Can you locate the Taliban for us on the spectrum of Islamic theology and practice?
I want to step back a bit and set it in the context of global developments regarding Islam. From about 1500 onwards, Islam was in political and military decline. It was being defeated on many, many fronts, from Central Asia and Southeast Asia to Africa and Mediterranean. This caused a crisis because Islam is a success-oriented religion. It promises dominance to its followers: political and military dominance. The call to prayer says, "Come to success, come to success."
So, from the 17th century on, there were a whole raft of revivalist movements, the first probably, the Wahhabi Movement in Arabia, but spreading into the British colonies and across the Arab world. These movements, which include Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islamia and the Taliban, all have a shared core idea, which is that the failures of Islam to dominate and to be successful are due to the lack of sharia compliance: a lack of faithfulness in following the code of Allah.
The solution to Islamic decline is the resurgence of the sharia everywhere. So, women are covering up to an extent which wasn't happening 30 or 40 years ago: for example, just look at photographs of graduating classes in many Muslim countries. The Taliban is part of that movement: the word taliban means 'students' and they're students of Islam.
"The Taliban's views on Islamic law ... reflect orthodox mainstream Islamic positions."
They are not as extreme as ISIS. ISIS criticizes them for not being strict enough in imposing the sharia, but they are certainly conservative Islamic. People might use pejorative labels for the Taliban's views on Islamic law, but really they reflect Orthodox mainstream Islamic positions that are embedded in medieval sharia textbooks and were considered unquestionable as part of Islam until the modern period. For example, the seclusion of women, the control of women by guardians, this is just core Islam: it's been the case in Saudi Arabia and in other strictly Islamicized societies. It's just that the Taliban has not conceded anything to modernity or to liberal views. The whole of the Muslim world has really been struggling with the sharia revival and its implications. In cases where it's been attempted, such as Iran, Algeria, and Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood, it's generally been a failure.
So yes, I would say the Taliban are a genuine Islamic Movement. Their fight is legitimate from a sharia perspective. There's a principle in Islam that sovereignty should belong to Allah. That means that the law of the land should be Islam, and when you have a caliph, a leader of the Muslim global community, one of his responsibilities, one of the caliphate's responsibilities, is to advance the borders of Islam through military activity. It's what's called a communal obligation in Islam. The sharia schools of the medieval period taught this. But when Islamic territory is occupied by infidels, by people who do not practice, or promote Islam, or impose Islam, then it becomes an individual obligation on every Muslim to go for jihad and to resist the oppressor. This idea is mainstream, and it's had a big impact on the colonial powers. It impacted the Dutch in Aceh where I worked: there was a 40-year insurgency there. It was an issue for the British on the North-West Frontier [in India]. The British dealt with this by declaring that the British Empire was an Islamic State: they got fatwas from the heads of the Islamic schools in Mecca and from the Ottomans to support this.
From an Islamic point of view, the American presence "made the Afghan government illegitimate."
The problem with having infidel occupiers in Afghanistan is that even though they wrote in the constitution of Afghanistan, the new constitution, that the sharia sat over all the law code of the country – even though they created an Islamic State there – nevertheless, from an Islamic point of view, their very presence and dominance in the process made the Afghan government illegitimate. This really has fueled the resistance.
You can take it down to a very basic question: If you're an 18-year-old Afghani and you're going to go to fight, whose side are you going to fight on? On the one hand, you've got people saying, "You have an individual obligation to resist the infidel occupier. And if you die fighting, you'll go to paradise and it'll be great, and you'll be able to intercede for 60 of your family. And if you don't die and you win, then that'll be great as well, you'll be a hero." On the other hand, you can fight for the infidels, but when you die in battle then where will you go? The Taliban will tell you that you're going to hell. That religious motivation is hard to eradicate and hard to overcome. What the Americans would have had to do to overcome this is tell all of Afghanistan that they have the only true Islamic government.
The other solution is liberalization, and that has happened to some extent under the Americans. I would say that the Taliban are a legitimate Islamic movement; their policies arise from classical orthodox Islamic teachings. They are not aberrant: they're aberrant from a Western Liberal perspective. This is one of the reasons why they were so successful and why their final victory was so rapid and lightning fast across the country. Everything collapsed when the Americans basically said they were going.
The question that went through my mind as you were speaking was, given that religious motivation, why did so many Afghanis support the US government, fight for the US, fight for the Afghani government? Is it that they were the more liberal or modernity-influenced Afghanis?
