, political, and security crises Afghanistan faces, the return of the regime to the barbarity of public executions and stonings to death challenges such efforts. However, the group may resort to concepts of jurisdictional sovereignty and cultural relativism, i.e. Shariah or Islamic law, to justify their barbarity. Already, Mujahid suggested that those who criticized the execution “still do not have a proper knowledge and understanding of Afghanistan.”
As a result, the international community needs to be aware of such traps and be ready to counter them, especially regarding the application of Shariah and the government structure.
Pitfall I: The Fragmented Face of Shariah
While Shariah is perhaps the most discussed topic when it comes to Islam in Western societies, it is the most misrepresented and the least understood issue, as well. There are different schools of thought and interpretations of Islamic law. In Islamic jurisprudence, besides the seven “Hudud” crimes that carry fixed mandates of punishment identified by the sacred script, there is no broad-based consensus on the contents, validity, and scope of Shariah.
The divisions go beyond the larger Sunni and Shia schism but exist in some fashion among all sects, including a deep and ever-widening crack between the Deobandi schools, the ideological orientation of the Taliban. Western scholars usually mislabel the Deobandi as a united sect, while it is pigeon-holed among numerous sectarian groups. The most significant divide is between the Pakistani and Indian seminaries. Furthermore, the Pakistani Deobandis are divided into multiple variants based on regional, linguistic, and historical factors.
From the perspective of Islamic jurisprudence, the Taliban’s interpretation of Shariah crossbreeds with that of the Islamic State. While the latter narrates mainly from Salafi-Wahabi sources that have a broader audience in the Middle East, the Taliban, on the other hand, imported the same narratives to a socio-cultural context that is not accommodating to such interpretations. Such a disconnect defies any fit between the Taliban’s and the Afghan populace’s stance on given issues. This weakens the group’s claim to be a sovereign entity representing the will of the Afghan people.
On practical grounds, the conditions identified for implementing the Hudud punishments are extremely challenging to satisfy. This structural challenge was the main reason for the rare implementation of Hudud throughout the history of Islam. This, however, changed with the emergence of a radical political Islam, mainly the Salafi-Wahabi sects in the 19th century that sought to implement Hudud for political gains.
In that same vein, any claim of “religious relativity” of fundamental human rights by the Taliban is political and strategic. It is political in terms of safeguarding their malign and barbaric intentions from international condemnation, and strategic in subjugating people through terror and severe punitive measures and retribution.
Pitfall II: Government Structure
There are at least 57 Islamic states in the world with government styles ranging from presidential democratic republics (e.g., Indonesia) to a hybrid of theocratic and democratic institutions (e.g., Iran) to monarchies (e.g., Saudi Arabia), and everything in between. More puzzling is that most of these states’ constitutions refer to their respective form of government as based on Islamic law (e.g., Pakistan and Qatar).
Forming a government in the Islamic tradition is a highly fluid practice. No specific guidelines or unifying precedents exist to drive the practice. Even the Prophet himself did not designate his successor and the designation/selection of the subsequent three Caliphs varied. Such variations implanted the seeds of division within the initial ages of the Islamic religion.
As such, the Taliban’s claim to be following sacred guidelines for their government’s formation, type, and operation should not be taken at face value. This does not mean that the Taliban’s recognition should be conditioned upon a specific structure or form of government. Such an approach certainly lacks grounds for the bedrock Westphalian principles of “non-intervention” and “sovereignty.” However, the regime’s entry to and recognition by the club of states should be based on a practical commitment to fundamental principles, norms, and traditions of the community regarding domestic and international affairs.
The Taliban’s resort to any authoritative reasonings, including references to Shariah, is a half-baked recipe. In addition to the group’s political maneuvers, the flawed Western-Islamic dichotomy contributes to such a recipe. The Taliban’s version of Islam is neither mainstream nor a genuine grounding for governance. The group’s ideological orientation is theologically and practically challenged in many ways. For decades, their grasp over fundamental notions of Islamic jurisprudence and their conduct, including blowing up historic sites, legitimatizing suicide bombings, and banning girls’ education, have attracted sharp criticism by legitimate Islamic authorities, including the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar, scholars in Indonesia, and the Deobandi Ulema in India.
Where Does That Leave the International Community?
In dealing with the Taliban, the dichotomy between a “Western way” or “the Taliban way” needs to be mitigated by an informed approach. The international community currently has leverage as the Taliban seeks recognition and aid. Such leverage should not be compromised by falling into the Taliban’s strategic traps. The group should not be given the sovereign right of using its interpretation of Shariah as a license to oppress human rights and freedoms and justify worse forms of violence — public executions and stonings to death.
The discussion goes beyond the “sovereign rights” principle and “cultural relativism” discourse. The complicated nature of Shariah, both as a concept and as a practice, indicates its fluidity and indefinability. Its literal interpretation makes the law prone to misuse for oppression and illegitimate violence. However, its indefinability and the lack of consensus among the mainstream Islamic jurisprudence is not the law’s weakness but a strength. It provides more room for secular laws in governance. Such has been the mainstream tradition ever since the emergence of earlier Islamic polities to today’s Muslim nation-states. In today’s world, the precedent set by other Islamic countries provides reasons to reject the Taliban’s stance on using the law for solidifying power through fear and oppression.
For the international community, the appeal to a notion of “common humanity” is morally and legally strong enough to support a firm stance upholding the rights of millions of Afghans against any weaponized law. The Taliban should know that sovereign rights are not considered the privilege of states. A state’s sovereignty and sanctity are legally and morally valuable only because of its responsible behavior toward other states and its own people.
The arrangement of the public execution was ceremonial and resembled an initiation ritual. The regime’s top political, diplomatic, and military officials flew from Kabul to attend the execution. Among them were the Taliban’s deputy prime minister, Mullah Bradaar, who signed the Doha deal with the American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and is known among foreign delegates as a moderate figure, as well as the ministers of education, interior, culture, and foreign affairs. After delivering speeches by officials, the ceremony concluded with the execution of a man.
The high-level ceremonial nature of the execution is indicative of a change in the internal dynamics within the regime. Since returning to power in August of 2021, some elements within the regime advocated for moderation and refraining from strict rule until the regime was recognized by the international community. That, however, alienated hardliners within the Taliban, including fighters and the supreme leader, who demand harsh and draconian laws. In early November, the Taliban’s supreme leader criticized some elements within the regime for disregarding the application of Shariah. The leader ordered the full implementation of the law by carrying out public executions, amputations, and stonings to death.
The recent execution demonstrates that the Taliban regime has fully returned to its original dystopian and draconian ideological rule as established in the 1990s. In addition, the carrying out of the execution in the presence of the regime’s diplomatic and political figures, who shake hands with and sit across the negotiation table from representatives of the international community, should entail a loss of any moral authority to claim a “changed” Taliban. Down the road, the Taliban can now only erroneously mask and justify their draconian rule through an appeal to the sanctity of Shariah.
But the international community must understand that nothing of the regime’s conduct is per the principles of Islamic law. On the contrary, they are presiding over their own type of draconian rule that has no parallels in the contemporary Islamic world. The international community should not let the Taliban regime terrorize and violate the fundamental human rights of 35 million people through a fraudulent claim of divinity or sovereignty.