Un-Enlightened Despotism

Younus Negah

Hibatullah Akhundzada has much in common with Ashraf Ghani, who was a highly educated individual with a vision to make Afghanistan a country with a just system, reform its helpless government, and address its many issues at the domestic, regional, and global levels. He sought to increase the value of the country’s waters to the point that it could compete with oil in the international market and provide electricity to countries such as Pakistan and India. He also wanted to construct a transit highway and its airways element transit restrictions. Similarly, Hibatullah has a vision to solve the country’s problems at the domestic, regional, and global levels. He has also discussed the same concept of a just system within the government and met with the human resources directors, the report of which was published in Hasht-e-Subh. He has criticized Ashraf Ghani for espousing the false slogan of justice. Hibatullah does not view a system of law, economic development, education, and job opportunities as just. Instead, he believes that the implementation of Sharia is the key. At a meeting with the chiefs of intelligence of the 34 provinces on October 10, 2022, he stated that all officials should provide him with an account of how much Sharia they had implemented within one year of the Taliban regime. He did not request any officials to report on the economy, progress, education, industrial production, unemployment, or the implementation of the law. His approach only ensures the ‘progress’ of the implementation of Sharia, which in practice is all about promoting the good and prohibiting the evil and Jihad. At his meeting with the human resources directors of the ministries, he again highlighted Sharia law as the key to resolving all problems and, thus, all decisions should be made under the supervision of Islamic scholars (mullahs).

He stated that the Sharia is perfect and has determined the correct way of doing everything. At the domestic level, he envisioned a society where everyone is familiar with Sharia laws to the point that there is no opposition. Mullah Hibatullah desires a unified Afghanistan with citizens who are obedient and willing to engage in Jihad. At the regional level, similar to Ashraf Ghani, he wants Afghanistan to be an active member of the region, but he is against exporting water and electricity and turning the country into a transit hub for goods. Instead, he emphasizes turning the country into a transit location of jihadism so that all neighboring countries and the Islamic world can come together under the umbrella of the Emirate or the Caliphate. At the global level, he has the ambition that Afghans are preparing to sacrifice for the victory of Jihad worldwide. He expects the people of Afghanistan to be ready to accept the command of Jihad to establish an Islamic system across the globe.

For over a decade since the 2009 presidential elections, which resulted in tensions and allegations of electoral fraud that necessitated international mediation and the formation of a non-elected government based on compromise, students and political circles have discussed the need for a system in Afghanistan led by an educated individual who would support education and progress. It was argued that Afghanistan was not yet ready to accept a democratic system due to terrorism, political backwardness, a lack of democratic culture, and a lack of strong political parties. Thus, a powerful figure with progressive views was deemed necessary to provide the necessary discipline to ensure stability and progress, and so the concept of enlightened despotism was often proposed.

Historians and politicians have referred to a set of 18th-century authoritarian regimes as “enlightened despotism” or “enlightened dictatorship,” due to their rationalized characteristics and secular, progressive nature, which paved the way for western nations to transition from the feudal age. In contrast to their predecessors, enlightened despots did not link their power to heaven or divine providence, but instead sought reforms and enlightenment, and exercised authority for the benefit and happiness of the masses. Napoleon Bonaparte is widely considered to be the most famous enlightened dictator, while Maria Theresa (1740-1780) of Austria, Frederick the Great of Prussia (1740-1786), and Catherine II of Russia (1762-1796) are also renowned names in the group of autocrats. Each of them sought to quell riots and anarchism in their respective countries, while simultaneously encouraging economic and social reforms, as well as the independence of courts and freedom of thought. These dictators were given the title of “enlightened” due to their reform-oriented approach and desire for progress.

Even in societies where the pursuit of democracy leads to anarchism, rebellion is a major impediment to the establishment and maintenance of democracy. Poverty and backwardness prevent people from meaningfully engaging, and the desire for enlightened despotism is revived, hoping that society will be free of instability on the one hand and rescued from poverty and backwardness on the other. The educated people and politicians who supported Ashraf Ghani in the 2014 elections and those who named him the second thinker of the world and Baba in the seven years of his rule were from this spectrum (advocates of enlightened despotism). After the election, a group left Ghani, while some remained by his side until the end. Some of my friends and relatives voted for him in the 2014 elections because they thought he was a serious and wise person. As time passed, they realized that Afghanistan’s situation was far more complex than being solved by standing behind a ‘serious’ and ‘wise’ person. Our era is vastly different from the 18th century, and today, national problems are unsolvable even with Amanullah Khan’s prescription. Any system that assigns a passive role to the people and seeks to apply the mental versions of a person or persons who have their heads in books, presentations, prayers, and history and to the events of the day and ignore the people’s needs will fail.

