Afghanistan’s Century of Politicised Education

Afghanistan’s Century of Politicised Education

Much has been said about the new Taliban government in the sixteen months since their August 2021 takeover. Had the Taliban changed? If so, was this part of a wider ideological re-orientation, or due to political maturity? Front and centre in all discussions was one topic: girls’ schools.
Girls’ schools between grades six and twelve were closed following the Taliban takeover. Schools would be opened, it was initially promised, on 23rd March. Hours into that day, the academic year’s first, schools were again closed ‘until further notice,’ and have remained closed since. After months of contradictory explanations and unrelenting chorus of (inter)national criticism, Kabul finally settled on an explanation. ‘The government is trying,’ said Abdul Qahar Balkhi, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘to take an approach that is gradual.’ This was due to a ‘large percentage of society that has very strict ideas on what women can do and what they cannot do.’ The closure was ‘a temporary suspension,’ not a ban.
Then came yesterday’s edict. Civil servants were to ‘urgently implement’ in universities the existing ban on girls’ schools, again, ‘until further notice’. Girls are officially barred from university, and outrage is boiling.
Ancient is the debate on ‘good’ education versus ‘bad’ indoctrination: discussed by minds as old, and as great, as Plato’s. The debate is not, contrary to disproportionate coverage, exclusive to Afghanistan. Even Western classrooms find themselves subject to a lengthening shadow of navigating increasingly polarising social issues, including those as foundational as gender.
Otherwise diametrically opposed foes, the Soviet Union and United States shared a surprising level of similarities as far as their occupations of Afghanistan were concerned. From an Afghan perspective, both occupations constituted phases of one war that ended only with the Taliban’s takeover. Both secured Afghan cities whilst confronted by a surrounding sea of expansive, increasingly hostile countryside. Both struggled with Pakistani assistance to insurgencies. Both insurgencies, in turn, shared the same DNA: rural and Islamic. This was despite the US in 2001 coopting some anti-Soviet mujahideen, now loyal to an occupier in exchange for her favours.
Wherein the two were remarkably similar, however, was the embellishment of their occupations. Geopolitics dictated the impetus to invade Afghanistan. Yet the Kremlin and Washington alike invoked higher values to galvanise support for what quickly descended into bloody, increasingly unpopular military occupations. Russians, Americans and Afghans alike were told repeatedly that occupation would herald a new dawn. A new chapter of modernity that had thus far eluded Afghanistan beckoned, underpinned by education and women’s rights.
‘Peace will be achieved,’ President Bush promised in 2002, ‘by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government [and] through an education system for boys and girls.’ Afghanistan would ‘develop an economy that can feed its people without feeding the world’s demand for drugs.’ As it turned out, not quite. The US, like the Kremlin, ended its occupation. Both times, troops were withdrawn, client regimes collapsed, and religiously conservative insurgencies, hardened by the above, barged into power.
As the dust on Afghanistan settled, the consequences of decades of politicising education and women’s rights were laid bare. Tainted were the values in whose name war was waged and the country subject to occupation. Now victorious, the insurgencies represented the blocs wherein those sentiments were strongest; sentiments soon enshrined in policy. In post American-Afghanistan, it is modern education that has emerged as a source of contention, and not for the first time.
‘Afghan men,’ a BBC guest recently claimed, ‘stand behind the Taliban,’ in their policies toward women. That was part of an answer to the presenter, who asked why Afghan men, like Iranian men, were not protesting for women’s rights. It wasn’t just the question, betraying a lack of any appreciation for the vast differences between the two countries, that was jaw-dropping. The guest, even after a bigotry-reeking answer, remained unchallenged by the presenter. In full force is mainstream media’s tried and tested modus operandi: hysterical sensationalism.
Blanket racism against Afghans is normalised on international fora, and deeper developments remain ignored. One such development is the Taliban’s recent book: The Islamic Emirate and Her System. For those discontented with dim-witted questions and even shoddier answers, such developments are not merely noteworthy; their dissection is imperative. Covering legislation, judiciary, and, most importantly, education, the book is a watershed. It is the Taliban’s first peacetime attempt to articulate, on their own terms, their philosophy toward governance. Its significance is compounded by its author: Shaykh Abdul-Hakim Haqqani.

Haqqani hails from the group’s coterie of madrassa-graduated religious mashran (elders) from the Afghan deep south. His rank was displayed in Doha. Chief of the Taliban delegation, Haqqani led talks during intra-Afghan negotiations; negotiations made redundant with the Taliban’s military victory. Tutor to all three Taliban leaders thus far and known as ‘ustad al-ulama’ (teacher of scholars), Haqqani boasts a scholarly pedigree commanding the respect, and reportedly, even the deference, of Amir Hebatullah Akhundzada. His importance cannot be overstated. Now Chief Justice, it is Haqqani, above others, tasked with achieving the politico-legal goal of making the Taliban’s Emirate, true to its name, sufficiently Islamic. Whether feasible or ill-advised, Haqqani’s role in the endeavour is telling.
