Terrorizing Education:

Ranking members of the Taliban have subscribed to Islamic extremism and terrorism not necessarily due to a lack of education. Rather, their extremist ideals were formed as a result of their dogmatic education in madrasas, mostly in Pakistan, but also in Afghanistan. This crucial fact seems to have slipped the mind of the international community and human rights advocates, who have narrowed their efforts to merely opening schools and universities for girls, assuming that education of any kind automatically "leads to a better life and helps alleviate economic challenges."

The issue remains as such: what if schools and universities are opened, but students are exposed to the Taliban’s dogma of intolerance and violence? Instead of enhancing female students’ critical thinking, skepticism, open-mindedness, autonomy, scientific/artistic boldness, and innovation, what if the educational institutions indoctrinate them into self-censorship, subordination to men, obedience to rulers, spying on one another, and extremism? What are the chances that the curriculum that radicalized the Taliban would not end up brainwashing all Afghans, both male and female? If so, would the world then be safe from successive generations of Talibanized citizens?

Devaluing Education

In a meeting with Kabul University lecturers just before the re-opening of universities and schools in March 2022,  the Taliban’s Minister of Higher Education, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, accused the same university of being the source of all immorality and disasters over the last 43 years by its teaching of "Western and infidel values." He then gave them an ultimatum, either to "return to Islamic values" or reconsider keeping their teaching jobs. He also stated that professors with master’s and PhDs are no match for the religious clerics and mujahideen. If anything, these statements may foreshadow a large wave of turnovers at the faculty level. While many prominent academics and scholars have already left the country, Haqqani’s remarks make it quite clear that the rest are about to be replaced with radical clerics, mostly coming from Pakistani madrasas. To do so, the Taliban have taken the following steps: 1. Intimidating and threatening professors with surveillance and kidnapping by the intelligence agency (GDI); 2. Cutting lecturers’ salaries in half; and 3. Authorizing the GDI to make new faculty appointments.

Tainted History

In one of his first meetings with lecturers and students, Haqqani stated that there is no use nor place for those who graduated from schools and universities over the last 20 years, later adding that "a change in the curriculum is a must." To get a better sense of the type of curriculum that the Taliban have in mind for Afghan children, one need to look no further than the education offered in many Pakistani madrasas. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, they tried to bring that curriculum to Afghan schools and universities, indoctrinating students with religious radicalism and intolerance.

The Taliban’s education system has several distinct features, each in direct contradiction with the ideals of scientific inquiry and liberal arts education. Most importantly, their form of education focuses less on teaching pupils science, philosophy, and arts, and more on preaching their radical beliefs as "true Islam." The word "preaching" here is important, as it differs from mentoring and teaching by leaving no space for alternative theories, doctrines, findings, and conclusions. Moreover, it is also domineering, as the Taliban impose their particular and unwavering understanding of Islam, government, and social hierarchy on students as the "absolute truth."

Censorship is the norm as critical thinking, open-mindedness, discursive inquiries, and freedom of thought and speech are denied to everyone. During the aforementioned meeting at Kabul University, Haqqani stated that each and every single professor would be under the surveillance of the GDI and Ministry of Vice and Virtue, threatening that those who questioned the Islamic Emirate would "not see the next morning." 

The Taliban’s educational program is also totalitarian, as it attempts to totally control students’ thoughts and deeds. It recognizes no boundaries between an individual’s public and private life and requires their total submission to Taliban authorities and beliefs. The Taliban’s dogmatism dictates not only what can be said or done publicly, but also what people can think, believe, read, watch, listen, and do in private; it even extends over regulating peoples’ prayers, dresses, beards, heads, and hairstyles. In several provinces, the Taliban’s ministries of education and higher education have instructed both male lecturers and students to dress in traditional clothes, have full beards, and participate in collective prayers. Recently, Haqqani instructed lecturers to begin each class session with a lecture about "Islamic values and the hijab," warning that failure to do so will result in universities being closed off to female students.

Furthermore, this education system is cult-like, as individuals have no agency nor freewill with regards to accepting or challenging the tenets of Taliban dogma. Independent inquiry, problem solving, leadership skills, and civic engagement are banned, and often violently punishable. Science is discouraged, arts are forbidden, and philosophy is dangerous. Students attend Taliban schools solely to learn the "absolute truth".

Neither professors nor students can analyze, critique, or examine the content of this "absolute truth." Rather, they must memorize Taliban creeds mechanically and act accordingly in their daily lives. In this model of education, students are like machines and computers whose functions and operations are dictated by certain codes programmed into them by the Taliban. And, the codes are merely consisting of 1’s and 0’s: 1 being an Islamic world that only the Taliban can define and realize; and 0 being a world of infidels helmed by the West. There is nothing in between and beyond, and even to suggest such may be the case is flirting with 0.

This explains why the Taliban has had no difficulty in killing, kidnapping, and torturing thousands of civilians who hold moderate religious beliefs. Before and after their takeover, they have killed and kidnapped hundreds of students and faculty. Several notable instances of this include the attack on the American University of Afghanistan in 2016, the rape of female students at Kunduz University, and the kidnapping and murder of the Dean of the Sharia Faculty of Ghazni University, among others.

