Walter Tersch


June 14, 2001


Final Paper: The Taliban Extremist Group In Afghanistan And Its Connections To Nationalism, Ethnocentrism, And The Separation Of Church And State

            My group’s class presentation focused on the Muslim extremist group Taliban, and their seizure of the governmental, religious, and economic power of Afghanistan since 1994. The Taliban, whose name means “religious students” (Maroofi, 1) quickly took control of the somewhat troubled and dangerous country with promises of lower crime, a purer, more secure lifestyle, improved government, and overall better conditions for the Islamic citizens of Afghanistan. However, since taking control, the Taliban have forced dozens of major rules and “a string of Draconian laws” (CNN 1) upon Afghans, especially females. Taliban-imposed regulations include “forbidding girls from going to school and women from working,” (Afghan-Info) forbidding women from journeying outside of their home unaccompanied by a male relative, banning television and radio, making crimes such as adultery or theft punishable by public beating or mutilation, and many other human rights-limiting rules. In addition, non-Islamic residents are treated as second-class citizens, often being forced to adopt Muslim names and traditional Muslim clothing and hairstyles, and even wear stitches of thread to identify them as religious minorities (RAWA.) “The Taliban are enforcing harsh, dangerous rules, which may or may not be rooted in their religion” (Sexton, 1.) They have rationalized their many new rules by claiming that they are based on the sacred text of the Qur’an, despite the fact that many devout Muslims say the Taliban’s harsh and often violent style of rule is not in accordance with genuine Islamic teachings. “Their rigid form of Islam has antagonized most of their neighbors and Islamic states who believe they are giving Islam a bad name” (Afghan-Info.)

            Many of the issues raised by the current situation in Afghanistan have great relevance in discussions of religious tolerance, nationalism, ethnocentrism, and the relationship between church and state.

            Specifically, one question raised that is relevant to our class is “what happens when nations adopt official ‘state’ religions?” This matter came up a few times during the semester, particularly in our various discussions about the roles of nationalism, national pride, and unity of government and religion in countries. The general philosophy of many governments today, based loosely on democratic principles, is to strive for the greatest good for the greatest percentage of the population. So, a government might decide that a certain religious group or sect is the clear majority among the population, and make plans to adopt their faith as the official state religion. This might seem at first to be a unifying and peace-enhancing process that would encourage preservation of traditional values, and foster a more spiritual and harmonious life for most people in a country.

However, situations like the Taliban extremist group’s oppression of much of the Afghan population (in the name of Islam) and the continuing battles between Israelis and Palestenians in the middle east show that official state religions often cause more harm than good, and frequently promote discontent among citizens who do not specifically share the beliefs of the governing majority sect. “Regulations forbidding [female education or employment,] along with restrictions on womens’ access to health care… have caused resentment among ordinary Afghans” (Afghan-Info.) Furthermore, the notion of a single correct religion opens up a whole new set of ways to rationalize conflict or war with other nations. For example, “We need to take over that city and convert the people living there, so they don’t go to hell!” State religions encourage an un-cosmopolitan, closed-minded, and generally intolerant view of other religions and cultures which can easily (even if inadvertently) lead to citizens perceiving followers of other cultures or religions as wrong, inherently inferior, foolish, or even inhuman. Remember that during World War II the Nazis rationalized their nightmarish treatment of Jews and other minorities on the basis that the persecuted followed different religions, and were therefore much different, to the extent that the Jews were perceived as not human. “[Hitler] said that the Jews were the most vicious of the slave races” (Nazi, 8.) Although the Nazi regime obviously aimed to completely eradicate Judaism and other minority faiths from Germany, it initially attempted to assimilate Christianity into Nazi beliefs instead of prohibiting it outright (Nazi, 13.) With time, however, most Christians were absorbed into the Nazis’ program of extreme nationalistic pride through massive emotional rallies and simple, repetitive, universal through force slogans that in some ways constituted a national state-worship form of religion; God was overshadowed by the state. So in some ways, the atrocities of World War II in Germany can be interpreted as being caused in part by Germany having an official state religion. (My interpretation, anyway:) Nazis did not worship a specific god, but they in some ways believed that their race had been chosen by god as the best one on Earth, superior to all others, and that they had the right to take possession of all of Europe…. For 2,000 years no less. This force of a national ideology that centrally embodied racism essentially fueled the flames of preeminent ethnocentrism and anti-Semitism… Which is exactly what eventually happens in most cases where official religions are adopted. Official national religions tend to create conflict between nations, due in part to many religions’ requirements to “spread the word” or “convert heathens,” etc. Official religions, through emphasizing the differences of different people, give nations the rational to conquer or compete with others. Even the present nuclear hostility between India and Pakistan is based on their conflicting majority religions, Hinduism and Islam, respectively (Brittanica.)