‘We do not,’ Haqqani declares, ‘deny the importance of modern education.’ Nor, despite a caveat on which he expands, ‘do we deny its permissibility or necessity.’ It was ‘obligatory’, however, ‘for an [Islamic] state to prioritise religious education over secular education’. Secular education should be incorporated into and under the umbrella of a wider religious education. Separating the two, per Haqqani, was akin to relegating the religious to the secular.
Haqqani has probably never read Professor Wael Hallaq of Columbia. His objection toward bifurcating religious and secular education, though, is almost identical to Hallaq’s broader assessment of secularism. Through the lens ‘of political theology,’ Hallaq postulates, ‘secularism is the murder of God by the State,’ as the ‘state can delimit, limit, exclude and curtail any religious practice and thus has the power to determine the quality and quantity of the religious sphere as it sees fit.’ In this paradigm, the state did not conform to a religious framework, but religion was subject to the state definition of religion, and thus state power. ‘The state,’ therefore, ‘is the ultimate Sovereign.’
Similarly, separating religious and secular education was the ascendance of the temporal over the spiritual. It empowered an outside, non-religious authority to decide for religion what it was, and what it was not. Haqqani’s criticism against this is not just excoriating; it was to be stopped ‘with the most forceful of means,’ constituting a plot ‘to corrupt the moral uprightness of Muslims and deviate them from the religion of God.’ This bifurcation was not responsible just for instability in Afghanistan; it was responsible for the decline of the Islamic world as a whole.
In April, I wrote about the reinstituted Ministry of Vice and Virtue. Like that Ministry and its surrounding controversy, the debate over education has a lengthy, pre-Taliban history. Controversy over schooling started almost immediately following initial state modernisation attempts. Debate over education and its separation (or lack thereof) between religious and secular is part of a larger theme: the ongoing and unresolved dialectic between modernity on one hand and the largely classical religious framework on the other. That framework, commonly derided as outdated, proved resilient, persisting through Kabul’s repeated, bloody and ultimately unsuccessful attempts at destroying it. Too often, this was done with foreign assistance. Modernity itself was tainted with memories of foreign armies, Soviet or American, and their repeated assaults on everything Afghan.

The Troubled Beginnings of Afghan Education
The nineteenth century was traumatic from an Afghan standpoint. Previously an empire, Afghanistan was now a buffer state sandwiched between and at the mercy of Russia and British India. The British had twice invaded. Twice ousting them, Afghanistan had, in the process, ceded to Britain territory and control over its foreign affairs. Of some solace was the late nineteenth century’s unprecedented statebuilding and centralisation. By the twentieth century, Afghan elites, joined by Afghans returning from exile and in growing sync with the wider world, were coming to a growing realisation: Afghanistan was in dire need of modernisation. One Afghan, returning from Ottoman exile and a relative of the royal family, was particularly important: Mahmud Tarzi. He had new ideas.
The efforts of Tarzi’s Young Afghans (inspired by the Young Turks) led Afghanistan’s first modern school in 1904. Kabul’s Habibiyya taught biology, chemistry, history, Pashto (promoted as a national language) and Turkish (demonstrating Ottoman influence). Afghanistan was entering modernity slowly, but controversially; traditional curricula had operated under the aegis of the madrassa system with the ulama at the helm. Modern schooling triggered their opposition; many were paranoid about wider changes a Western education could engender. The compromise was that admission into Habibiyya was conditional on completing the primary and secondary stages of madrassa.
Prevalent historiography predictably depicts Tarzi as a ‘progressive’ advocate of (Western) education. His detractors, on the other hand, easily fit the archetype of powerful and religious men hellbent on backwardness and opposing enlightenment. Tarzi’s push for education, however, was part of his pan-Islamism: largely in response to the European imperialism with which both the Ottoman Empire and Afghanistan were confronted. Tarzi believed the panacea to be modern education, to which the ulama had little exposure and less understanding. Their antipathy was specifically toward Western education. Parallels to the present day are glaring.
This historiography and logical conclusions thereof underpin contemporary coverage of Afghanistan. Lazily relying on a bland salad of orientalist tropes and obsolete Hegelian terminology, frequently used are the omnipresent binaries of ‘backwards’ versus ‘progress’. The discourse refuses to address the unresolved tensions that contribute to the seemingly unending Afghan cycle of being back and forthwith each militarily induced change of government, between revolution and counter revolution, progressive forces versus reactionary forces, ‘good’ versus ‘bad.’ In doing so, contemporary discourse contributed directly to war. Arbitrarily defined ‘moderate’ heroes were lionised against religious villains, identified far too often, with deadly consequences for thousands of Afghan men, with beards and turbans.
