The Rise of the Taliban and Islamic Fundamentalism

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. In 1989, the last year for which such statistics exist, the average income per person was only $200/year. Since then it has surely dropped further due to the constant civil war. It has the fourth highest infant mortality rate in the world. Life expectancy for both men and women is 43-44 years old.

A London Times correspondent who has extensively traveled the country commented “… much of Afghanistan is like a scene from Mad Max or some futurist [post-holocaust] movie. Everywhere is the debris of war; Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers with their turrets torn off; the wrecks of former clinics, schools and shops; razed walls, cratered and mined roads.”

In 1996 the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. They banned all opposition groups, political parties and trade unions. They introduced a brutally repressive form of sharia law. Music, movies, TV, card playing, singing, dancing, boxing, and even kite flying are outlawed. Homosexuals are buried alive. Women are virtually enslaved.

One of the Taliban’s major financiers is Osama bin Laden. He calls for a war of the “believers” against the “non-believers.” “Non-believers” includes non-Muslims and Muslims who do not subscribe to his particular form of “pure Islam,” Wahabism. It’s a puritanical trend of Sunni Islam imported from Saudi Arabia.

Islamic fundamentalism is a completely reactionary ideology that seeks to turn the wheel of history backward to establish theocratic dictatorships. The Taliban’s sharia law has nothing in common with Afghan culture. Most Afghan Muslims belong to the Hanafi school of thought, the most tolerant denomination of Sunni Islam. The Taliban fighters were recruited and educated at madrisas, Islamic religious schools in Pakistan.

How the Taliban Took Power

In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to defend an unstable Stalinist client state. As part of its Cold War against “communism” (in reality Stalinism), the US organized a counter-revolutionary war in Afghanistan to drive out the USSR. Billions of US dollars, matched by donations from rich Saudi tycoons and the proceeds of drug money, armed and funded the extreme right wing fundamentalist Mujahadeen guerrillas in Afghanistan, hailing them as “freedom fighters.” 21 years of conflict ensued in which 1.5 million people were killed. One of the organizers of the anti-USSR crusade was Osama bin Laden. While the US government has accused the Taliban of harboring bin Laden, they hypocritically gloss over the fact that the US armed, financed and trained this Frankenstein monster.

In 1989, the USSR was forced to withdraw from its occupation of Afghanistan due to a growing crisis within Soviet society and opposition to a losing war that had caused 15,000 Soviet casualties. Many Mujahadeen veterans returned to their home countries either as members of bin Laden’s Al Queda organization or homegrown versions, exporting their terrorism abroad.

In the power vacuum left by the USSR’s departure, Afghanistan was torn apart by civil war between rival factions of the Mujahadeen. The atrocities and constant fighting between the Mujahadeen warlords left the people of Afghanistan totally war-weary. It was in this context that the Taliban came to power with promises of law and order in 1995-96.

The US did not utter a single word of criticism when the Taliban occupied the city of Herat and expelled thousands of girls from the schools. At the time, the Clinton administration looked favorably on the Taliban because they hoped to build oil pipelines through Afghanistan. As recently as May of this year, the US gave the Taliban $43 million, supposedly to combat the opium trade. Since September 11th, the US has flip-flopped 180 degrees and launched a war against the Taliban. Now the US supports the Northern Alliance as an alternative to the Taliban. But the Northern Alliance is yet another Islamic fundamentalist movement that will oppress the Afghan people if it takes power.

The Causes of Islamic Fundamentalism

The basis of support for radical Islamic fundamentalism cannot be discovered in the religious doctrine. It can only be found in the social conditions of the region. “It reflects the desperate searching on the part of the oppressed masses for a way out of the seemingly eternal hell of poverty, hunger, unemployment, and disease … In the absence of any worldly salvation, many seek solace in religion.” (Militant International Review, 1993)

There is a deep resentment among the Arab masses toward the oil companies that extract massive profits while those who do the work cannot even feed their own children. The US government also has a long, bloody history of dominating and exploiting the people and resources of the Middle East.

Despite this tremendous oppression, the Arab ruling elites and capitalists refuse to stand up to US imperialism. Many of the ruling elites of the Arab world are clients of US imperialism and slavishly follow Washington’s orders. Mubarak’s Egypt, for example, does not challenge Washington’s support for Israel because of Washington’s $2 billion annual bribe, officially called “financial aid.”

To break the stranglehold of imperialism, it is necessary to immediately cancel all foreign debts and nationalize the giant multinationals that are currently exploiting the people and resources of the region. Since the ruling elites and capitalists will not be willing to take these steps, the responsibility falls to the working class and poor peasants.

There actually used to be powerful socialist and communist parties in many countries in the Middle East that fought against poverty and oppression. There have been numerous attempts by the Arab masses to overthrow capitalism – in Iraq in 1959, Algeria and Syria in the 1960’s, Iran in 1979, Sudan in 1985, etc. However, each opportunity was squandered by the secular Arab nationalists and the Stalinist Communist Parties, which subordinated the struggles of the workers and peasants to the interests of Soviet foreign policy and the Arab capitalists.

When the Stalinist states collapsed in 1989-91, the Communist Parties disintegrated. They had mistakenly looked to these regimes as their model of socialism. The apparent defeat of “communism” and the failure of the left to deliver on its promises confused many people and led them to look for other solutions.

Into this vacuum have stepped the right-wing Islamic extremists. While they are still a minority, they have rapidly grown in influence. Correctly blaming the suffering of the Arab people on the US and the rich Arab kings and dictators who collaborate with US imperialism, they have been able to tap into the growing anger in society.

When the religious leaders include in their sermons attacks on the ruling elites and urge a struggle against them, even when this is couched in religious phraseology, it seems to echo the thoughts of a growing section of the oppressed masses themselves. In calling for a return to the pure ‘fundamentals’ of Islam, they argue for a purging of all Western, alien or non-Islamic influences that have corrupted the culture and led society astray. Thus, their religious fundamentalism is mixed up with a radical anti-imperialism, to which some of the most downtrodden and despairing sections of the oppressed masses bring their own interpretation.

Other key factors which explain the growth of fundamentalist groups are their links to traditional rulers, tribal leaders and landlords, and their armed power through their militias, financed by reactionary Arab regimes, and for a period, the US.

Islamic fundamentalism, however, has no coherent program to solve the economic and social problems facing the masses. It has no concrete plans to provide living wage jobs, housing, healthcare, industrial development, or democratic political institutions. Nonetheless, in the absence of any alternative movements capable of leading a struggle to change society, Islamic extremism has been able to take root as the only radical alternative.

The history of the Middle East shows that Islamic fundamentalism only developed out of a deep crisis of the left and the inability of capitalism to develop society. In order to counter the influence of Islamic Fundamentalism and overcome terrorism, there is an urgent need to re-build mass socialist parties in the Middle East that are prepared to overthrow the ruling cliques, capitalism and landlordism.

Justice #27 November 2001