Jacinda Ardern’s Naivete is No Match for Taliban Fanaticism

(Warning: Distressing graphic images below)

NZ PM Jacinda Ardern

Some silly things have been said this week in response to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern’s appeal to the Taliban was one of the worst and probably deserves a gold medal for naivete.

Ardern called on the Taliban to respect the “human rights and the safety of their people.” She also asked them to care for “the wellbeing of women and girls.”

She said some other things that made it sound like she was trying to recruit Taliban members into the warm politically correct embrace of the New Zealand Labor Party.

Ardern is certainly not alone. A Professor at McGill University called on the UN to ensure that the Taliban respect women and girls, include women in peace negotiations, and make an enduring commitment to women’s rights.

Ardern and the Professor are well-intentioned. No reasonable and ethical person could disagree with wanting to uphold women’s rights. The problem is that they are preaching to the choir - but the Taliban are nowhere near the church.

The Taliban make clear what they think of women's rights.

The sad reality is that the Taliban have an intellectual, moral, and religious horizon so alien to our own intellectual tradition, that people cannot understand them from a Western mindset. It also means that when Westerners appeal to human rights, reason, and ethical responsibility, the Taliban either have no idea of what they are talking about, or the Taliban think that the Westerners are very stupid.

Westerners have previously made the same mistake with al-Qaeda, the so-called "Islamic State" and other Muslim fanatic groups. Too often they have not realized that we operate out of mutually exclusive horizons.

The Western intellectual tradition has a particular view of the dignity of the human person and individual rights. It has a view about reason, rationality and ethics and the responsible conscience of the human person. It also has a particular view about God. Whether we believe in God or not, we have an image of what God should be.

Those beliefs and our intellectual horizon are simply not shared by the Taliban and other extremists. To give a few key examples:

On reason and rationality: Just like their Christian fundamentalist counterparts, the Taliban do not trust people to know the truth for themselves. They over-emphasise parts of the Koran such as “Allah knows, while you do not know.” (Koran 2:216)

On morality: In extremist Islam, there is no ethics, only law. People are not meant to come to decisions of rational conscience, but instead to submit their moral responsibility to a superior. To give an example, a failed suicide bomber I once saw interviewed said "I knew it was wrong, but my commander said it was the will of God."

On the nature of God: Pope Benedict was right when he distinguished the God of fanaticism from the God worshipped in more authentic Abrahamic faiths. Pope Benedict spoke of a God who is reasonable and good. But he also pointed to the “voluntarist” God worshipped by fanatics like the Taliban. The Taliban’s God is not bound by what is rational, or what is good. Their God only issues commands. And whether people's conscience tells them it is good, reasonable, or not, those commands are law.

On the human person: In the West, we take it for granted that all people are valuable. We are held to be equal in dignity and endowed with certain rights. That's not part of the Taliban horizon. For them, humans don't have inherent dignity, and so we don't have inalienable rights

Thus, the Taliban’s intellectual and moral horizon is completely different from ours. When we talk about human rights, dignity, and equality, these things make no sense to the Taliban – and Ardern is culpably naïve to believe that any appeal to human rights will make a difference to the Taliban.

Taliban beating a woman in public.

The only thing the Taliban understands from the West is force and strength. Right now, they have been emboldened because they believe we have neither.

It’s for those reasons that diplomacy and appeals to human rights will not work on the Taliban right now. In the short to medium term, only force will work.  

Long term, we can only hope that fanatics like the Taliban have their intellectual enlightenment and come to appreciate liberal values, such as reason and moral responsibility.

Until then, we should no more expect the Taliban to respect women’s rights than we should expect a bull not to charge at us just because we’re vegetarian.


Image Credits:

Jacinda Ardern in Dunedin.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacinda_Ardern_in_Dunedin.jpg

November 1999 public execution in Kabul of a mother of five ... http://www.rawa.org/zarmeena.htm 

Taliban religious police beating a woman in Kabul on 26 August 2001 http://rawa.org/beating.htm (archived) 


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