Who are the Taliban?

This is a distressing post. If you are low or tearful already, maybe you shouldn’t read it. It’s a request for prayers but includes a graphic account of cruelty. I’m not enjoying writing this, but I feel compelled to.

We were sitting in the car at the Covid vaccination centre on a wet August day and my 18 years old granddaughter was inside, getting her second jab, when my youngest granddaughter, sitting with me, asked “Exactly who are the Taliban?”

I knew she wasn’t asking for a history lesson, for a summary of Pakistan tribal politics in the 1990’s or an explanation of the Sunni form of Islam, or Sharia law, she was rather asking who are the Taliban today, right now? She was asking if I could help her to understand them. I couldn’t. Of course I couldn’t. How can anyone explain who these people are?

While we sat in the car, safe and calm, how is that there were women and children and their fathers and brothers, cowering in cellars, in fear of their lives? How is it that thousands of terrifying, masked, armed men are even now marching into peaceful villages, selecting who they will beat, maim, rape or kill? Who are these merciless brutalised men? Who are men who will enslave and imprison and humiliate women, even their own mothers and sisters, in the name of some demanding god? Who could clumsily, agonisingly, slowly, hack off the heads of the defenceless, amputate the hands of the starving, mutilate and flay the already defeated? Who could do these things? Are they even human? Who are these men?

I had been asking myself the same thing, reading this morning that when the news of the fall of Kabul was reported in Muslim North Africa there were crowds on the street shouting “god is good!” and “god is great!”

That must make those of us who believe in God pause. Make us catch our breath and wait, offer a prayer, ask for guidance. My God is good. Their god…. their god?

My heart heart goes out to Muslims who sincerely seek the face of God. When I was a teenager I looked for God with real hunger, and I remember that longing, that gnawing desire to find him, starving to death without him. Angry and alone without him. It’s an integral part of the human psyche to look for God, and while some deny him for ever, those who find a form of faith to feed this need, however imperfectly, find a sort of purpose. The adult who has never heard of a loving and sacrificial God may well turn to some alternative, a cultural norm of belief, simply because their need is overwhelming, so I respect and value Muslim people. I respect and value my granddaughters’ friends who wear the veil and attend the mosque, but I do not respect and value Islam, the dogma and disciplines imposed upon them. And I certainly despise the cant of rabid old men and vicious young ones in Islamic states. There is a difference – I respect Muslims. I do not respect imposed Islamic law and culture.

Today I’m praying for everyone in Afghanistan. I’m praying for the young and the old and the frightened, the starving, the panicked, the fleeing. For the women handing their babies over the wall to troops in the airport, to old men being carried to the planes. I’m praying for Christians and Muslims and everyone in-between. I’m praying for the men who kill and terrorise, driven by the twin devils of hatred and greed. Hatred of society, greed for power. The West cannot tame them just as the West cannot save their victims. The truth is that we’re useless. Biden couldn’t even arrange a peaceful evacuation when the need had been obvious for months. Politicians sat in deck chairs and ate ice-creams while a million lives were broken.

So, what did I say to the 14 year old girl who was trying to understand the unknowable? There in the rainy car park, with a prayer written on my phone and thoughts crowding into my mind? I said it was complicated, that every human heart and mind is complicated, that only God knows the heart of man, that I had this morning read an account of a someone who was taken to a … hang on… I’ll cut and paste it for you… I’ll précis it…. here it is, taken from The Times;

In Karimullah’s case, captured in fighting, the Northern Alliance soldier had been sent to the city’s jail as a prisoner of war.

“I had been there 12 weeks when three Talibs came into my cell,” he remembered. “They called my name out and said I was to be released.”

Surprised, and assuming he was part of a prisoner swap, the captive was led to a Datsun pick-up truck. The vehicle drove to the city’s Ghazi stadium, where executions and amputations were commonly conducted. “I was silent at the beginning,” he told me, “But as we neared it I asked, ‘What is this? What of my release?”

The Datsun drove into the centre of the stadium. From the stands, thousands of faces stared down … a group of mullahs sat on chairs in the middle of the field.

Karimullah was pulled from the truck and told to lie on the grass.

“The mullahs didn’t even ask my name or speak to the crowd,” he told me. “Seven doctors approached me. They wore grey uniforms, surgical masks and gloves. I could see one was crying. They injected me. After five minutes my body was numb, though I was still conscious. Then they put clamps on my hand and foot and began to cut them off with special saws. There was no pain but I could see what they were doing.”

There was a sigh and murmur from the crowd when they finished. The double amputation had taken about five minutes. Taliban guards threw him into the back of the truck. One was crying. Nothing was said.

Hard to pray for such people, eh? I mean, easy to say the words but hard to really heart-felt mean them, hard to love them. But, as I told my granddaughter… it’s complicated.

Look at this again….

Seven doctors approached me. They wore grey uniforms, surgical masks and gloves. I could see one was crying.

‘Taliban guards threw him into the back of the truck. One was crying.

And afterwards this man discovered that he had been tortured this way as a surrogate for a Taliban commander who had been convicted of theft. Where do we start to untangle this mare’s nest of deliberately wicked, deeply evil man-made laws and twisted justice? Can such a culture ever free itself of this bone-deep malevolence?

And now I have another thought crowding in, as Jesus was a surrogate for us…. was this justice? Was this more cruel, or less? More or less arbitrary? Ah, one thought too many. Selah. Pause and think.

“It’s complicated” I said to the wide eyed teenager. It’s beyond understanding. The lives these men lead, what could have brought them to this moment of savagery and cruelty? Who knows? But their tears may save them yet. The tears of Afghanistan is their hope for a better future. Tears give testimony that even for the perpetrators and for the men who have maybe been forced to do these brutal acts, such cruelty is unbearable and will not win.

The god that man has created, fashioned out of anger and need, will not win. He will only lay waste, create ruins where there was once love and beauty. The god that man has created can do nothing more than that. Whoever we are, East or West, whatever we create is hopelessly flawed. Look at the civilised West, look what a mess we have made of our world, look at the ice caps, look at the forests, look at morality…. look at everything.

But listen, even as you see all the smouldering ruins, know that God will win. Has won.

God is good.

Today we can join in with Habakkuk as he prays, and maybe we can pray it on behalf of all those in Afghanistan, in the chaos of Kabul, who don’t yet know God. Let’s pray it remembering that they can – whoever they are, warlords, Taliban commanders, mourning mothers – they can all come to know the God of love.

I heard and my heart pounded,
    my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
    and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
    to come on the nation invading us.
Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

and we can join with Habakkuk when he concludes his prayer:

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.

If your prayers are heartfelt but somewhat confused today, tearful and messy, that’s OK. He hears you.

Keep praying. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. We can weep over Kabul. It’s easy to love those who are being persecuted and living in terror, the wide-eyed baby, the trembling child, but let us also love those who are already brutalised, who are lost in hatred and violence, mired in savagery, let’s love the unlovely. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what Jesus does. That’s why we are loved.