            The issue of state religions and the ethnocentrism and notions of superiority that often come with them tie into another main topic that came up in our class a few times, nationalism. In essence, state religions are interrelated with nationalistic ideas; citizens come to associate the official religion with what it means to be a member of the nation. Nationalism works in the same way: people are instilled with a sense of greatness, of being the strongest, brightest, most courageous people on earth, or of being God’s chosen people. Like religion, different interpretations of history are possible to support nationalistic pride. For example, the Taliban interpreted the Qur’an to mean that they should force their way of life on every one in their country and violently punish all people found guilty of crimes. In the same way, historical events can be interpreted in a variety of ways, to support the plans, claims, or nationalism of leaders. In other words, histories of nations can be either based on actual fact, exaggerated from real facts and people to make them more compelling or just plain made up. As shown by 18th and 19th century European Nationalism, histories and national origins are often formulated as governments see fit (Gellner, 101.)

So, there are parallels between the Taliban claiming they are following ancient holy laws from the Quo’ran, and political leaders claiming that they are upholding the tradition of a grand and powerful ancient nation. (I.e. Hitler claimed his Nazi political group was the continuation of an ancient racial group known as the Aryans, who he considered the “master-race” (Nazi, 8.) It didn’t matter that Hitler and his political party didn’t really have an ancient connection and the Aryans were an unrelated group not associated with Germany. It has just been shown throughout history that political groups can rationalize their decisions or their power based on historical backing. And historical backing can take the form of a grand national history, as in 19th century European nationalism, or as an interpretation of religion that supports your decisions, as the Talaban have done.

Issues of nationalism and whether it is really necessary in modern cosmopolitan societies were brought up by the final class presentation on June 7th, which covered national anthems and asked “are they really necessary?” The class questioned whether national anthems lead to ethnocentrism through their proud proclamations of having the greatest land in the world, being the home of the brave, having a rich history, etc. The consensus we eventually reached is that although national anthems in some ways do indeed “put other countries down” by proclaiming one country’s singular superiority, they are a necessary element of any country and help unite the diverse people on the basis of common nationalistic ground. (But unlike official religions, they are just simple songs and do not significantly affect government or military operations the way that a religion that demanded “holy war” would.)

            National unity is in some ways a recurring theme associated with multiculturalism. On one hand, a nation having its own religion is in some ways united on a higher and more secure level than would be possible through primarily secular nationalistic things such as a national anthems, celebration of independence day, etc. Contrastingly, the other side of the doubled-edged sword of state religions (or official state cultures, or languages, for that matter) is that they also serve to divide countries. Minority groups, such as Muslims who disagree with the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan, native French-speakers in Canada, Native American Plains Indians in the U.S., or any other minority factions in conflict with the majority, sometimes unite together, even with other different minority groups, to effect action and instill change in the country as a whole. For example, many Native American tribes teamed up with their former rivals to gain political leverage dealing with the U.S. government. Craving more freedom, the minority groups often attempt to change the system through political or (unfortunately) militant means, or they make efforts to literally separate from the majority, as was almost the case with French Canadians in Quebec. The actions of minority groups dissatisfied with the status quo can, if well organized, overthrow a government, or even separate from the country. That is what happened in 1947 when Pakistan separated from India due to the differences of religion between the countries (Brittanica.) Similarly, Shi’ite Islamic minority groups in Afghanistan have made attempts in the past to stop the Taliban’s expansion of power, albeit without much success thus far. However, this brings up the old idea that official state religions cause problems, since they obviously upset people who disagree with the majority; that is one of the many factors which contributes to the problems being caused by the Talaban. “They consider themselves a group of Islamic scholars, and enforce their idea of Islam upon the nation” (Sexton 1.) Their country has what amounts to an extremely official state religion, which they believe is the world’s most pure Islamic state. It is just too bad that few non-Taliban people in the world agree with that. “Only three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – have formally recognized the [Taliban] regime” (CNN, 1.)