Amidst this, fundamentally ignored is the uncomfortable reality that Afghanistan under the Taliban has not gone ‘backwards,’ in the same way that, despite passionate claims to the contrary, it never truly ‘progressed’ during two decades of American occupation. The glaring testament to this is Afghanistan being lurched side to side, ground continually by the opposing poles of ideologues and the reactionaries they breed.
Tarzi was directly challenging an understanding of education in place for centuries. Inherent to Tarzi’s preferred education was the secular-religious distinction; a distinction that was anathema to the classical Islamic curricula for centuries prevalent in Afghanistan and the wider Islamic world. This style of education was not just prevalent but persists to the present day. Akif Muhajir, the Ministry of Vice and Virtue’s spokesman whom I interviewed, studied at Pakistan’s infamous Darul Uloom Haqqania madrassa. His curriculum incorporated logic and philosophy besides Quran and hadith under the wider umbrella of a religious education.
‘Islam refuses,’ then Prince of Wales and now King Charles III admiringly affirmed in 1993, ‘to separate man and nature, religion and science, mind and matter, and has preserved a metaphysical and unified view of ourselves and [our] world.’ To his surprise, probable discomfort and with no shortage of irony, nodding in agreement with Charles on classical Islam’s lack of religious-secular distinction would be none other than Afghan Chief Justice and Taliban ideologue: Abdul Hakim Haqqani.
It was already likely that there would be opposition to Tarzi and modern education; it became inevitable with the extremity of attempts at implementation. When Tarzi’s mentee and son-in-law Amanullah assumed the throne, he aimed to transform his impoverished kingdom into a modern state. Initially careful to align himself with Islamic orthodoxy, Amanullah even won the backing of some influential ulama for reforms. He opened the country’s first girls’ school and, in 1924, attempted to promulgate its first codified constitution. Strong religious backing notwithstanding, Amanullah still came under growing domestic pressure; pressure he sought to offset by going as far as Delhi’s Deobandi Mufti Kifayatullah for a fatwa (legal edict) on girls’ education. Amanullah was, the Mufti explained, the Islamic ruler and ‘shadow of God on Earth’: compelled to ensure religious norms on gender segregation were upheld and ‘immorality’ prevented. Beyond that, the Mufti wrote, the modern age necessitated a widening of education, and the pursuit of ‘knowledge is a necessity of a human soul, whether male or female.’ Any justification, as such, ‘differentiating between men and women in this regard does not exist in the Sharia.’

Education’s Foreignness and Amanullah’s High Modernism
By 1928, Amanullah was frustrated by his lack of progress, caring little for religious sensibilities. He announced sweeping measures. Coeducation would be compulsory for children and foreign-run schools were to be established in all provinces. Afghans, including girls, would be sent to study abroad. This was part of a broader package of reforms. These included the official holiday being shifted from the Islamic Friday to Thursday. Kabulis would henceforth wear European clothes. Polygamy was to be abolished. Even Tarzi, the erstwhile modernist, was appalled. The message derived by Amanullah’s opponents was clear: modern education formed part of a wider crusade against everything Afghan, whether Islam, gender segregation, even clothing.
Demands were eventually presented to Amanullah. He was to divorce his wife: a driving force behind his reforms and photographed without a hijab in Europe. He was to reinstitute the veil and lift the ban on polygamy. In a staggering display of how politicised girls’ education had become, he was demanded to close all girls’ schools and recall all girls sent abroad for education. Islamic jurists had, for centuries, posited that the sultan (ruler) was God’s shadow on Earth. That, however, was contingent on the Sultan’s sharia-compliant rule. Through anti-Islamic reforms, Amanullah had overstepped his prerogative, forfeiting his Islamic legitimacy, and soon enough, his throne itself. Overthrown and to die in exile in 1960, Amanullah’s legacy, rooted in his moronic understanding of modernity, vindicated those who had from the beginning warned against modern education. Casting a long shadow, he haunts Afghanistan to the present day.
Amanullah’s attempts at mandating schooling were a Western inspired ‘prescription for immorality and promiscuity.’ That, at least, was the view of Kabul’s ex-governor, Neda Muhammad Nadeem, in a video that went viral wherein Nadeem castigated Amanullah. Taliban sources denied the authenticity of the account sharing the video, purporting to be Nadeem’s official account, but the video remained alarming. Nadeem was not just a senior Talib, he was also Shaykh al-Hadith; his influence bound to be augmented by his credentials.