In the absence of a democratic system, the Taliban have come to power due to the public’s desire for an authoritarian regime and foreign support. People have been willing to sacrifice their freedoms in exchange for stability and order. The Taliban have presented their rule as an “enlightened dictatorship,” where enlightenment is not necessary for worldly comfort. Hibatullah, as well as other individuals such as Zabihullah Mujahid, have been advocating for censorship and tyranny in the name of religion and Sharia law, while simultaneously engaging in activities such as money collection, trading, and vying for power. In his speech on national television, Mujahid sought to justify censorship and restrict freedom of speech by asserting that man is a servant to God and cannot be free. He argued that the world is not a place to live, but rather a place for humans to face all problems, such as childhood, disability, and death. According to Mujahid, the place of life is in Paradise, which has no end, and life and blessings are endless. He believes that God created life and death to test which of us do better and more good deeds, and thus we are obliged to religion and God, meaning that we cannot be free.

Hibatullah is pretending that the Taliban government, with him at the top, has the intellectual knowledge of the formula for happiness and access to the mother of science. Consequently, the despotism they are imposing on the people of Afghanistan and their willingness to extend it to other countries is seen as enlightening and beneficial. He has declared that all laws and regulations have been cancelled and that “there is no need for a decree”. To him, the years of accumulated experience in the republican system, as well as laws and regulations, are worthless and should be discarded like worn-out papers because he believes that “Sharia does not need anything”.

Hibatullah Akhundzada and his emirate have extended their adherence to Sharia to administrative and political affairs. This adherence to Sharia means that Hibatullah does not require the consultation or presence of outsiders in his power and system. He believes that the emirate of the Taliban does not need experts or technical people, as the emirate only needs to converse with the people in order to obtain votes, a parliament, and representation.

As Hibatullah continued his meeting with the heads of human resources, he stated that, due to the perfection of the Islamic religion, comprehensive and perfect laws must be created for the Islamic system, so that all other systems in the world feel its necessity. However, he did not consider such perfect laws to be the result of aiding people’s needs, studying the experiences of other nations, and requiring experts in various sectors of administrative and political life. He went on to say, “That is why I tell my ministers that you should consult religious scholars in every matter, as the Sharia is perfect and has determined the right way for everything.”

This oppressive dictatorship has transformed the lives of the Afghan people into a living hell, where cemetery order, silence, and obedience are the ideal. According to Zabihullah Mujahid, this world is not a place to live! Education that does not equip women and men with obedience and death-seeking armor is not valued by dark-minded and death-seeking despots. Therefore, the peace that could free a person from the clutches of Hibatullah and his peers is seen as evil.

The discussion of enlightened despotism in universities and political circles was intended to prevent regressive thinking and fatalism. Autocrats who had seen the effects of the Enlightenment in society and realized that people would not accept religious rhetoric and worldly ideologies declared that they would not use heaven and religion to wield power. Instead, they argued that the public good and social progress justified their autocratic rule. Some believe that the enlightened tyranny of the time was beneficial to Western societies, helping them to progress and, consequently, expand freedoms. It is not only in the past and the West that the use of the power of enlightenment has been observed.

Even in the present day, societies that lack democratic institutions and tools, when faced with thieves, unscrupulous contractors, terrorists, and kidnappers, may be tempted to abandon their democratic ideals and human rights in favor of a dictatorship. This is in the hope that order will be maintained and they will be provided with access to food, water, peace, education, security, and work, which could lead to the development of powerful social institutions. Jihadi tyranny, which views life as an inevitable evil and does not value the material needs of the people, may take advantage of society’s desire to escape anarchism and establish an emirate for a while. However, this will not last long as humans cannot give up their need for food, water, education, and peace in favor of an afterlife world. Consequently, they will eventually come to the conclusion that the world is not a place to live.