            Although the majority of Afghans, specifically in the larger cities like Kabul, are compliant followers of the Taliban interpretation of the Qur’an, there exist significant minorities of other Muslim sects, (especially Shi’ite muslim) and people of other religions, who no doubt resent being subjected to alter their ways of life based on a few other peoples’ ideas of the proper religion. I would imagine that non-Muslims are especially offended and angered by the actions of the Taliban. I know I would be pretty angry if someone told me I had to cut my hair in a certain Islamic style, change my name to a Muslim name, wear traditional Muslim clothes, attend prayers five times daily for a religion I don’t even follow, and wear a piece of yellow cloth to differentiate myself from Muslims! (RAWA 2.)

            Overall, I learned a hell of a lot about nationalism, ethnocentrism, the need for tolerance of other religions and cultures, and the importance of separation of church and state by studying the Taliban group in Afghanistan. One of my personal conclusions I’ve reached through this class is that church and state should always remain separate, since no one religion, or, as the Taliban have shown, no one interpretation of a religion, applies to everyone. A government with the ability to rationalize all of its laws and actions with holy reasons (or divine right) is a scary thing to deal with. Historically, oppression of the population and conflict with outsider nations have been shown to often follow collaborations or consolidations of church and state. Similarly, I conclude that nationalism has more than a few parallels to religion, especially with what effects they can have on a nation. Both religion and nationalism, if unchecked, can be used to rationalize war, economic actions, new laws, and limitations of freedom… Virtually anything can be rationalized with “because the holy book says so” or “because our ancient forefathers lived and died for it.” This is especially true in nations where the church influences the state and governmental decisions. Through our various readings throughout the semester, I gained valuable insight into the significance of nationalism, which is obviously a central part of the study of multiculturalism, as well as my interpretation of the Taliban and other national conflicts. I am aware that my paper lacks specific citations to Levinas, Kant, Fichte, Anderson, etc. However, instead of loading down the paper with dozens of small quotes from to those thinkers, I decided that a piece influenced by their thoughts and ideas would be slightly more readable than one strictly about what they said. (Much of their knowledge is critical to interpretation of the Talaban situation, such as Fichte’s ideas about the Internal Border and how it relates to modern concepts of nationalism, and Kant’s concept of universal reason (and how our class discussions showed that reason can definitely go awry;) they both relate well to nationalism and how it affects world politics.) So the focus is more on my interpretation of the Taliban, Nazi Germany, and other political situations and how they relate to nationalism, ethnocentrism, and the separation of church and state, instead of repetition of the texts from this semester.



“Afghanistan: the regime and their U.N. battle.” June 7, 2001.



Gellner, Ernest. Nationalism.

            Washington Square, NY: New York University Press.


“India: The People.” June 14, 2001.



Maroofi, Musa M. “The Afghan Taliban.” Washington Report. June 5, 2001.



“Nazi Germany.” June 14, 2001.



Sexton, Jake. “Afghanistan and the Taliban.” June 5, 2001.



“Some of the restrictions imposed by Taliban on women in Afghanistan.” RAWA (The

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.) June 4, 2001.



 “Who are the Taliban?” Afghan-Info. June 4, 2001.