Most concerning, though, was Nadeem’s recent appointment as Minister of Higher Education by Amir Hebatullah himself, and what this could possibly mean for education overall. Subsequent videos showed Nadeem, following his appointment as Minister, talking of bridging ‘the gap between the school and the madrassa,’ echoing Haqqani’s objection to the secular-religious distinction. Soon enough, it was Nadeem that signed the communique ordering the ‘urgent’ ban of girls from university. There was, unsurprisingly, no explanation on how banning secondary schools and universities bridged the school-madrassa gap. Or why this applied to one gender alone.
Amanullah’s attitude was reminiscent of what James Scott termed ‘high modernism’: utilising the state in the top down reorganisation of society to achieve material progress. Amanullah was perhaps the first to embody and attempt to implement that zeitgeist yet he would, as the decades transpired, certainly not be the last.
In 1978, just under half a century after Amanullah’s overthrow, President Daud and seventeen family members were killed in a communist coup. Soon thereafter, Afghanistan was plunged into a forty year war. The perpetrators, with Nur Muhammad Taraki at their vanguard, saw themselves as heirs to Amanullah’s crusade for modernity. Even their coup was presented as righting a historical wrong; celebrating the end of a dynasty that had usurped Amanullah’s throne. Like Amanullah, Taraki’s reforms attempted to curtail polygamy, and went further: arresting and executing imams en masse. Where Amanullah once derided the ulama as superstitious and exploitative, and spoke of ‘discarding old outworn ideas and customs [being] the great secret of success,’ Taraki asserted:
‘We respect the principles of Islam….but religion must not be used by those who want to sabotage progress. We want to cleanse Islam in Afghanistan of the ballast and dirt of bad traditions, superstition and erroneous belief. Thereafter we will have progressive, modern and pure Islam.’
Amanullah and Taraki alike shared their fundamental high modernism, necessitating cutting religion down to size. Both castigated their religious opponents: either self-interested, superstitious or exploitative. Taraki’s high modernism went further than Amanullah’s: buttressed by a greater means and readiness for brutality and relegating Afghanistan to the ideological and military power of the Soviet Union, but it was high modernism nonetheless. Every action has a reaction, and every phase of high-modernism bred a religious counterpart, the latest iteration being the Taliban.
Amanullah was overthrown by his former soldier: illiterate bandit now self-styled ‘Servant of the Religion of the Prophet,’ Habibullah Kalakani. Kalakani promptly closed all schools, imposed restrictions on women leaving their homes, and, in glaring testament to Amanullah’s reforms being tainted with foreignness, announced a ban on teaching ‘the languages of foreigners and kuffar [infidels].’ Uncomfortably for some, Kalakani was a Tajik, contradicting the view that opposition to schooling was rooted in Pashtun cultural norms. He was ousted nine months later in 1929 by Amanullah’s clansman: Nader Khan.
Nader was, albeit cautious, a moderniser. He did, however, disagree with Amanullah’s high modernism. Forcing new ideas on society was not government prerogative, nor was it necessary. Islam and progress could, he asserted, ‘march side by side,’ as Islam did ‘not constitutionally prohibit progress.’ Such statements may have been expedient; his kingship was born out of an alliance with a clergy eager to enthrone a sober ally. Yet Nader did not deny his belief in modernisation. It was, indeed, a medicine; a medicine that Amanullah had administered in a dosage that was ‘tenfold stronger than prescribed by the doctor.’. Wary of clerical influence and widespread disdain for education borne of Amanullah’s erraticism, however, Nader towed a careful line. He and his successors’ approach was gradual but, in hindsight, yet to be replicated in success.
Playing a delicate balancing act, Nader traded limited modernisation with deference to religious sensitivities still inflamed by Amanullah. He succeeded in making primary schooling compulsory. Foreigners could continue teaching in Afghan schools. They could no longer, however, open new schools or direct them. Education was to remain firmly under government control, ensuring its adherence to Islamic tenets, determined by a Nader-appointed body of clergy. Concurrently, Afghanistan’s first modern morality police was instituted and initially, at least, girls’ schools remained shut. Girls were forbidden from study abroad. Like Amanullah before him, an Indian scholar wrote to Nader. Mawlana Najaf Ali, Amanullah’s former teacher, pleaded with Nader to open girls’ schools. History, per the adage, repeats itself. When pertaining to Afghanistan, it is doubly and depressingly so. In 2022, another scholar from the Indian subcontinent, Mufti Taqi Usmani, appealed to another Afghan government to open girls’ schools. His plea was not just ignored, but girls were barred from university to boot.
