From Barring Books On Religious Modernity To Halting Hostile Publications, Here is How Taliban’s Intelligence Agency Is Re-writing Culture In Afghanistan

Tahera Rahmani and Shivani Singh

When one sits down to recount the diminishing reading and book culture in Afghanistan under the Taliban, it’s impossible not to think about Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, who had said, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world”. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, many believed they would implement the same rigorous, hardline rules to the book culture as they did during their previous regime in the 90s. This time, even though there are no rules out in the open, the Taliban has been eating away at the reading habit of Afghans like termites on books. And the ones behind this erosion of intellectual culture, are ironically the “Intelligence Directorate” of the Taliban.

On ground, the crackdown has begun.

For those aware of the cultural scene in Kabul over the past 20 years, Pul-e-Surkh centre was the hub of activity with cafes filling the buzzing bylanes of District 3 in the Afghan capital and people discussing their new ideas at the cultural associations there. The centre whose moto was to promote pen and books instead of bullets and weapons, finally closed its doors under the pressure of the Taliban weapons, soon after the takeover. Now, instead of intellectual minds, the lanes are peppered with checkpoints set up by the Taliban.

Officials of the Taliban’s Intelligence directorate recently distributed pledge sheets to publishing and bookstore officials in Badakhshan warning them not to publish any book or publication contrary to their policies. What’s most important to note here is that these institutions fall under the Taliban’s Information and Culture Directorate, but actions on ground are controlled by the Intelligence directorate. The forced censorship, unfortunate closures, hardline rules and a suffocating environment has caused a storm in the book and publishing market as a whole affecting the education sector too. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the book market across the country plummeted. Bookstores, cafes, and cultural centres that were mostly engaged in selling or distributing books went bankrupt, both because of Taliban restrictions and because of the collapse of the country’s economy.

Take note of the developments:

    • Afghanistan has no operating national ISBN agency – the global registration authority for books – so it’s impossible to know how many books have been published in the country in recent decades.
    • Najiba Bahar Library in Daikundi, which was the melting pot of ideas from women, youth and elders alike, was destroyed in the early days of the Taliban’s arrival in Nili, the provincial capital. All indicators of modern life, like computers, destroyed.
    • In Herat, booksellers are experiencing some of the worst days of their business. According to the statistics from the booksellers’ union in Herat province, of the 80 bookstores in the province, six have closed their shops and many have put their stores up for sale.
    • In addition to closing schools to students and removing some subjects from university curriculum, as well as focusing more on religious books of a particular jurisprudence in schools and universities, the Taliban have censored certain books, fined the publishers, and banned the import of certain books from abroad.

Listen to voices from the ground:

    • A a major book publisher in Kabul, Ahmad (name changed to protect identity) who spoke on the condition of anonymity with Reporterly, complained about the situation of buying and selling books in the Afghan market. He said that after the Taliban came to power in the country, book sales had fallen sharply and the income of bookstores and publishing houses had dropped by up to 90 percent.
    • This was confirmed by Sayed Ahmad Saeed, Head of the Afghan Publishers Union, in an interview with Reporterly. According to Saeed, 30 percent of Afghan publishers have quit their jobs after the Taliban government took office, and 90 percent of those who remain in the profession are struggling with economic hardships.
    • Others too, who do not want to be named, agreed that they had all been forced to leave their jobs due to economic problems and restrictions imposed by the Taliban.
    • One of Kabul’s prominent publishers, who has spent the last 19 years in cultural and book publishing activities, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that with 1.2 million books, he is facing many economic problems and not even two people visit his bookstore each day. He cites two reasons for such a situation – a) people are not motivated enough to read books in the current situation of the country and b) active youth and readers have left the country after the Taliban came to power.

Back story: However, the situation of books and bookstores in Afghanistan has never been favourable. The sector has always been unloved and neglected by the government as well as the people. Sayed Ahmad Saeed, Head of the Afghan Publishers Union and owner of one of the country’s largest publications, said that the problems of publishers and booksellers that began with the coronavirus pandemic and quarantine restrictions, which have now increased under the Taliban. Although, he added that previously, during the Republic government too, not enough attention was paid to this industry and profession.

