On August 16th, 2021, Taliban forces took control of Kabul after nearly two decades of US and NATO occupation. The gruesome images of Afghans crowding the airports to abandon the country, preferring to cling to the fuselage of the parting planes and drop to their certain deaths instead of staying, had previously belonged solely within Hollywood imaginary. A reality more frightening than fiction, without a doubt.
On the internet, most have rushed to show the “horrors” and “evilness” behind the Taliban regime. But like every time I see people pointing to the mistakes of others from the pulpit of righteousness, it makes me wonder, if we had born in the shoes of the accused, we would have known something better?
Maybe in the parallels with fiction we can find the key to unravel the horrors behind the monster.
Part I: A monster made from many (and by many).
Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, is the Gothic horror novel written by Mary Shelley, first published on 1818, tells the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who after the passing of his mother, devotes himself to his experiments as a cope mechanism for grief. His experimentation led him to the discovery of a secret technique to impart life to non-living matter, which he uses to create a humanoid. Unable to replicate all minute parts of the human body, Victor crafted his creature from the parts collected from graveyards and slaughterhouses. Upon animation of the sapient creature, Victor realized that despite his intention of endowing the creature with beauty, it had turned hideous instead. Repulsed by his work, Victor flees, abandoning the creature.
Afghanistan, just like the “creature” in Mary Shelley novel, shares a convoluted, multifaceted, and compound origin. Because of its strategic geographic location, the country has suffered multiple military and ideological invasions through the centuries, as few countries in the entire world.
Speaking of religions and ideologies, Afghanistan has passed from the Zoroastrianism to the Hellenism imposed after Alexander the Great, Hinduism and Buddhism during the Kushan Empire, then to the Islamism imposed by Arabic conquerors, just to be supplanted by the Tengrism during Mongol occupation, followed by a long period of Persian Imperialism, then the secular Communism, and finally a major resurgence of Islam during recent times.
As I briefly covered before, Afghanistan has been invaded multiple times through its history, and more notoriously, it became the epicenter of “The Great Game” during the 19th century, a political confrontation between the British and Russian Empires for the conquest of the central Asia which derived in three Anglo-Afghan wars to prevent the Russian Empire from getting control of the Persian Gulf and Indic Ocean by creating a protectorate surrounding British India.
During the second half of the 20th century, history repeated itself. But this time the players were the United States and The Soviet Union under the ideological veil of the Cold War, with both nations buying favors from Afghanistan by providing economic aid for the country’s infrastructure as means to exert influence over the government until a bloody coup d’état of the communist party in 1978, triggering a civil war led by the mujahideen, or Islamic guerrillas, supported by the US through Pakistan.
After the long, bloody, costly, and resource-demanding event that the WWII turned to be, the dominant superpowers in east and west had learned they could not sustain another war of such magnitude. They realized it was better if “somebody else” battled their wars and absorbed the casualties, leading to advent of proxy wars. Hatred was already there. They only had to fuel it properly and provide the means to carry their vendetta, and superpowers could remain cloaked in shadows, reaping the benefits.
During this period US not only provided weapons and military training to the mujahideen soldiers, but they knew through the experience of British colonialism in Africa that there was no fiercer soldier more committed to the cause than the religious fanatics. The United States aided in the radicalization of the mujahideen soldiers, if could fulfill the purpose of fighting his enemy, the Soviet Union, but much like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, when things turned hideous, repulsed by their work, the United States abandoned the creature.
Part II: A monster learns (or it’s taught) how to be a monster.
In Mary Shelley’s novel, the “creature” is first regarded as a monster by people, just by being physically different. Towering eight feet tall, “with watery white eyes and yellow skin that barely conceals the muscles and blood vessels underneath” seemed like outlandish and anti-natural to most habitants of that time, what forced the creature to seclude himself in the wilderness. The creature finally found a shelter in an abandoned structured connected to a cottage inhabited by a poor family, from who the creature grew fond of them to the extent of collecting firewood and clearing the snow from their path. The creature lived secretly by the house for months. He learned to speak by listening to the family and taught himself to read with books he found. As he grew attached to the family, one day the creature approached the family, hoping to become a friend. He did it when only the blind father was present, and both chatted comfortably until the man’s family returned. The blind man’s son, horrified, attacked him, and the creature fled. The family abandoned the house, fearful that the creature might return. And the creature gave up hope of ever being accepted by humans. How he would not? If he had stared at his reflection in a pond, and what he saw horrified him as much as horrified humans. Reading through Victor’s journal found inside the jacket’s pocket he had stolen before abandoning the laboratory, the creature learnt everything about his creator. The creature hated his creator by abandoning him and believed he was the only person responsible for helping him.
For people around the globe, the word Taliban is a synonym of terrorist, but what most don’t know is that it means “student”. Many mujahideen soldiers started their careers as students in madrassas, which are Islamic schools, from which the more “apt” were selected. These individuals were first theologically radicalized to embody the most fundamental and orthodox ideologies in the Islam, and once they were ready, recruited by groups like the one led by the Saudi Osama Bin Laden, funded not only by the Islamic liberation front but also the United States as I mentioned before.
Islam, like most of the world religions, it has many degrees of interpretations and levels of adherence to the texts among the many individuals that follow Muhammad teachings. The Qur’an is not comprehensive in detailing all the expected behaviors of humankind, and most of the corpus of the sharia, which is the law which encompasses all the commandments of Islam, has been expanded after Muhammad’s original text. Many of these changes started as a fatwa, “a nonbinding legal opinion on a point of Islamic law given by a qualified jurist in response to a question posed by a private individual, judge or government,” but having this in the background of a country with no separation of religion and state, fatwas can quickly reshape the political and religious landscape of a country as long is backed by enough followers.
