Rare appearance of reclusive Afghan supreme leader

ByUzair Ali

He is in the finance sector

Dated

July 24, 2022

Uzair Ali describes a curious gathering in Kabul

The Taliban regime appears to be struggling to strengthen its grip on Afghanistan as it has very little experience of running the state as well as many forces arrayed against it. It is also hampered by sheer lack of international support that had supported the country for more than two decades. The internal discord is phenomenal pushing the regime to devise a policy aimed at wider reconciliation along with keeping its exclusive hold on the country. Such attempts compelled the beleaguered leadership to invite large band of its supporters in Kabul and went to the extent of exposing their highly reclusive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada to underscore their need to secure their authority in the country. True to the defiant stance Akhundzada adheres to, he called for the world to stop telling them how to run Afghanistan, insisting Sharia law was the only model for a successful Islamic state.

Akhundzada, who has not been filmed or photographed in public since the Taliban returned to power in August, was addressing a major gathering of religious scholars in the Afghan capital called to rubber-stamp the hardline Islamist group’s rule. More than 3,000 clerics gathered in Kabul for the three-day men-only meeting and Akhundzada’s appearance had been rumoured for days — although media were barred from covering the event. Akhundzada rarely leaves Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace and spiritual heartland and apart from one undated photograph and several audio recordings of speeches, has almost no digital footprint. But analysts say the former Sharia court judge has an iron grip on the movement and he bears the title Commander of the Faithful.

Mullah Akundzada’s arrival at the meeting hall was greeted with cheers and chants, including “Long live the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, the Taliban’s name for the country. Akhundzada’s appearance comes a week after a powerful earthquake struck the east of the country, killing more than 1,000 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless. After receiving pledges of allegiance from participants raising their hands, Akhundzada congratulated those gathered on the group’s victory in Afghanistan when the Taliban swept to power in August following their insurgency against foreign and US-backed Afghan forces for 20 years. As the Islamist movement unveiled its interim government in September, following the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces and the collapse of a US-backed government, the mysterious Akhundzada retained the role he has held since 2016 of supreme leader, the group’s ultimate authority, but he is rarely seen publicly.

No women attended the clerics’ meeting but a Taliban source admitted that thorny issues such as girls’ education — which has divided opinion in the movement — would be discussed. As was expected Akhundzada did not mention the subject in his speech which was confined largely to telling the faithful to strictly observe Islamic principles in life and governance. Since the Taliban’s return, secondary school girls have been barred from education and women dismissed from government jobs, forbidden from travelling alone and ordered to dress in clothing that covers everything but their faces. The Taliban went back on an announcement that all schools would open in March, leaving many girls who had turned up at their high schools in tears and drawing criticism from Western governments whose strict sanctions are severely undermining the Afghan economy.

The Taliban have also outlawed playing non-religious music, banned the portrayal of human figures in advertising, ordered TV channels to stop showing movies and soap operas featuring uncovered women, and told men they should dress in traditional garb and grow their beards. On the other hand the United Nations human rights chief urged the Taliban to look to other Muslim countries for inspiration on improving the rights of women in a religious context. He added that women and girls in Afghanistan are experiencing the most significant and rapid roll-back in enjoyment of their rights across the board in decades urging authorities to engage with predominantly Muslim countries with experience in promoting women and girls’ rights, as guaranteed in international law.

Mullah Akhundzada, however, stayed aligned to his stand and mentioned that the Taliban had won victory for Afghanistan but it was up to the religious scholars to advise the new rulers on how to properly implement Sharia law. He elaborated that the Sharia system comes under two parts — scholars and rulers and that if scholars do not advise authorities to do good, or the rulers close the doors against the scholars, then they will not have an Islamic system. Mullah Akhundzada is a seasoned campaigner and is believed to be in his 70s. He spoke in strong measured tones, occasionally coughing or clearing his throat warning non-Muslim nations would always be opposed to a pure Islamic state so the faithful had to endure hardships to get what they wanted. TW

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