More restrictions and censorship:

    • A book publisher in Kabul, Ahmad (name changed to protect identity), told Reporterly that the publishers ‘and booksellers’ union held occasional meetings with Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, in the past nine months and that they received new orders from the Taliban at each of these meetings.
    • In this regard, although Sayed Ahmad Saeed, head of the Afghan Publishers’ Union, said they have not received any formal orders from the Taliban to censor books, he added that they had been indirectly told to prevent publishing books that were against the Taliban and against the national and regional interests of this group.
    • This claim was confirmed by the head of one of Afghanistan’s other major publications, Mohammad (name changed on request), who was interviewed by Reporterly. According to him, the Taliban, after taking office, gathered all publishers and booksellers in the 495th Intelligence Department and took a commitment from them that books that were in conflict with the Taliban’s interest and values should not be in their bookstores or sold to the people.
    • The publisher says that the group has specifically banned the sale of books written by exiled Iranian thinker and philosopher Abdul Karim Soroush, late Iranian thinker Ali Shariati, Mohammed Arkoun, French Islamist scholar, and exiled Turkish thinker Fethullah Gülen. It should be noted that the sale of Soroush and Israeli historian and thinker Yoval Noah Harari’s books was recently banned in Herat.
    • Soroush has written many famous books on “religious modernity” and Harari on “human past and future”.

In fact, publishers have also been told that books written about the Taliban that are not politically in line with the group’s interest and values should be collected and handed over to the Taliban’s Ministry of Information and Culture. The publisher added that the Taliban’s Ministry of Information and Culture ordered publishers to deliver books they suspected of being against the Taliban’s interests and values of the ministry and receive their price instead. But with the public’s knowledge of the Taliban’s behaviour and background, the publisher says that if they go to the ministry and hand over the book, there is fear of not only not receiving the price of their books, but also face arrests and torture by the Taliban.

    • A publisher Ahmad (name changed on request) in Kabul, shared a list of books from his publication center in Kabul with Reporterly which have been banned by the Taliban. The list of these books provided to the Reporterly includes a number of religious and political books.
    • The publisher added that if the books that the Taliban consider to be against the ideology and policy of the group are imported from outside the country, they will stay in customs for several weeks and months and then, be confiscated and the booksellers will be fined.
    • The claim was confirmed by another publisher Mohammad (name changed), who said, “It is almost impossible to import books from Iran.” He recalled that “a number of books that were from an exhibition in Tehran and brought to Kabul are still at the Taliban’s customs in the border, and the publisher who imported them has been fined 50,000 Afghanis for importing the books”.
    • He added that those books contained contents about Imam Hussain, Bibi Fatema Zahra and other Shia religious figures. It should be noted that the Taliban are accused of religious unification in Afghanistan and had recently banned the teaching of Jafari jurisprudence in schools of the Shiite dominated province of Bamiyan and replaced it with Hanafi jurisprudence.
    • Likewise, the publisher Ahmad shared a list of books sold outside Afghanistan with Reporterly, saying that the books were taken in Jalalabad at the custom border and would be first checked by the Ministry of Information and Culture of the Taliban. The long list that has been shared with Reporterly again includes a number of religious and political books.

So, what did the international community react to this?

    • Well, the Human Rights Watch stated that people in Kabul are burning and destroying their books due to fear when the Taliban started house-to-house searches on the pretext of finding weapons.
    • With the rise of the Taliban, book publishing and bookstores are in dire straits. Members of the Afghan Publishers Union said there is a need for a department for them to be established in the Taliban’s Ministry of Information and Culture to protect the bookselling and publishing businesses.
    • Among all the restrictions imposed on the Afghan people by the Taliban, the issue of education of Afghan girls and boys has been criticized and condemned more than anything else by the people inside the country, by international institutions and foreign countries.
    • These protests have been expressed from time to time in various forms such as demonstrations, issuance of declarations, the cessation of foreign aid, and so on. However, it should be added that it was not just protests and condemnations, but also brave Afghan girls and boys inside the country, who are fighting practically against these unjust decisions in various ways.
    • One such form of protest has been launching book fairs in various cities by publishers, and Afghan youth specially girls. This has been labelled as a soft protest against the Taliban’s stance on education, literacy, and in the larger view, it is a protest against violation and neglecting women’s rights in the country.

Let’s go deeper into these protests:

Here is a list of the book fairs which have been organized in Kabul and several other provinces since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan.

