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As Malala Yousefzai lies in a Pakistani hospital recovering from a gunshot to the head, the Taliban have once again grabbed the headlines. They’ve accused her of “promoting secularism” and have vowed to target her again. The last time they had an international audience was 2001 when they destroyed the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues in central Afghanistan despite global outrage.

But who are they? Many assume they’re simply more devout Muslims – that they just follow the Quran “to the letter”. Once we start down the road of believing extremism to be a more devout form of Islam where does that leave the peaceful Muslim majority? Where does that leave Malala?

Tribal top-dog

The Taliban is made up of Pashtun tribes, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. They were part of the mujahedeen, the numerous tribal militia Talibangroups that formed to fight the Soviet occupation in a war which raged from 1979-1989. The name “Taliban” is Pashto for “students”, although Islamic scholars criticize them for being poorly educated in Islamic law and history.

After the soviets pulled out in 1992, the country was a lawless mess of infighting militia and daily atrocities. When the Taliban took control, Afghans initially benefitted from a crackdown on corruption and the re-establishment of trade and commerce, but Taliban application of Sharia law, an austere mixture of Wahhabi orthodoxy and Pashtun tribal custom, appalled international human rights groups. Men were forced to grow beards, women to wear burkas and girls aged 10 or more were denied an education. Women were forbidden to work outside the home sparking a crisis in education and healthcare.  Television, music, cinema and frivolous activities such as kite flying were banned. Women who left the house unaccompanied by a male relative risked being beaten, even shot. Those found wearing nail polish had their fingertips cut off.

Human rights abuses

Systematic civilian massacres were carried out, the same type of war crimes as seen in Bosnia, targeting minority tribal groups for ethnic cleansing. Women were abducted and sold into sex slavery, making a mockery of the Taliban claim that their brutal restrictions on them were a way of revering and protecting the opposite sex.

They ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. Their regime faced international scrutiny and condemnation for its policies. Only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE recognized them as a legitimate government. Following the September 11th terrorist attacks on the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut diplomatic ties, but the Taliban and Al Qaeda remain closely linked.

According to UN figures, the Taliban are responsible for over three-quarters of all civilian casualties in Afghanistan, using suicide bombers to target unarmed aid workers and other non-combatants. They hide behind the civilian population, using women and children to shield gunmen. They continue to operate in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan.

Seriously? God hates kites?

The history of the Taliban is a familiar story of power struggles, where religion is co-opted as a means of gaining support and controlling the masses. If you believe the actions of the Taliban are representative of devout Muslims, you’re buying into their ridiculous notion that God is offended by nail polish and kites. Don’t be a mug all your life – if a 14 year old schoolgirl can see through it, why can’t you?

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