Effective but brutally authoritarian, Nader’s reign ended prematurely as he was killed in 1933. Yet he and his successors could boast of success in their consultative approach toward the country’s conservatives. Afghanistan’s first medical school, later Kabul University, was established in 1932. The following decades saw a slow return to initiatives made taboo by association with Amanullah’s anti-Islamic reforms. Girls’ schools, initially secretly, were reopened, and universities were established; religious and secular sciences were taught separately therein. Statebuilding could be a dangerous endeavour rurally; a safe focus on infrastructure ensured slow but prudent expansion of government writ.
There was, however, a catch. Foreigners, principally Indian Muslims and Turks, were heavily relied upon from the dawn of schooling. As decades passed and antipathy toward schooling seemed to dampen, a chronic shortage of teachers ensured education remained subcontracted and insufficiently Afghan. The top brass of schools remained foreign. There was the Soviet built Kabul Polytechnic University for engineering, the Amanullah era German Nejat college, the French-run Lycees Istiqlal and Malalai (for girls), and the English Ghazi College to name a few. Kabul University’s varying faculties were sponsored by France, the US and Britain. The University’s theology department was closely linked to Egypt’s Al-Azhar. Amidst the Cold War, military officers increasingly went to the Soviet Union for training. The consequences became clear in 1978’s communist coup.

Enter Haqqani
That is why, at least according to the Taliban’s Chief Justice, things went wrong. ‘Delving excessively in modern sciences destroys [religious] belief and acts of worship,’ Haqqani declares. Earlier Islamic generations, Haqqani maintains, achieved worldly success only through prioritising the Quran and Sunnah; a prioritisation that had been lost and led to a decline of religious scholarship that had, over centuries, been in full swing. Haqqani charged al-Ma’mun, the notorious ninth century Mu’tazili Abbasid Caliph, as being the first to overemphasise worldly sciences. The modern secular-religious divide took this misprioritisation to new heights by officially relegating religion. This was responsible broadly for Islam’s weakness, and specifically for 1978’s communist ‘revolution against the government of Afghanistan.’ Alluding to the outsized Western role in education, Haqqani lambasts schools as places where even ‘the uniforms are European.’
Haqqani’s tirade against schooling is unsurprising. Schools had, due to their foreignness, long served as incubators of foreign ideas and resultant political unrest. This went back to the establishment of the Habibiyya; it quickly spawned a constitutionalist movement. By the mid 20th century and Cold War, schools were a conduit for a slew of foreign ideas creeping into the country. Foremost amongst them was communism.
As President, Hafizullah Amin oversaw an unprecedented apex of state terror that even his Soviet allies warned him against. His background, however, was far less violent. Amin was a teacher by trade; he had lectured at the Education and Teaching Faculty at Kabul University, served as principal at both the prestigious Dar-ul Mu’alimeen (Teacher Training School), Ibn Sina (Avicenna) schools, and the government’s newly established Teacher Training Institute. Per his biography, as teacher, he busied himself with ‘enlightening socio-political understanding and making the democratic movement among the students and teachers highly powerful.’ Too ambitious to content himself with radicalising mere students, Amin had set his sights on indoctrinating their teachers.
Communism was not the only ideology seeping into the country, but its adherents’ belligerence toward religion made it most striking. Many were of rural stock, almost all were either foreign or state educated. Taraki was first exposed to Marxism in British India. Soon confronted by the Herat Uprising after his 1978 coup, Taraki begged the Kremlin for military support. He could rely, he confessed, ‘only [on] students of the Lyceums, pupils of the eldest forms and a small number of workers.’ His confession simultaneously underscored communist unpopularity together with the importance of state education in radicalisation into communism. Amin, who succeeded Taraki by suffocating him, had studied in the USA. After killing Amin, the Soviets installed Babrak Karmal as President: a graduate of the German Nejat College and foreign sponsored Kabul University. Karmal’s successor, Dr. Najib, was a graduate of Kabul University’s Medical Faculty.
Many, however, remained convinced by modern schooling. In cities but also in the countryside, schooling was not just seen as part of a national duty to modernise the country. It was also a religious obligation based on the Quranic injunction to ‘read’. According to one saying popularly attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), it was part of a commandment for Muslims to seek knowledge even afar as China.
Claiming that most Afghans disagreed would be far-fetched. Enough Afghans, however, did. This reality became undeniable as scepticism toward schooling survived and reared its head decades later to be practically implemented under the first and now second Taliban Emirates. The rise of communism coincided with laxer enforcement of Islamic norms in cities. A golden age for some; for others, it only deepened the conceptualisation of modernity, and its schools, as avenues of anti-Islamic influence.
