Could it be that the Taliban’s greatest strength is not ruthlessness, lack of compassion, or their powerful external backers, but instead, their subservience to what they consider to be an unquestionable ideology? And surely then, the Western allies’ biggest mistake was their failure to challenge that ideology. Just when will our society wake up to the fact that questioning the voracity of religion is not just a basic human right; it’s a duty?
Even after Afghanistan was supposedly liberated by the West, Afghans (and especially Afghan women) continued to suffer the repression that is inherent in all societies that are largely based on religion. We should understand that, because our own history is one of repression and cruelty at the hands of the church.
Following a religion is fine, so long as you enter into it freely, and don’t try to impose it, or any associated moral decrees, on others. The assertion that the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam is wrong was weak, and always doomed to failure. Afghan’s were always going to question the authority of Christian American and European leaders to tell them the correct version of Islam.
We wanted to give Afghans access to the same freedoms we enjoy; particularly with regard to a balanced education that allows people to think for themselves. But we failed to understand the limits of our own freedoms. We asked Afghans to consider that what god really wants from them is different from what they’ve been told. But we didn’t offer them the true freedom of thought to question whether this god character actually exists. Because after all, why should they have something we don’t?
The Taliban use religion in the same way it has been used by repressive regimes across the globe and throughout history, back to the Caesars and beyond – questioning what the regime tells you god wants from you is the same as questioning god him/her/itself, which is in turn unthinkable and subject to extreme (human) punishment. Questioning the idea that god (or gods) are real, is something we in the so-called developed world still don’t have full freedom to do. When did you last hear this kind of challenge on TV or radio, in a newspaper or magazine, or on a mainstream web site? Yet we’re subjected to a constant drip feed commentary, on all of these media, which starts from the assumption that the truth of religion has long been established (it hasn’t).
The blasphemy law in the UK may have gone (though watch out – if religious groups have their way it could soon be back) but questioning the validity of religions is still not accepted behaviour. The continuing spread and imposition of government financed religious schools across the country continues unabated. Many get away with teaching that evolution is a lie. This shows how little we really value freedom of thought, and the right to a balanced education.
For Western governments to stop the Taliban would have required them to question the religious doctrine that is its beating heart. But to do so would also have struck at the repressive power of the religious groups that hold our own countries in their iron grip. And as our own leaders are hand-in-glove with the church, they were never going to allow that to happen.
And so Afghanistan has once again fallen into the hands of bigoted despots intent on depriving its people of their humanity. And, after a respectful period of mourning, we will turn away, smug in the security of our own comparatively open, free and fair society. But beware. Sharia law is here in the UK as well – barely visible, but flourishing in closed communities across the country, and supported by a government that consistently, and inexplicable, fails to challenge it. In growing communities across the UK and Europe large numbers of people suffer similar restriction of their freedoms to the poor Afghans – the misogyny, the homophobia, and all the other irrational nonsense that makes up Sharia.
Increasingly, threats and aggression by fundamentalist Muslims are shutting down freedom of expression in wider society – witness the Batley Grammar school debacle, the murder of Samuel Paty and the Charlie Hebdo staff, as well as the de-platforming that is taking place in universities in the UK – establishments that are supposed to promote free-thinking and open debate. Other religious groups – Christian, Jewish, Hindu, etc. gain encouragement from this, and are becoming bolder in their demands to impose their own perverse morality on the rest of us.
It’s often stated that we live in a global society. Our failure in Afghanistan, and the terrible events we are seeing there now, will send reverberations out across the globe. To many individuals, religion may be a joy. But to society as a whole, it remains a dangerous threat that we will never entirely banish unless we accept the right, and the need, to question, criticise, and even ridicule it.