Harsh public displays of corporeal punishment are back in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s determination to deliberately inflict suffering, which becomes a spectacle for both the curious and the horrified, has made its return. Recent massive gatherings of spectators in Logar, Farah, and Parwan at these ‘events’ show that the appetite for them is also quite high. However, they also pose some concerning questions.
Why is corporeal punishment in public important to the Taliban?
The Taliban’s most basic justification for this behaviour is that they are implementing Sharia law. But this is as misleading as it is simple. The key point to question in the Taliban’s approach is whether Islam is the goal or a means to the goal. The premise of those who believe that the Taliban are trying to implement Sharia law is that Sharia law has become a goal in itself.
Much evidence and documentation shows that the Taliban take an instrumental approach to Sharia and religion. Since they’ve emerged in the political arena of Afghanistan, they have been relentless in their bloodlust to pursue their interpretation of Sharia law. But the level of the Taliban’s killing and bloodshed cannot be justified under the standards and scales of true Islamic Sharia. During the past three decades, the majority of the victims of Taliban violence have been ordinary Muslims. It could be argued the hands of the Taliban are stained with the blood of Muslims more than any infidel.
There’s also a telling pattern – the Taliban seem to have much closer relations with non-Muslim countries than with other Muslim nations. China, India, and Russia are three countries where Muslims are subjected to severe discrimination and oppression. Uyghurs in China experience one of the most complex forms of discrimination based on religious beliefs. Population displacement, deprivation of social services, repression of the practice of faith, and forced “re-education” camps, are only some of the hardships of Muslim Uyghur life under Communist China rule. In Indian-controlled Kashmir, Muslims are also subject to bouts of extreme violence and oppression.
The Taliban is inseparable from violence. Since they emerged from the madrases, they have relied on violence and constant threats of extreme pain or even death to secure their path to power. They used violent measures long before any powerful enemies emerged. There has never been a sense that the Taliban’s penchant to inflict suffering was only against foreigners or for as long there were foreign armies in Afghanistan. Even once they achieved the expulsion of foreigners and took entire control of Afghanistan, the persistent and irrational violence has continued. The only thing that has changed is how the violence is practiced.
Large-scale and obsessive suppression of women from public life, public whippings and executions based on shaky justice, persistent abuse of the people they are meant to protect and govern, and social and cultural suppression at almost every level – these are just some of the ways of practicing violence that have replaced their old methods of terror, suicide operations, and indiscriminate killings.
It could be argued that the practice of public punishment is not simply, as the Taliban says, Sharia law in action, but rather it is a continuation of the Taliban’s core desire for violence. Public torture as punishment is not motivated by religion, even when it uses religion as an excuse. Talibs inflict harsh punishments because it has become part of their nature. It’s possible they even enjoy it. They are unflinching when they inflict this suffering, and some even seem to get intoxicated with a kind of euphoria while watching someone suffering, wailing, struggling and desperate.
What other forms and methods of violence have not yet become common?
What Mawlawi Hebatullah Akhundzada calls “Full enforcement of Islamic Sharia Law” includes practices that have not yet been widely embraced. One of these is stoning. But it would seem that it is only a matter of time. What the Taliban have performed so far in terms of punishment and executions are not the main stage of the final show. We are only witnessing the prelude. The main event will include stoning.
When it comes to the Taliban, stoning presents several psychological and sociological functions. Psychologically, the Taliban believes deeper purification comes from this passage of punishment. While the depth and volume of violence hidden in stoning also helps to briefly relieve the Taliban’s bloodlust.
From a sociological point of view, reviving one of the most hated aspects of religious violence raises the Taliban’s position among extremist rivals such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The Taliban clearly show that they have the ability to establish a government and return to the past, while their rivals have failed to achieve such a goal.
According to the Taliban, government should not be based on the legitimacy and voice of the citizens. Citizens’ satisfaction is poison for the stability and survival of a militia that has come to power by force. The survival of the Taliban’s power is based on the continued terror of the people and keeping them powerless.
The Taliban’s reliable terror tool of unleashing suicide bombers on ordinary citizens is no longer as useful to their efforts to remain in government. However stoning is something they can legitimately use to terrorise instead. It’s a very effective way to foment widespread fear among people. When people witness a stoning, their minds are not only focused on the victim but also on the perpetrator. People that can carry out a stoning for everyone to see are capable of far worse behind the scenes. It is also important to note, when terrorising a population is the aim, it does not matter who gets stoned and what it has to do with Sharia law or promoting religion. The primary goal is that the performance secures the foundations of their governance based on fear.
What will be the fate of women?
History has shown that severe acts of violence are closely correlated to a patriarchal political structure. The stronger the patriarchal structure, the more cases of repression and force. And as society moves away from a violence-based order, patriarchal structures also change and the way for women to have more power and wealth is provided.
Women are a threat to the survival of the patriarchal system in society, and their suppression is done simply and at a lower cost. The full-scale elimination of women from society, such as we are witnessing in Afghanistan, is done with religious aims and Sharia justification, but what it actually represents is a form of patriarchal totalitarianism.
What is happening to women in the public sphere is without a doubt going to increasingly expand into the private sphere and at the micro-levels of social interactions. These acts of violence at the macro level create a pattern for the reproduction and repetition of violence at a micro level. So too, the stoning of women in public sets the scene for women’s torture and harassment inside the home and the small-level events of daily social interactions.
The perspective of women’s lives under a Taliban regime is full of difficulty and complexity. What we are seeing is the beginning of a process of destruction and decay. Life is already deeply uncomfortable for women and it is only becoming more unpleasant. The patriarchal dream of creating a single-sex environment has never been so close to reality. To prevent the implementation of this anti-human vision, giving up the fight against the Taliban even for a moment is a big and unforgivable mistake.