‘Persuasion first, violence later’: the Taliban’s new vice and virtue approach

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Oliver Weiken/DPA</span>
Photograph: Oliver Weiken/DPA

Mawlawi Mohammad Shebani is officially in charge of policing morals throughout Kandahar, the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan.

He is newly appointed head of the provincial office for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, a title which strikes fear into many Afghans old enough to remember its previous incarnation under Taliban rule in the 1990s.

Its officers served as the brutal enforcers of the group’s extreme interpretation of Islam, whipping men into mosques to pray, policing beard length, smashing radios and televisions and attacking or detaining women who tried to work, went out without a male guardian or showed their faces in public.

Now it is back, and in the first western media interview with an official from the organisation, Shebani detailed its structure and how it will police Afghan behaviour, and revealed the pocket handbook meant to guide the work of his men.

He described a network fully integrated into the Taliban police force, with ties to mosques and madrassas, and formal rules of operation, which have been made public.

“The difference is we didn’t have a specific book of principles. There was just the mujahideen without a written code,” he said of the 1990s.

He promised his men would focus on persuasion not violence. But the guidelines he shared with the Observer, drawn up into a dense booklet about the size of a smartphone, approved the use of force against the most recalcitrant offenders.

It describes a multistep process of handling offenders, first educating them, then pressuring them to change their behaviour. If they are still recalcitrant, force may be an option, according to the booklet, published last year when the Taliban were building up the network inside their insurgency, and in the pockets of rural Afghanistan they controlled at the time.

“Fourth step, if still the person continues (the offending behaviour), and this can cause a lot of problems, then you can stop him with your hands,” the guidelines said.

It also included rules redolent of the harshest aspects of Taliban rule in the 1990s, including a requirement that women leave the home only if they are accompanied by a male guardian, compulsory prayer and stipulations on beard length for men.

Shebani sat down for the interview before his new boss, cleric and now minister Mohamad Khalid, took over the Kabul building that had housed the ministry of women’s affairs. He is operating from the ministry of Haj and religious affairs complex, near Kandahar airport.

“Some people think we are extremist, but we are not like that. Islam is a religion of moderation, not too much and not too little, everything just right,” he said. “Media channels are publishing negative things about us, please spread the reality to the world.”

The leadership is apparently aware of how the organisation is perceived internationally; when they handed out an English language list of new cabinet appointments earlier this month, the vice and virtue ministry was the only one not translated.

There has been little detail about how it will operate. But Shebani explained a system developed while the Taliban were operating as insurgents, that will see his agents integrated into police stations around the province.

Rural Kandahar has 18 districts, and in each of these there are five members of his commission. “There are five main checkpoints in each area, and an officer (from the ministry) is stationed in each, working with the mujahideen and the mullahs,” he said. In the city, there is an officer assigned to each of 15 precincts.

Afghan women in Kabul on September 2, 2021
Afghan women in Kabul, September 2021. The new rules read: ‘You should patiently prevent women going outside without hijab, and without a male guardian accompanying her.’ Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

“They watch what people do, and if they see people who are doing illegal things, we find out this way.” Locals will be encouraged to call in, he said. “We have distributed their numbers on social media and the radio, so if local people see anything wrong they can inform the responsible person.”

He wants to start with a campaign of persuasion, with enforcement efforts coming later. For now the group is overlooking small deviations, but he laid open the prospect of harsher controls.

“We want to inform everyone first about the principles,” Shebani said. “There are some small things we aren’t reacting to, as we don’t want people to be in a panic, or feel negative.”

In urban Kandahar, where the Taliban only recently took control, he foresees a more difficult campaign to educate residents on how the new government wants them to live and worship.

“We are focusing more on the city because the Taliban were not in control. People in the districts have learned the principles and are obeying them, but we have come to the city very recently.”

Related: Taliban ban girls from secondary education in Afghanistan

He ruled out, at least for now, the much feared patrols of the last Taliban rule. “There won’t be any patrols … we want to emphasise we will not be entering people’s homes, or places they have their gatherings and we will not use violence.”

The guidelines specifically bar men from the ministry from entering homes, even when they know that rules are being broken. “If there are sounds of music, of television, a stereo system, coming out of a house they should be prevented. But don’t enter the house to do it,” it said.

The rules include a bar on gossip, and exhortations to cleanliness as well as charity. They even include a call to respect women’s rights, a ban on forced marriage and an option for divorce. But it also stipulates that women should not have contact with any men apart from immediate close family, and should not be able to leave the house alone.

“You should patiently prevent women going outside without hijab, and without a male guardian accompanying her,” the rules said.

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