Modern Subjects in Jihadi Madrasas

By: Mohammad Ali Nazari

The Taliban’s two-year tenure of pseudo-government activities has led them to acknowledge the inadequacy of madrasa education in addressing the challenges faced by the country. They have realized that the curriculum taught in religious schools is not conducive to practical living or effective governance. Furthermore, the Taliban have recognized that the 20-year gap between their first and second periods of rule has significantly altered people’s expectations regarding governance. Despite their claims, the Taliban, in practice, also prioritize worldly affairs. While they espouse guiding Afghans to heaven and emphasize the afterlife when discussing the interests and living conditions of the people, they demonstrate a strong inclination towards worldly matters when it concerns their own group and faction.

Now, as nearly two years have elapsed since this group’s assumption of power, they are formulating more precise plans for the mortal world and devising long-term strategies to solidify their control, primarily through changes in the curriculum. The Taliban, having established a committee to review the educational curriculum prior to their takeover, with the intention of Talibanizing it, are now attempting to replace these institutions with conventional schools by introducing modifications to the curriculum of religious-jihadi schools.

During a meeting with Shaikh Abdulwahid Tariq, the General Director of the Taliban Jihadi Schools, Mawlawi Abdul Kabir, the Taliban’s Acting Prime Minister, emphasized the inclusion of “modern subjects” in the curriculum of Jihadi schools. Although the Taliban’s aversion to modern education is well-known, certain members of the group occasionally adopt positions that differ from the official policies of the regime.

The Taliban have engaged in various political maneuvers, such as the dichotomy of good Taliban and bad Taliban. Some Taliban members based in Kabul, including Mawlawi Abdul Kabir, the Ministers of Defense and Interior Mullah Yaqoob Mujahid and Sirajuddin Haqqani, and a few others, seek to perpetuate the narrative of the “changed Taliban” and portray a more flexible and somewhat modern image. These individuals strive to distinguish themselves from Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, indirectly signaling their opposition to his restrictive and anti-education measures. The discussion of the necessity to teach non-religious subjects in madrasas may serve a propaganda purpose. However, even if these individuals genuinely oppose Mullah Hibatullah’s regressive decrees, the hierarchical structure of the Taliban tradition prevents them from speaking out or exerting significant influence on the group’s decision-making. Decisions of importance, such as educational policies and the nature of school curricula for religious schools and universities, are made in Kandahar, while the Kabul-based Taliban primarily serve as executors rather than decision-makers. Nonetheless, these efforts serve to sustain the narrative of the “changed Taliban.” Although this narrative may no longer hold sway in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s tactics have managed to delay its demise to some extent beyond the country’s borders.

Upon closer examination of Mawlawi Abdul Kabir’s recent order, it becomes evident that it underscores an understanding that religious education is insufficient for addressing the challenges of the modern world. Following their return to power, the Taliban swiftly replaced non-Taliban officials in political and administrative positions within the government structure with their own mullahs and affiliated individuals. Since then, they have embarked on a gradual yet persistent process of eliminating non-Taliban forces from the government’s framework and organization. In a meeting with government department heads under Taliban control, Mullah Hibatullah instructed them to prioritize the recruitment of Mujahideen (Taliban members) and to expedite the verification of their identities and documents.

While these efforts may yield results in certain areas, they encounter significant obstacles when it comes to technical matters, as there is a scarcity of qualified and specialized applicants. Consequently, the Taliban must retain non-Taliban technical and expert personnel within their structures, despite considering them outsiders who lack their trust. As a group opposed to modern education, they incorporate only select scientific subjects into the curriculum of religious-jihadi schools, ensuring that these subjects do not pose a future threat. Their aim is to cultivate a multi-skilled youth population capable of both wearing suicide vests and functioning as human grenades. In the event of survival, these individuals can then replace non-Taliban technical forces.

This approach enables the Taliban to achieve two objectives: firstly, it allows them to project a facade of tolerance toward non-religious education, thereby dispelling any concerns on that front. Secondly, by populating government offices with Taliban forces, they can consolidate their control over these institutions in the future, should their regime endure. By filling these positions with their own personnel, they ensure a ready network of proxies within subsequent governments, thus securing a complete monopoly over government offices for as long as their regime prevails.

It is worth noting that the Taliban’s views on modern education are not entirely negative. They differentiate between various modern themes, categorizing them as either experimental-scientific or social in nature. The Taliban harbor no reservations regarding experimental-scientific subjects and even consider professionals such as engineers and doctors essential. They view the Arab Sheikhdoms of the Gulf as a model for governance, where economic prosperity, urban development, industry, and commerce flourish, albeit at the expense of freedom and critical thinking.

In summary, Mawlawi Abdul Kabir’s order sheds light on the limitations of religious education in addressing real-world issues. The Taliban’s approach to government structure reflects a calculated strategy aimed at maximizing their influence and control. While they embrace certain aspects of modern education, their selective incorporation of scientific subjects serves their long-term objectives. Ultimately, the Taliban seek to establish a government characterized by their own forces, emulating the governance model of Gulf Arab Sheikhdoms. This model prioritizes economic growth and development but stifles individual freedoms and critical thought.

In the scenario where engineers and doctors pursue higher education at universities after receiving a background in “Jihadist schools” and being educated there under the influence of the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam, they are likely to become technical forces imbued with the Taliban’s ideological framework. These individuals, having absorbed the Taliban’s way of thinking, may eventually find themselves wielding weapons or wearing suicide vests if the need arises, but they would neither seek change nor critically assess the prevailing situation. Therefore, when Mawlawi Abdul Kabir emphasizes the inclusion of modern sciences alongside religious subjects in the curriculum of Jihadi schools, his intention does not extend to incorporating disciplines such as philosophy, history, and literature. Mawlawi Abdul Kabir’s focus lies elsewhere, with subjects like logic, politics, and sociology not aligning with his objectives.

The Taliban curriculum lacks space for subjects that encourage critical thinking, freedom, human rights, governance responsibilities, the components of governance, the relationship between the government and the people, or other significant social issues. The Taliban desire compliant and proficient technical forces capable of constructing or dismantling bridges, roads, and buildings without questioning the purpose behind their actions.

The introduction of modern subjects, specifically those related to experimental sciences, into Taliban Jihadi schools elevates these madrasas to a higher educational level. The output of schools differs from that of madrasas. Individuals educated in madrasas perceive themselves as duty-bound to defend Islam, while those who genuinely graduate from schools feel obliged to understand not only Islam but also other religions and various phenomena. If the graduates of Taliban jihadist schools, who initially received their education from madrasas, go on to defend Taliban Islam, they will form the technical forces of the government and serve as future combatants for the Taliban leadership.