Now immortalised in classical Arabic in his book, that conceptualisation is summarised by Haqqani in bleak terms. With religion relegated to a footnote in secular curricula, permeated by a wider atmosphere of ‘immorality and irreligion,’ and rampant freemixing, schools are, Haqqani contends, ‘amongst the greatest barriers between Muslims and Islam, and the greatest preventors of the teaching of the Quran, the rulings of the Sharia, and the moral uprightness of Muslims.’
The pre-Taliban antipathy toward schooling was recollected by pre-eminent Afghan historian Muhammad Hassan Kakar. A tribal elder from Paktia in the 1980s had narrated to Kakar how Kabul, decades earlier, approved plans for local road and school construction. Locals had generally acquiesced, with the exception of his valley’s elders: convinced by a holy man to oppose the plans. Decades later, in the 1980s, the other valleys were subject to the destruction of their own sons turned communists as a result of the schools. With neither school nor roads, theirs was the only valley spared of the violence. The holy man was right. ‘Common people destroyed schools from the foundation. The educated persons became discredited, and the mullahs became unrivalled rulers.’
The Taliban founding fathers thus grew up in a milieu subsumed in the same attitudes. Per one Taliban official, the movement’s previous leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, had attended school in his native Maiwand in Qandahar. A prodigious talent, Mansour was soon enough noticed by his teachers. Customary for children of his intelligence, they recommended the young Mansour be sent to Kabul for higher education. His mother, however, was horrified. Apostasy, as she saw it, was inevitable in Kabul. ‘I would rather,’ she proclaimed ‘that he dies in front of me.’
Mansour went on, as far as technology, media and schooling were concerned, to be the movement’s most permissive leader. His Taliban predecessors, successors, and his own mother, however, all shared an ambivalence toward schooling. Mansour was later killed in a 2016 US drone strike. The one Taliban leader that the US managed to kill was the one that would who died at US hands to be one they would find most agreeable. The irony.
By the Soviet occupation, hostility toward schooling had hardened further. Schooling had been identified, as early as Amin, as the the engine of social engineering in the creation of a Marxist utopia. Curricula, replete with communist propaganda, was the fuel. Deliberately ‘void of Islamic studies and Afghani culture,’ these curricula, according to Dr. Zuhra Faizi, provoked opposition toward state schooling even in urban centres, including Kabul. No longer was it confined to a countryside otherwise liable to easily being dismissed as backward. So bitter was opposition to these curricula that even Afghan refugees in Pakistan were resistant to schooling. Schools themselves were synonymous with sacrilegious propaganda.
It was not, however, merely Amanullah or even Soviet communism to blame for politicising education. Across the Durand Line, Afghan children in Pakistan were raised on a curricular diet of US-produced textbooks extolling the virtues of jihad. It was a square that the US, in its later occupation of Afghanistan, never succeeded in circling.

The US occupation – feeding the cycle
The occupation of Afghanistan was part of the wider War on Terror’s strategic goals. Foremost amongst these was cultivating a globally neutered Islam that would, at least, not challenge American foreign policy interests. In 2004, political scientist Cheryl Bernard wrote a policy paper for the Rand Corporation on promoting what she termed ‘Civil Democratic Islam.’
Dividing Muslims into categories, Bernard suggested promoting Sufism as a pacifist variant of Islam. The US, she advised, should ally with ‘traditionalists’ against its principal adversary: ‘fundamentalists.’ This was a catch-all term that included the Taliban, who were ‘radical fundamentalists.’ That was not, however, a token of Bernard’s approval for traditionalists; they remained ‘leery of women’s social and economic integration’ and ‘wary of modern, secular education.’ In turn, to break the traditionalist monopoly on religious scholarship, Bernard proposed supporting ‘modernists.’. This could be done through various avenues; ‘modernist scholars’ could be encouraged ‘to write textbooks and develop curricula’ as well as incorporating modernist ‘views into the curriculum of Islamic education.’ Bernard’s emphasis on curricula was prolific; curricula could also ‘facilitate and encourage an awareness of pre and non-Islamic history and culture.’
In the same year as Bernard’s recommendations, President Bush delivered his 2004 State of the Union . Afghanistan, he announced, had been a success. It had just promulgated a new, democratic constitution. ‘The boys and girls of Afghanistan are back in school,’ Bush boasted. ‘Aggressive raids against the surviving members of the Taliban’ were ongoing, and ‘men and women are building a nation that is free and proud and fighting terror.’ By ‘terror’, the reference to the Taliban was obvious. Similar statements by Western statesmen and their Afghan clients littered the two decades of American occupation. The shared aim was appealing to a Western audience by legitimising and maintaining public support for spending billions on an occupation and the insatiable appetite for foreign dollars amongst the installed Afghan elite. Glad tidings were forthcoming; a new generation of young, ‘educated’ Afghans, it was promised, would turn the page on a chapter arbitrarily defined as one of religious extremism.