I think if you're ruled by a power and that power asks you to fight, what are you going to do? Are you going to refuse to fight? If you're poor and you're offered training and equipment and an income to support your family, and the alternative to that is poverty or lack of a future, what choice are you going to make? You could think of it as a mercenary proposition.
The other thing is, in Afghan culture, it's a very tribal and divided society, so it's not uncommon for people to switch sides. This happened with the British [in India] and with the Dutch in Aceh. You get someone fighting on one side, they'd switch to the other side, not necessarily completely honestly. Sometimes people switch sides several times, so they may well find it pragmatically helpful to fight on the side of the government but may have no will to sustain the fight if the government wasn't winning. So, you join the side that you think is going to win.
"To hate the Taliban and to fight them are two different propositions."
So, I think it's quite complex. You would certainly have many Afghans who would hate the Taliban, and not want to give the Taliban power over their families and their wives and their children. That's quite legitimate, but to hate the Taliban and to fight them are two different propositions. You should only fight if you're going to win. Wars are about winning; they're not about negotiating truces. They're about who's going to be the last person standing, and if it's not going to be you, and you don't have a conviction that you've got the ideological will to fight to the death, then the wise thing is to take off your uniform and mingle with the crowd. Absolutely.
Do you think this was ever winnable for the United States? ... When you look back over the last 20 years, do you think it was a fundamentally poor idea, misconceived for the US and Australia to go into Afghanistan?
Well, they won the war, they destroyed the Taliban, and they eradicated Al-Qaeda, but they couldn't win the peace. So, it was a winnable short-term war. But then you must go and leave the country to the people you've defeated, or others like them.
"The nation-building project [in Afghanistan] was a mistake."
The nation-building project was a mistake. I have some sympathy for America. They've been successful in nation building in Germany and Japan and South Korea, and they were used to manipulating states and they had the South American playground. But it's one thing to try to establish democracy in a Confucian society or in a post-Christian society like Germany, but it's another thing to try and introduce it in Afghanistan, or in Iraq. The irony in both cases was that in Iraq and Afghanistan the Americans introduced sharia-grounded constitutions. The Iraqi constitution had been secular under Saddam Hussein, but it became Islamicized under American occupation. But if you're going to take the sharia seriously, the Americans shouldn't have been there at all, because only Muslims should rule over Muslims: any other rule is not legitimate. So, it was a mistake. The problem is, the Americans didn't have any other framework: they could go in and fight the battle, but then to retreat and leave it seemed impossible at the time.
It's very interesting that in the early '90s, the Chinese did a study of America. They asked, "What made America great?" These were Chinese intellectuals in Beijing. Their conclusion was that the American Constitution would have been unworkable without Christianity, and that is what made the structure of the democracy work. I think they were right. You can't just impose that [democratic] model.
The root of the problem is that [today] Western elites ... have a false understanding of the human being. It's not a Christian understanding. They ... [believe] that human beings are basically good, so for their flourishing, all you need to do is get rid of the obstacles, which are structural, systematic, political inequalities. The ideology of the age says that. So, you go in, and you get rid of obstacles for women to progress, you get right education, you set up structures, and then everyone will say, "Oh! That's what we wanted all along, and we're going to flourish now."
But sin is deeper than. It runs deeper than that. Some cultures have been deeply transformed by Islamic ideology, and that whole ideology is inimical to a democratic worldview. [Western elites] underestimated the reality of sin, the fact that sin could be entrenched in culture, that you can't change that in a generation. It's a multi-generational process to change the ideology and character of a culture. And it can't be changed from the top-down; it's a grassroots process. That's how Christianity changed the Roman Empire – from the grassroots. There were top-down processes as well along the way, but it was really from the bottom-up. ...
"The Americans ... could never have established a government that could have succeeded and continued after them."
So, you spend a vast amount of money in Afghanistan, a graveyard of empires ,trying to import an American democratic model into a culture and a community that just doesn't get that and is wired very differently.
You can point to lots of things the Americans could have done differently, perhaps dealing with corruption differently or having a more coordinated approach instead of many different powers doing different things in different provinces. But fundamentally, they could never have established a government that could have succeeded and continued after them. They were always going to lose to a religious group of one kind or another.