This way, the Taliban’s curriculum lay the ground for the radicalization of Afghan students. Intolerance, hatred, and violence are the essence of their indoctrination, all of which displace values such as compassion, justice, pluralism, tolerance, spirituality, and aestheticism. They have already begun training suicide-bomber brigades in military colleges, honoring their families, and officially establishing a "martyrdom department" in the Ministry of Defense. Even prior to their recent takeover, the Taliban had some sympathizers and recruits among various Sharia faculties, including that of Kabul University. As such, it will not take much longer for the mass radicalization of students across universities and departments to begin.

Not surprisingly, the Taliban are particularly obsessed with female students. In order to keep female students out of universities, the Taliban are currently implementing the following six policies: 1. Segregating female students and lecturers; 2. Regulating their personal choices and dress codes; 3. Limiting their access to administrative offices and campuses; 5.Curbing their access to jobs and civil services; and 6. Banning secondary education for girls.

To segregate female students, the Taliban instructed universities to create parallel classes for female students taught by female lecturers or older male lecturers. In some cases, they assigned different time slots for male and female students at universities. In at least one case, female students were told to attend classes once a week only to ask their questions; in another case, if a female student is absent, her family is then called to ascertain her whereabouts, a policy based on the presumption of the woman’s guilt when absent.

Segregated education is never equal education. It would be redundant to explain this obvious fact since it has been already established by the literature and courts around the world. What makes the segregation in this case even worse is that there are very few female professors to cover the all-female courses. Given the Taliban’s view of women’s role in an "Islamic society and family," female students will most likely receive a different curriculum and learning materials that solidifies that role.

The Taliban’s Ministry of Higher Education stipulated that female students had to wear "full hijab" while on campus, which must be a "black, simple, loose, and multilayer cloth that would cover the whole body," otherwise they would not be allowed to enter universities. Haqqani even went so far as to say that in the Islamic Emirate, wearing "Islamic hijab" took precedence over education. Further tying female students’ access to education to their Hijab, he stated that the first three weeks of the school year would be a probationary period to determine whether or not universities would remain open to them. To add insult to injury, the Taliban also regulate female students’ other personal choices, including forbidding them from wearing makeup, bringing their cellphones to campus, communicating with male peers, or taking pictures, not even selfies.

To top it all off, female students are not allowed to visit administrative offices, make appointments with professors, or even walk on campuses. They are instructed to go to their classes immediately upon their arrival and then return home just as fast. In effect, these policies deprive female students of the resources they need to further their education (whatever form that education might take), let alone enjoy the slightest shred of convenience and decency that every human being deserves. Isolating female students and limiting their mobility at universities, these policies result in higher instances of depression and other mental health problems in female students, as well as suppression of their self-confidence and socialization skills. Breaking the resolve of brave female students to attend universities is certainly what the Taliban hopes for through these draconian rules.

Limiting their access to the job market is another way that the Taliban will discourage female students to attend universities. They have not only restricted female employment in most sectors, but also limited their access to civil services in general. With no prospects for employment nor financial gains, students are less likely to invest in education, or at least invest wholeheartedly.

Aside from all these barriers, banning secondary education represents an even more decisive obstacle to their attendance at universities. As expected, the Taliban made a U-turn on their promise to open schools to girls, suggesting that an education would induce immorality and immodesty, a familiar line made by these sorts of extremists. By the end of this year, if high schools do not graduate female students, then universities will not be able to admit any new female students next year, nor have any female students to speak of in four years’ time.

One might ask why the Taliban have not already closed universities to female students as they did to secondary/high schools. There are two plausible answers to this. First, the Taliban can and may very well decide to shut universities’ gates to female students, which will not come as a shock to anyone. In fact, they recently banned girls’ technical and professional education. Some have predicted that the universities will be closed to female students very soon. Secondly, female university students have been the most resilient group in protesting the Taliban’s rules and policies in recent weeks and months. Banning their education and sending them home will only intensify their mobilization and demonstrations. Thus, with these women busy at universities and under surveillance, they are less likely to flood the streets in protest as the Taliban fear.

In summation, the international community has only concerned itself with opening schools and universities in Afghanistan, however, what both female and male students would learn in those schools is a much greater concern for the majority of Afghans. Very recently, three female students in Pakistan brutally stabbed their teacher to death because a family member dreamed that the teacher had blasphemed. With the international community contemplating the decision to make direct payments to school and university teachers, it seems that the Taliban are stepping up their scheme to replace science teachers and academics with their own radical clerics. How the international community can ensure that they are not paying the salaries of extremist, dogmatic Taliban lecturers is another important question that Afghans are raising, but one that sadly falls on deaf ears. Thus, the issue of opening schools and universities must go hand-in-hand with the need to deradicalize education in Afghanistan.

Thanks to Dr. Ernesto Castaneda, Dr. Shamshad Pasarlay, Daniel Jenks, and Zakira Rasooly for their contributions.