Education and women’s rights were thus the legitimising and reinforcing pillars for the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Blissfully unaware or supremely indifferent, the statements, whether Bush’s or Bernard’s, only vindicated the suspicion that education was a Trojan horse for Westernisation. Repeatedly presenting education as an integral ingredient of the War on Terror achieved the net result of repeatedly vindicating Haqqani; education was aimed at castrating Islam whilst fostering an understanding of women’s rights that clashed with women’s domestic role that he believed divinely ordained. Modern schools were ultimately barriers between Islam and Muslims; barriers intended specifically to ‘deviate [Muslims] from the religion of God.’ The Taliban’s hawks, with education and women constantly weaponised against them, were listening.
Scepticism toward state schools thus persisted during the American occupation. The increasingly common slurs of the occupation’s dying years only pointed toward enduring resentment toward Western education. ‘Tommy’ referred derisively to many young, Western educated, suit wearing and English fluent Afghans serving in government or NGOs; they were so distant that they were given a fitting Western name to boot. ‘Fulbrighter’ mocked those who benefited from the famous US scholarship. Both terms, according to their users, referred to Afghans who, by virtue of their Western education, had lost the Afghanness of which Islam was the key constituent. ‘A mujahid will graduate from a madrassa,’ Amir Hebatullah reportedly said. Referring to former President Karzai, he added ‘[but] a Karzai will graduate from a school.’
Modest gains, however, were made. A national curriculum in attempted adherence to Islamic tenets was codified. Access to schools widened across the country, especially in urban areas. Particularly in war-stricken rural areas, though, Dr. Faizi highlights community-based schools filled the void. These enjoyed greater local trust and were often staffed by locals who worked as teachers. This was whilst distrust toward state-schools persisted. ‘For many,’ Dr. Faizi told me, ‘public schools continued to represent state indoctrination efforts.’
I encountered an example of this in Zharey, Qandahar. The district’s only girls’ school lay in ruins. Locals, especially Taliban, keenly told me how the school was used as a regime military outpost in the Republic’s dying years. The scars of military use were apparent. The school’s outer perimeter was delineated by now crumbled walls. Beneath the walls’ rubble, amidst tattered pieces of paper, were sandbags held in wired metal containers. The school in Zharey did not represent state indoctrination efforts; it synonymised indoctrination with military machinery.
Far from the polished answers given by Kabul spokesmen, it was in Zharey that schooling’s equivocation with anti-Islamic influence became apparent. A former Talib turned lavender farmer insisted to me on having no objection to girls, including his daughter, attending school. As long as, he added, this did not clash with the Sharia. He didn’t elaborate on how and why schooling could conflict with the Sharia. He did, however, refer to the international outcry caused by the school closures. ‘This issue [girls’ schools],’ he contended, ‘is being used to undermine Islam.’ He was not alone; the antipathy toward education was present at the highest Taliban echelons. Held by what is widely reported to be a minority, that minority is influential enough to again bring the country to a standstill.
The first and second Taliban Emirates have both featured restrictions on modern, especially girls’ schooling. Afghanistan has seemingly come full circle, when modern schooling was first banned by Kalakani in 1929. Haqqani’s attitude toward schooling, though, is not one of blanket hostility. Modern education, he concedes, was a necessity; it undoubtedly provided benefits that were worldly, or, as Haqqani puts it ‘material [and] finite.’ These benefits went beyond waging war in defence of Islam; Haqqani accepts that society’s wellbeing was dependent on the study of subjects such as agriculture, chemistry, amongst others. ‘We do not,’ he attempts to clarify, ‘deny the importance of modern education.’
In 2022, even the Taliban can no longer deny, at least in words, the importance of modern education. Progress, albeit slow, has been made in the Afghan paradigm. Whether that progress is sufficient is a separate discussion; one that must highlight Afghanistan never being permitted the luxury of evolving and solving its differences on its own terms. Indigenous evolution was precluded by the cross-temporal alliance of Amanullah, the ideologues he inspired, and the thousands of foreign soldiers who installed them. Destiny did not afford Kalakani the luxury of time, but it certainly did to the Taliban.
Yet it remains important to couch Haqqani’s admission, perhaps cause for some relief, within his broader stance. ‘A Muslim,’ through service to Islam, ‘will use modern education for this life [as well as] the Hereafter.’ This is in contrast to the kafir [infidel]; bereft of salvation in the Hereafter, he would find utility in modern education ‘only for this life.’ It was only logical, therefore, for an Islamic government to abandon taqleed (blind imitation) of the West in its secular-religious distinction: the real cause for the Islamic world’s decline. ‘It is important for an Islamic government,’ Haqqani elucidates, ‘to not abandon secular education, but incorporate it within a broader religious education.’