    • On May 28, 2022, a book fair was organized in Ghazni province to promote the culture of reading.
    • On May 25, 2022, a three-day handicrafts and book fair was held in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh, with the aim of promoting the culture of studying and introducing women handicrafts.
    • On June 18, 2022, a book fair was held in Kabul under the name of “More awareness, better tomorrow”.
    • On May 29, 2022, another book fair was held in Pol-e-Khumri district of Baghlan province to encourage youths to turn to reading.

Amidst all this, it’s the brave Afghan girls who are organizing such events and exhibitions, even though they have always faced strict laws on clothing, freedom of employment, travel, communications, and most importantly, they have been deprived of education, ever since the Taliban took control of the country.

    • On May 19, 2022, a number of women organized a street book fair to promote reading culture in Kabul.
    • On April 21, 2022, a street book fair was held by youth including girls in northern province Badakhshan to promote the book reading culture among new generation of Afghans.
    • Another book fair in Badakhshan province was held on June 1, 2022, under the slogan of “Let’s read books for the betterment of our society”. Shortly before that, another book exhibition by Badakhshani girls and boys was held in Baharak district, Badakhshan. A large number of people including the Taliban members and fighters participated in the exhibitions and bought some book, although according to the organizers of the book fairs, the Taliban members preferred religious books more than other subjects. In some cases, the Badakhshani girls gifted some books to the Taliban.

Between the lines: Certainly, the presence of Afghan girls at these exhibitions as organizers and facilitators, in a situation when the Taliban are trying to erase them from society, sends a clear message to this radical group. The girls, who had demonstrated their protest against the Taliban’s strict rules on dressing and education of girls by holding demonstrations and rallies, this time expressed their protest in a soft manner against the group’s policies and defended their undeniable presence in society.

But, there is still a ray of hope:

    • Thirty students from Sayed ul-Shuhada High School, who was attacked by terrorists, remain unwilling to give up on their education despite the unrelenting attacks and renewed Taliban restrictions. They have worked a way around the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education, by attending an underground book club where students gather to learn, read, and even write their own stories. The book club, founded by a group of eight civil activists – some of them students, but not all of them – organises reading sessions every Saturday. They are held in a discreet location in western Kabul to avoid Taliban retribution.
    • A mobile library bus went to a Kabul orphanage in December 2021 and opened its doors for the first time since the Taliban took over the country, eliciting smiles from young book lovers. The mobile library is one of five school buses set up by a local organisation called Charmaghz, established by Afghan Oxford University graduate Freshta Karim. In recent years, hundreds of children used the mobile libraries daily as they crisscrossed the Afghan capital, as many schools lack their own library in Afghanistan. However, the mobile libraries lost almost all of their sponsors after the government was taken over by the Taliban in mid-August. Now, it is raising funds online in order to keep operating.
    • Although Afghanistan is one of the countries with a very low per capita of reading rate, the country’s bookstores and publishers have always tried to encourage people to read more by holding book reading competitions and book fairs. According to the latest statistics released by the former government’s Ministry of Information and Culture in 2021, per capita reading in Afghanistan is half a minute. The low level of literacy can also be attributed to the weak economy which disables them from buying books and the lack of institutionalization of the reading culture in the country are some of the factors that have caused the per capita reading to remain low. Therefore, according to booksellers, most of those who buy books are young people and students.

Zoom out: Books are said to lead the way to enlightenment, more aware and educated individuals. Guess, this is what the Taliban fears the most and hence, the massive restrictions in a space which has no effect on their political line, whatsoever. In 2018, a New York Times story on this booming publishing market suggested the only things Afghanistan does not import are opium and books. The presence of these two contrasting things in a single sentence goes to prove how long a way Afghanistan has in the book market.

Afghanistan’s publishing and book-selling industry is silently and gradually collapsing. Undoubtedly, the collapse of bookstores and the cessation of book publishing in a society will have a direct impact on the literacy and intellectual growth of the people of that society. In such conditions of poverty and insecurity, where people are struggling to survive and get through these difficult days, bookstores and book reading should not be forgotten, in order to prevent the stagnation of literacy and science in the country. While no effective action is expected from the Taliban to improve the situation, one way to do this is to welcome book fairs.

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