Who Are the Taliban?

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. Do they really represent the views of Muslims? 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?



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.



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.



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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Whitby Shores, Whitby, Ontario

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. I like this as far as it goes. But we use one word for Taliban and that is true if we are talking Afghanistan and Pakistan where the Pashtun live. But hey are paret of an international movement which includes many Moslems, many of whom are in the bottom billion in terms of income and live in countries where they live without hope. So that could include mong others Mauritania, Comoros, Yemen and many other countries. The deal is that the Taliban can provide a safe haven for training

    1. The Taliban offer illiterate families mired in poverty an education for their children. They recruit from schools and madrassas and the first clue families have that their child has been involved in war is when their body is returned. They are a militia, not a religious movement.

  2. How odd that Taliban means student and their beliefs are so threatened by a 14 year old school child. I hope she pulls through and continues to be an activist for young women.

    I think most people (maybe I am giving others too much credit?) understand that the taliban are an extremist group and have manipulated a religion to suit their needs. However, I think the fact that religion seems to play a big role in what they do it makes it hard for outsiders to separate that from their message. I highly doubt most reasonable people feel as though moderate muslims and taliban are one in the same.

  3. Watch your words please ,no need to spread shit .your words are against a nation not against those who were made by the Pakistan and USA (taliban).please madam ,every nation has a blacksheep all the pashtoons are not the same ,example hamid karzai and many more .and taliban is word of Arabic not pashto get some knowledge please .thanks

    1. Take your own advice. My piece condemns the Taliban, not Afghanistan or it’s people. The pashto word “taliban” derives from the arabic word for student, “talib” (plural tullab), but if you’re content to quarrel over semantics instead of acknowledging the bigger picture don’t let me stop you…

    2. The great irony of your criticism is that your reply is the only one in this list of comments that is barely literate.
      The difference between ignorance and stupidity is that something can be about ignorance. (If you are the one of the women who was denied an education because of your gender, I apologize.)

  4. It’s truly a great and useful piece of info. I’m happy that you simply shared this useful information with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

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