Yale historian ... Timothy Snyder ... has developed this philosophy of history or politics of history. He says there are two competing politics: one is the politics of inevitability, which has really dominated US and Western thinking. ... This idea is there's an inevitability to the triumph of liberal democracy. If you just remove the hurdles, every sane person and culture will inevitably choose this. ...
Then you contrast that with the politics of eternity. He uses Russia as an example. The politics of eternity is that history doesn't move forward. You're always cycling back to fight old battles to understand yourself. ... Does that resonate in any way?
Yes, that's the script. There are certainly Muslims who still look forward to the fall of Rome. They conquered four of the patriarchies of the ancient Christian world: Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Constantinople, and there's just one more to go. It's also true that the jihadi sort of Islamic mindset is eternal. It has a very long view of history. The issue is not whether we kick out the Americans this year, it's that it'll happen within one or more generations. It's that sort of thinking.
You've got some Muslims in North Africa who say they still have the keys to their homes in Andalusia and are waiting to get back in there. Or the Palestinians who have the keys to their houses in Israel. That sense of history is shaped by the sharia and the predictions of the end times in which Jesus comes back and he destroys all religions except the sharia of Muhammad and destroys the cross. This is the Islamic Jesus. The whole world will be subject to Islam. It's a grand, timeless vision. ...
But the problem with that program is that for centuries, it was failing. The Russians had 400 years of victories against Islam, with very, very bitter wars on their southern borders. Then you have this revival movement.
The biggest problem for Islam is that wherever there have been attempts to reintroduce the utopian foothold of the future caliphate, they've failed. Most Iranians now hate Islam, since the 1979 revolution has shown them what sharia law does. Many Afghans fear the Taliban. The Muslim Brotherhood was expelled violently and suppressed in Egypt after decades of promising that "Islam is the solution."
"Nowhere has there been a successful Islamic revivalist implementation that has won enduring popular support."
Nowhere has there been a successful Islamic revivalist implementation that has won enduring popular support. It has produced poverty, brokenness, oppression, and pain. So, this Islamic grand narrative is in trouble. ...That's why there are churches in Germany full of converts from asylum seekers who fled Iraq and Syria. They said, "If this is true Islam, we want to follow Jesus." So, Islam's going through the most profound crisis. The crisis is now not the defeat by the Western powers, but the failure of Islam to realize utopian promises.
It's a horrible thought, but in some ways, the best hope for Afghanistan is that the people react against Islam and reject it, but that won't happen if there are Westerners in there pulling the strings and controlling the political process. ... If you've got the infidels to fight against, you've got someone to blame for your sufferings. But now with the Taliban [taking over], different groups will be fighting each other. ...
Iran's Islamic revolution produced "a vast apostasy with more than a million Iranians becoming Christians."
When President Carter embraced Ayatollah Khomeini and welcomed the Iranian revolution, thinking he would bring democracy, I'm sure he had no idea that the outcome of this would be a vast apostasy with more than a million Iranians becoming Christians, because they could see how evil the sharia revolution was. You must really take a long-term view as to what's happening in the world, to look beyond these events, traumatic as they are.
One of the things that strikes me is that modernity and the technology of modernity, the internet, is a genie that is out of the bottle, and you can't get it back in, in much the same way that the reformation of Christianity rode on the back of the printing press and the technology that came in with printing ... [I]n Afghanistan, even the Taliban are on Twitter and on their smartphones: 20-year-olds, and 15-year-olds all have YouTube channels in Afghanistan. Do you think that's [having] an impact? And how do you think that's going to play out?
Yes, I think that's a huge shift. You've got the young adults in Kabul watching Love Island. They're looking at the world differently. There's no doubt about that. ... [T]hrough satellite television and through the internet people access all sorts of information perspectives on the world, that would have been unthinkable, 30 or 40 years ago.
"Islam maintains its control by keeping people on a need-to-know basis."
Islam maintains its control by keeping people on a need-to-know basis. ... There are two aspects happening in the Muslim world. One is realizing how other people live, and having a better understanding of the choices that are available to some people and maybe "not to me", and "Why is that the case?" The second is [that] information about Islam is becoming much more available. Instead of someone just saying, "Islam is perfect," and you say, "Oh, okay," people are asking, "Well, why is it perfect? What has it brought me? What does it bring women? You tell me that Islam is good for women – what does that mean?" And "Oh, I read this about the life of Muhammad. Did he really do that? Is that really true?" There are questions that once you just never were able to ask.