The Way Forth
Daunting tasks confronted the Taliban after their takeover: governing a wartorn country, distributing the proverbial spoils of war between tens of thousands of hardened fighters, the clashing interests of their base, the country’s diverse blocs, and the wider world. All, to differing degrees, are disillusioned. The general amnesty extended to previous regime personnel coincided with limited but greater maturity in governance, an emphasis on diplomacy and decreased enforcement of religious propriety. The implementation of the Ministry of Vice and Virtue’s edicts, or ‘advice’, with the inexorable focus on women, is lacklustre. A softer touch overall, but a government whose contradictions, unpredictability and volatility point toward intra-party friction and woeful incompetence.
The increasing assertiveness of Qandahar’s hawks was signalled by the Ministry of Vice and Virtue’s escalating ‘advice’ following March’s closure. With Amir Hebatullah at the helm, the impulse, it appeared, was to stamp central authority over a hitherto decentralised insurgency. In August 2021, I told Al Jazeera that whilst circumstances differed, the Taliban’s ‘theoretical interpretation of the Sharia would remain by and large the same as the 90’s.’ That unchanged interpretation and Qandahar’s increasing assertiveness appeared in reimplementing ta’zir (discretionary) penalties, including stoning, flogging and amputations for specific crimes. Those penalties, though, are neither unique to the Taliban or even Afghanistan, and are unlikely to provoke opposition within either.
That is not true for education. Stinging criticism was forthcoming almost immediately following the school closure, including from analysts otherwise in favour of the Taliban. Yesterday’s ban on universities only exacerbated anger. Education policy seems a unique area whose criticism does not warrant repression, even amidst calculated suppression of criticism elsewhere. Indeed, it’s difficult to see how dissent could be stifled when voiced increasingly publicly by Taliban figures themselves. Minister of Interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani, repeatedly and publicly promised the reopening of schools, upping the ante and indirectly challenging the closure’s advocates. At one point, Zabihullah Mujahid, after intense questioning, bluntly answered that the ban was not his decision. Had it been, the closure would have never happened.
‘[Modern] education is obligatory on men and women,’ Deputy Foreign Minister Affairs Stanakzai recent declared. His cabinet colleague, the Minister of Vice and Virtue, subtly challenged him; education was, he highlighted, indeed permissible. The implication was clear; being permissible meant it was not obligatory. Obligatory, he added, was obedience to the Amir: authorised to suspend even the permissible.
Juxtaposed with rosy promises once made in Doha, Taliban policy in Kabul has attracted accusations of barefaced and stunning duplicity at home and internationally. Ranging from fatawa from Herati religious seminaries to tribal petitions from Paktika, domestic pressure on the school ban has been unrelenting. With the ban extended to universities, still under formation is a quickly swelling avalanche of international condemnation, punitive measures and further domestic outrage. Deepened intra-Taliban fissures are inevitable; only their extent is to be determined.
Solutions, however, lie at home. That is especially pertinent for yesterday’s Afghan politicians, whose maturation was possible only by an occupation fattening them on foreign dollars. Attempting a resurgence by leveraging loathing for the ban, their decades-old impulse to internationalise domestic standoffs is no longer feasible, assuming it ever were. Problems rooted in or exacerbated by foreign involvement cannot be remedied by more foreign involvement. Decades of politicising education would have provided the necessary panacea were it the case.
Internationalising Afghan standoffs ensure two things. The discussion grows in remoteness to Afghanistan and domestic initiatives fall liable to the charge of being foreign backed, and thus sullied. A discussion on a gendered ban cannot and will not be solved by countries internally divided on what constitutes biological gender, or if such a thing even exists.
Reorienting the discussion to centre around Afghan sensitivities, however, can leverage existing pressure across the Afghan political spectrum, including Taliban dissenters. Pressure that could, from within, be brought to bear against those blinded by hubris, ideology and paranoia; and dooming Afghanistan to domestic divisions and international isolation alike.
It is not the participation of girls in either schools or university to which Haqqani is opposed; his antipathy is toward the fundamental idea of the school and university itself. When or if either of these will reopen for girls is uncertain. That vagueness, per his wider epistemological critique of secular education, applies equally to the possibility of closures for boys. Assuming such a thing ever came to fruition, the practical form of a Haqqani-approved curriculum that turns the clock back on modernity is woefully unspecified.
One question, above all, is whether Afghanistan or even the Taliban can afford being held hostage to philosophically abstract critiques of modernity. An economic crisis and chronic shortage of resources would make operating the previous education system challenging enough. Creating a functional system that, in essence, replaces the university with the madrassa, is another task altogether.
One thing is certain: whether education or governance more broadly, questions on the Taliban will not stop.


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