Wicked interests corrupt people everywhere, and Islam is not the exception. The Taliban religious leaders took the meaning of the word jihad, which means “struggle” or “effort” and refers to the internal journey of the believer to live with Muslim faith in its more intrapersonal connotation, and focused it into the more bellicose connotation, drawing parallels with the persecution endured by Muhammad, and the fight of a “holy” war against all the unbelievers.
Just like with Frankenstein’s creature, the Taliban gave up at the idea of a peaceful propagation of the Islam, and at looking at themselves, they realized in horror how much they had deviated from the fundamental teachings of Muhammad due the multiple foreign intervention. An invasion that had not only caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and defiled their sacred soil, but that had embedded a culture that threatened Islam foundation: under American interventionism, Afghan youth wanted to be like David Beckman instead of prophet Muhammad.
Part III: A monster honors no master.
In Mary Shelley’s novel, the creature, in his pursuit of revenge against his creator, kills Victor’s brother William, and frames his nanny for the crime. The creature demands to Victor the creation of a female companion like himself, arguing he had the right to happiness, and promising both will vanish into South American wilderness to never be seen again. But if Victor refused, the creature would kill his loved ones. Fearing for his family, Victor reluctantly agrees, but as he proceeds with the creation, he fears that this new creature could become eviler than he is, and both could breed a race that could plague humanity, so Victor tears the unfinished female creature into pieces. The creature confronts Victor, who refuses to comply with his demands, and the creature leaves, threatening Victor that he would be there for his wedding. The creature fulfills his warning and kills Victor’s wife the very next day after the wedding. Heartbroken, Victor pursues the creature across Europe, Russia and into the artic, convinced that taking back the life he had endowed into the creature is the only way to end it all.
One of the major themes discussed in Frankenstein is the exploration of evilness. We could argue if the creature was a monster from its conception, and it was just a ticking bomb waiting for an stimulus to explode. In the same way, we could argue if humankind is intrinsically evil, and we are born evil, just waiting for the event that will trigger our cruelty, or the cumulation of terrible life experiences shapes evildoers.
By its association with terrorism, Taliban have been regarded as evil and barbarian for the vast majority of the world. But are they truly evil? Taliban have killed, just as Frankenstein’s creature did, and in similar fashion, Taliban confronted their creators, the US, with a series of accusations and demands, voiced by Osama Bin Laden, as recounted by Jason Burke’s Al Qaeda:
- Withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia.
- A heath, economic and tax reform of the Saudi Kingdom.
- Lift of Iraq sanctions imposed by US.
- Put an end to the oppression of Palestinians, chechens and kashmiris.
Osama Bin Laden accused US of:
- Using atomic bombs during WWII.
- The continuous development of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
- Numerous violations of human rights.
- The support of Israel.
- Destroying their habitats by contaminating with industrial waste.
- And finally, leaving an almost inhabitable world for the children.
Would you consider the accusations as unfounded? Or regard the demands as barbarian?
Yet, some of the adjectives I have read that people uses to describe Taliban, are “primitive”, as if highlighting their proneness to succumb to basic instincts, or “uncivilized”, specifically associated to the understanding of ethics and morality reached as part of modernity. And we associate these adjectives to Islam as religion, beyond the Taliban.
Currently, the international fears are centered on the type of life the Taliban will give to their women, afraid they will take them back hundreds of years into the past, abolishing the freedom women had gained during the recent years. Everybody rushes to emphasize the loss of freedom as a by-product of a loss in the modernity, as if by US walking away from Afghanistan and taking their capitalism is the main reason to the return to the “dark ages” of Radical Islam.
However, as I mentioned early, the Islam has many degrees of interpretations and levels of adherence to the texts, and Radical Islam and modernity are not negatively correlated. Proof of this is that Saudi Arabia, the Islamic nation which more closely has embraced capitalism, would not allow women to drive until recently, and in contrast, Pakistan, often regarded as the cradle of radical Islam and terrorism, elected a woman, Benazir Bhutto, as Prime Minister back in 1988.
It is uncertain to guess what the outcome of the regain of power by Taliban in Afghanistan will end, but based on Mary Shelley’s novel, US, like Victor Frankenstein, it seems still has a lot of sins to atone.
What stills surprise me at this point is the “naivety” of those nations that create monsters to do their dirty work and believe the creations will never turn against their masters. This has happened countless times through history, most recently to Israel in helping to create Hamas, yet, as humanity, we don’t seem to learn the lesson.
I’m always shocked with the news of bloodshed and violence in the middle east, worried about the suffering of my brothers and sisters and the eternal search for the unattainable peace. I also believe that most of US troops genuinely devoted themselves for nearly twenty years, hoping to change the lives of the Afghan people for good. But also, as the proverb says, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and when those intentions are orchestrated by US military contractors worried only in profit, that maybe followed CIA’s Central America Expansion playbook, with the deployment of “contras” forces and instating a puppet government, why we would expect the outcome to be different?
And it’s when I wonder: if they indoctrinated the Taliban in the classrooms of the madrassas, why the US didn’t start their restoration with the students? Why not to ship teachers and philosophers to wage ideological and theological wars instead of soldiers? Why not to rely on empathy, in the exchange of ideas, in the understanding of our differences?
Twenty years were more than enough to raise a new generation of independently minded Afghans, than even overpowered by the military of radicals would help to gestate a change from within during incoming years.
But sadly, we missed the chance.
M. Ch. Landa
Photo by Hedayatullah Amid