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Iran, Afghanistan and the Problem With Islamist Rule

Kamran Bokhari

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Religious-political movements eventually are undone by necessary compromises.

A French scholar of Islamism named Olivier Roy wrote in 1994 that, as a form of governance, political Islam was doomed to fail. He argued that Islamists were essentially fundamentalists obsessed with medieval social norms and bereft of any political or economic program. He predicted that, if and when they came to power, they would become religious versions of the autocracies they replaced. The fact that only two modern countries – Iran and Afghanistan – have Islamist regimes, and that they are both facing crises of governance, attests to the difficulty of pairing religious fealty with matters of the state.

In about a week it will be two years since the Afghan Taliban achieved catastrophic success. After a 20-year insurgency, the jihadist movement forced the United States to withdraw troops from the country, and within nine days the Afghan state that Washington had built crumbled. In its place stood the Taliban emirate. But extremist Islamist insurgent groups that spend decades engaged in suicide bombings tend to lack the tradecraft to run a modern nation-state. Naturally, the Taliban are struggling to forge a viable political economy while they impose a medieval social order upon the country, especially its female population. To govern, the Taliban need to do business with the outside world, something that requires pragmatism and compromise. There are limits to how far the Taliban can be pragmatic before they lose coherence as a movement.

Rifts are already forming. Those emphasizing doctrinal purity have been pitted against those who recognize the need to embrace, however slowly, the art of governing a nation of 40 million in the 21st century. Leaders of the Taliban emirate are concerned, for example, that some of the defiance from neighboring Iran, where women have recently and openly ignored clerical edicts, could spread to Afghanistan. These concerns have taken a toll on the Taliban movement and have brought differences out in the open.

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