One of the most striking things that my Iranian friends who've become Christians have said to me is that often in Iran, if you asked a certain question that would be uncomfortable for the teacher to answer, you would be severely rebuked. You weren't allowed to ask questions. They all learnt that. They all learnt that questioning beyond a certain point was forbidden, but it's hard in the modern era to stop people asking questions. That is a big challenge, I think, for these Islamist revival movements. They really need to exert a lot of control over information to maintain their power, and I think that's very, very difficult.
It's interesting, isn't it? It's true of every totalitarian dictatorship-type government that they want to control the narrative, control what counts as true, what counts as fact. ... Islam has that as well: "If you follow ... sharia perfectly, you will be the most successful of all people." ... You just keep telling the lie for 1400 years, but of course you're right, most Islamic countries aren't prospering.
In fact, when you have people living side by side who only differ by their religion, Muslims do worse. Muslims are poorer than Hindus [in India], Bosnia is poorer than Serbia. In Muslim countries too Christians often do well, but not always. In Pakistan, they're suppressed like a low caste, but often their hospitals, their institutions are admired, and they become the elite. In Pakistan it's ironic that the Christians are oppressed but the Christian schools are some of the most elite schools.
"When you have people living side by side who only differ by their religion, Muslims do worse."
So yes, Islam does badly. If you look at the Human Development Indices of Muslim states, they're very poor. It's interesting that Iran is doing better than many, but in Iran, you've got a population that are rejecting Islam: there is a cultural resistance to Arab culture and to Islam.
You can't lock up your women and expect your children to be well educated. You can't lock up your women and expect families to be healthy, with children who have sound, emotionally stable upbringings. You can't practice the guardianship process in which women are under the control of their male relatives, their brother or their father or their grandfather, and produce healthy societies. Wafa Sultan, the Syrian apostate from Islam, said that "The oppressed Muslim woman is the hen that lays the terrorist egg."
I think there's a lot to be said for that. You get damaged young men if their mothers are not well. These are difficult and deep-seated problems for the Islamic world to face.
Do you think this means we are going to see ... an uptick in jihadi zeal or revivalist zeal because what's happened in Afghanistan is seen as a great victory of Islamists and proof that Islam is successful?
Yes, it will give energy to that hope of world conquests and triumph. It's already happened once before. We can see how it happened. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the jihadis said, "That's because we defeated them in Afghanistan." ...
This will give energy and hope to groups in Indonesia, in the Philippines, in Bangladesh – to the radicals there – in Kashmir. Africa has a whole slew of different jihadi groups plaguing Mozambique and Nigeria. ... So yes, there'll be an upsurge. ... I'm very concerned for the intensification of the jihad. But, on the other hand, as I said, the jihadis have never been able to establish a utopia yet, and over time that understanding will spread in the Muslim world.
Do you think we should open our borders and our refugee program to try and evacuate and resettle any person fleeing Afghanistan [who] wants to get out now. Should we let them in?
Well, this is a complex question. There's no doubt that Europe is in great trouble and Bernard Lewis more than a decade ago said there will be majority Islamic states in Europe in this century because of immigration and then differential birth rates. I think Europe's in trouble. It will suffer a lot in the coming decades, as it reaps the harvest of its naive policies. Many of those that came were brought in, were brought in for economic reasons, guest workers to do all the dirty, dangerous, and difficult jobs that Europeans didn't want to do. Then you have the complication of falling birth rates in Europe too.
I must admit, I'm quite conflicted about this because I've been working amongst Iranian refugees who have become Christians in Australia for the last 10 years, and many of them are incredibly cruelly treated by the Australian government. It's like a perpetual abuse of these people. We have no idea. It hasn't reached the public's consciousness how badly we are treating these people, and that needs to change. So, I think we can't just have this policy of saying that "If you come here and we don't like you, we'll keep you forever as a sort of stateless person without settling benefits or support. And if you lose your job in COVID, then just starve."
"We should ... not just naively accept large numbers of people from cultures that are very different from ours."
This is not a good process. But at the same time, I think we should control our borders and not just naively accept large numbers of people from cultures that are very different from ours. It's difficult because one of the ideological points of Western liberalism is that all cultures are the same. "They're all quite beautiful, and if you just throw them all together, you get this wonderful and rich, diverse, fruitful, melting pot of human thoughts and perspectives. Aren't we all basically good anyway? So, it's all going be wonderful." That is so, so wrong, and naïve.
