It was a little before dawn, the lightning streaking and shimmering over the Hindu Kush Mountains, when we arrived at the camp of Afghan fighters outside the war-shattered capital of Kabul. I came with a driver, Amir Shah, a burly Afghan with little taste for war or religion but a sensibility instilled by time and circumstance to accept both. We were conspicuous – as any foreigner visiting Afghanistan is – but no one seemed to pay attention. They were instead preoccupied in an unsuspecting kind of way, moving in age-old ritual that had become habit. The men washed their hands and feet, figures illuminated by faint flashes of light, before they began their prayers. The minutes passed, and the men, slowed by sleepiness, came together on the soiled, ratty mats that served as their prayer rugs. Clothes tattered and flowing turbans askew, they cast their heads down, bowed, then kneeled before God, a sign of submission required five times a day. Artillery thundered in the distance, the echoes of war rolling over the lonely camp.
After prayers, one of the fighters, a man I would later know as Mirza Khan, climbed up a sun-baked mud hut that served as their barracks, opened a green, wooden artillery box and gingerly pulled out yellowed, well-worn copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book. He kissed each one as he handed them out to his expectant comrades. For another hour, he and the twenty men sat cross-legged, some rocking back and forth with blankets draped over their shoulders, and read the word of God. Their voices sounded like the murmur of an audience. Soon after the first rays of sun had snuck over the mountains, their day had begun.
I had left my home in Cairo, Egypt, for a monthlong assignment with the Associated Press that allowed me to spend time with these devoted young men of the Taliban, a militia of thousands, fired by faith, who had poured out of the religious schools of southern Afghanistan in 1994. Their campaign, both in its speed and severity, was nothing short of breathtaking and soon stunned the world. In less than three years, the fighters had overwhelmed the scattered remnants of armies known as the mujahideen, crusaders once adored by the West for their success in ending a ten-year Soviet occupation of their country. The Taliban’s offensive culminated on the night of September 26, 1996, with their entry in Kabul, a city that was seized by wanton lawlessness and brutality inspired by factional fighting. The victory was probably most remarkable for being so anticlimactic. Flying a white flag to symbolize their religious purity, they rolled into the city from all directions with barely a shot fired. Their erstwhile opponents had already abandoned the capital under the cover of darkness. Almost immediately, the Taliban acted with the confidence of conquerors. Within hours, they stormed the UN compound that had sheltered a former Afghan president. They hauled him away, then hung his beaten and bloated body by a wire noose from a lamppost outside the presidential palace from where he once tried to rule the country. It was still there after dawn, a macabre spectacle for thousands who studied his corpse with horror and fascination. The Taliban, in typically resolute fashion, had announced their arrival.
For the miserable inhabitants of Afghanistan, 2.6 million of whom had already fled abroad to Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere, the victory was more bitter than sweet. Their city, once libertine by the region’s standards, was wrecked by years of fighting. Rubble rested uneasily against still-standing walls and doorways, and abandoned homes were overgrown with weeds. Two-thirds of the city was uninhabitable, looking more like an archaeological dig than the capital of a country. The desolation was not only physical. For the city’s residents, the best-paying jobs were those offered by aid agencies: a day shoveling rubble for fifteen pounds of flour. When I spent a month in the city in fall 1997, half of its one million people depended on food handouts. I had never seen nor imagined such misery.
Once in Kabul, the Taliban made a name for themselves in the West through a vindictive campaign of repression and harassment that seemed geared to making the capital’s residents, especially women, pay for living under the Soviet-supported communist government of the 1980s. In a bizarre mix of Islam and tribal law, nightmarish in its intolerance, women were beaten for not cloaking themselves in a head-to-toe shroud known as a burqa, the traditional garb of Afghan village women. High heels were banned, as were cosmetics and white socks (lest they attract the attention of men), and most women were prohibited from working outside the home. Men were told to grow their beards as the Prophet Mohammed did or face lashings and a few days in jail. Music and television were declared off limits. At Taliban checkpoints and intersections, glossy ribbons stripped from cassette tapes fluttered from poles in a not-so-subtle warning. It seemed effective: I never heard music while I was there.
I had arrived in August 1997 to help out during the absence of our Afghan reporter, who had been arrested and beaten. Fearing more trouble, he left the country upon his release. At the time, I had begun researching the thesis that would later become the genesis of this book: the opening of Islam to democracy. Tied up in that phenomenon were questions of identity, issues that I had only begun to explore. In my years in Cairo thus far, my travels had been limited to the Arab world and countries like Iran and Turkey that bordered it. The assignment to Afghanistan was a rare chance to explore a region I saw as occupying the edge of the Muslim world, both physically and ideologically, and hopefully to learn more about the role of faith in people’s lives, even in the most trying times. Here was a country in shambles, locked in medieval conditions. Its people had known nothing but war for a generation, and through a combination of poor health, poverty and fighting, were not expected to live beyond forty-six years (in the United States, life expectancy is nearly seventy-seven years). Of its 26 million people, one in ten had no access to water that would not make them sick.
What could faith mean to people here? I saw the question as crucial to the debate over Islam and democracy. In the Muslim world, as elsewhere, identity and politics are intimately linked, a two-way path in which one helps define and shape the other. Islam’s resonance in people’s lives holds the potential for the faith’s emergence as a moderating, democratizing force in the politics of the Muslim world. In Afghanistan, I hoped to explore the connection between Islam and identity – a specifically Muslim identity – and its attraction in times of unrest and change.
The answers, I soon learned, were not with the Taliban. Almost immediately upon arriving, I got the sense that they had no program or ideology, putting them beyond the purview of political Islam, which seems obsessed with its own modernity. Their goal was the imposition of Islamic law – a code they believed they exclusively understood – and the expulsion of women from public life. They left the rest to God.
The answers, I believed, were elsewhere. I went to Bandi Khana, the soldiers’ camp that was about a half-hour from Kabul, in an attempt to find them. I hoped for a glimpse of the role of Islam in the lives of these men on the front line, fighting in battles that rolled over Afghanistan’s deserts, valleys and mountains like passing clouds.
Mirza Khan was one of those men, a fighter just twenty-two years old.