When you begin to talk about this desire to affirm humanity and all its diversity. I do think we should be careful who we let in, and I certainly wouldn't be saying we must accept anyone who is a refugee from Afghanistan. Certainly, there are some that we've somehow entered a relationship with, and they are being welcomed to Australia because they might otherwise be killed in Afghanistan, but I think we should be very thoughtful as to how we integrate those people into Australian society. I'm opposed to unlimited immigration. I think the Germans made a terrible mistake when Angela Merkel said, "We're open for everyone." But at the same time, treating people very cruelly in Australia is not the way to do that.
The Muslim diaspora is a big challenge for some Western countries, much less for Australia. The reality is in Australia, because of the government's policies, most of the immigrants that have been coming into Australia have been coming from Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, India. Islam has not been a major source of immigrants here for quite some time. Yes, the future of states can be determined by the growth of Islamic minorities, and maybe France will one day be a sharia state. I think that's quite a realistic possibility.
I was once involved in helping some pastors with a vilification trial, and we approached a lawyer. The pastors' view was that resurgent Islam in Australia could be long-term a challenge for the nation. But the lawyer they were asking for help said, "Oh, that's a fanciful thought." I don't think it's fanciful. Nations shift and change through demographic processes. Nations rise and fall. There are lots of nations that were once great and illustrious that no longer exist. ...
Will Germany still exist in 100 years? Perhaps not. Nations would be foolish not to have some sense of their long-term future. This is a problem for Western democracies because we run on election cycles, and if we don't have an ideological commitment to our own enduring future, then we are in trouble.
This paradox takes us back to Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian. He says – and you've nailed it exactly right – that the politics of inevitability rob you of a future that needs to be constructed and owned by serious people thinking about serious alternatives, making choices, and that work can never cease. We can't just assume that Australia will always just go on, Germany will always go on. No, no, it doesn't. The future is constructed based on a whole bunch of choices that every generation must make.
"Nations like America, European countries, and Australia have forgotten what made us who we are."
Absolutely. ... I think a nation does need a big idea of its identity and its future, and one of the things that's most troubling to me is that nations like America, European countries, and Australia have forgotten what made us who we are, and we are marching away from it aggressively and rejecting its foundation. Now, one of its foundations is a particular understanding of the human person, that we are sinful, and that society needs to build in constraints to manage that. That's why we have a separation of powers. That separation of powers is because of the doctrine of sin. Islam doesn't have any separation of powers, and it doesn't have any doctrine of sin, and that's a huge world of difference.
Hang on, hang on. Islam doesn't have a doctrine of sin?
No. It sees sin as not a big deal. There's transgression, disobedience, not walking on the straight path, but [Islam] doesn't have a view that human nature is fundamentally sinful. ... The view in the Quran is that human beings are born Muslims, actually. They're born innocent, perfect, and Islam's job is to make sure they receive the guidance that they need to stay on track. So human beings are weak and easily led astray and the state needs to impose the truth upon them. But there isn't this view that there must be checks and balances, in that same way, against the reality of human sin, that power can corrupt.
"Americans fundamentally misunderstood the depth of the problem with sharia culture."
These perspectives have been lost in the West. So that's why I think the Americans fundamentally misunderstood the depth of the problem with sharia culture, and they felt that they could just liberate people and that would be that. It troubles me in the West that we've lost track of what are Christian foundations. I think the Chinese were right. Democracy makes sense because of a Christian base, but we've rejected the base, and as a result, our worldviews are populated by a host of lies about ourselves – about the world, about history – and we're trying to continue with these lies, these bad ideas that have gone deep: that all religions are the same, that we are just basically progressing, that future generations will be wiser and better than us. These ideas are just very mistaken, and they provide a very shaky foundation for the future. That does trouble me deeply. That troubles me as much as the rise of militant Islam.
With human sin, we have an ineluctable tendency to mess things up, and you must acknowledge that and write that into your politics and into your economics and into your understanding of life.
Yes. [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, after years in the gulag, said the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart, and he was speaking about the guards in the gulag as well as the prisoners. ... He didn't make any distinction between them. There was no innocent party and no totally guilty party either. There was a battle going on for good and evil in every person. That awareness is being lost in our culture, amongst the elites. It still exists – there are still Christians around who have a Christian world view, but they find themselves speaking a language and living in a world that so many people around them don't know of anymore and don't understand.