The political laughter of the Taliban

By Laila Yousef Sandoval, Associate Professor of Philosophy, SLU-Madrid

It could be said that laughter, besides being a social and rational act, is also political. The same prevails with activities that the Taliban prohibited for women, such as talking in public or accessing the education system or labor market.

It is forbidden for women to laugh out loud. This is what article 12 of the Taliban code used to read in the past. It is presumed to be reinstated with the coup d’état perpetrated this August. That smile forbidden to women, who are not counted on in the formation of the new Afghan government and who hardly dare to take to the streets, is replicated by the different images of the proud Taliban leaders that are back in power.

Bergson, in his piece La Risa (1899), developed the idea that laughter can only be understood as a social act that suspends feelings and cancels emotions in order to speak to the mind. It could be said that laughter, besides being a social and rational act, is also political, and that the same prevails with activities that the Taliban prohibited for women, such as talking in public or accessing the education system or labor market. Through laughter, we make our presence known. It is a way to affirm our existence as subjects, a way to say: “I am here”, “I have a stance”. The Taliban say they prohibit laughter because it is provocative towards men, but this heteropatriarchal and sexist explication implies more: the Taliban reject women’s laughter because it involves invading the realm of decision-making and male political positioning that they make traditionally theirs. Women in Afghanistan can no longer laugh because they are no longer political subjects. And while women have their basic rights confiscated, one has to wonder about the nature of the Taliban. Can they be considered a political entity? The Taliban government cares little that the United States and European Union refuse to engage officially with them, especially when China and Russia, among other countries, do deal with them.

Recognition, recognize, recognizing… the use of the prefix “re” implies the act of knowing again, it suggests a movement from pillar to post. That is, the Taliban government expects recognition from potential allies, but it also does so because it already recognizes – and benefits from – a political framework. Carl Schmitt had already explained that enemies and friends were equally important; in his book Theory of the Partisan (1963), he developed the idea that guerrillas always need the support of what he calls an “interested third party”, i.e. someone who gives him arms and recognition, in a trend towards legitimization. The Taliban government cannot identify with what Schmitt considered to be partisan, at least not in the traditional meaning of the term. But as jihadists, and despite their lack of legitimacy, the Taliban like to be structured. They are also keen on governance. And this same point calls to mind the parallel important role of both external and internal variables.

Many observers tend to read this crisis as an example of the failure of the United States, something that had also been said in the case of Iran and Russia. But while the Taliban are benefitting from an unprecedented diplomatic backing, the fact is that a country like Pakistan (a US ally, editor’s note) is not interested in a new refugee crisis. Meanwhile, China seeks to establish its geopolitical hegemony, without putting obstacles to the recognition of the Taliban government, and keeping with paying attention to what kind of benefits it can get from the exploitation of Afghanistan’s land and rare earth elements such as lithium. These interested third parties are ending up building the vault stone that supports the arch of recognition of the Taliban government. In other words, Afghanistan is a key political piece on the international board and, as such, so will be the Taliban government.

At the internal level, the Afghan government that had been previously overthrown was unable to organize the country. This was due to a combination of several factors: the lack of democratic culture and tradition, an incapacity to cope with Afghanistan’s ethnic and tribal complexity, but also the disastrous US intervention and its effects, as well as a rampant corruption present at both the internal (administration) and the external levels (foreign troops working in the country). And while Kabul may be far from concentrating all of Afghanistan’s realities, Westerners seem to have been misled because of their wishful thinking and their insistence on political centralization. Everything went on as if their reading of news that talked about the re-opening of cafeterias in Kabul during the last years made them think that democratization was solely about the regularity and westernization of daily life, and therefore, the country was heading on the right path. Obviously, democratization was not only about having public places reopened, nor did democracy per se spread evenly in the whole country. The United States ended up believing in an Afghan fiction that it had created itself. It thought that it had brought stability to the country, while the reality was that it was using drones against a civilian population that would never embrace democracy. It believed that the construction of a country consisted in pouring millions of dollars into a weak government and its army, instead of encouraging culture. Likewise, Washington was also surprised to see that the Taliban had taken control of the country after they had been given notice about the exact day and time of the American withdrawal.

The more the Taliban expanded their sphere of power while they were also recognized by third actors, the more they have been able to consolidate a political entity. The Taliban government may represent everything that we reject from outside, but it persists to exist politically. The truth is that seeking peace or separation of powers is not enough to profess political legitimacy; what makes someone political is their capacity to find allies that recognize them, as well as their capacity to take power… which is what the Taliban ended up obtaining. We may feel that by reading Politics this way, we end up being negative, and we miss important points; still, we need to see these facts as a starting point for Afghanistan.

History shows us that Afghanistan always ended up kicking out the foreigners. And once more, we can see how Afghanistan has been able to challenge Westerners and their traditional – historical – system of thought, and to remind them of their own weakness. Neither the US with four successive Presidents in command, nor the USSR, have been able to impose their wishes on Afghanistan. The Taliban can laugh now, not only because the West has failed ideologically speaking, but also because the latter expressed the limits of their military power and of their international influence – something that we knew anyway. The Taliban may be weak geopolitically speaking, but despite that, they have been able to shake the traditional pillars for International Politics. In reality, with the Taliban, we are becoming more aware of the international landscape and what it is made of, and we also open our eyes to how international relations really works today. The Taliban are now political actors, and therefore they can laugh out loud, knowing that at the same time, they are also the ones that stole their smile from Afghan women. 

This article is an adapted translation of an original op-ed that was published in Spanish on with the title: “La risa política de los talibanes”.

Translation: Elise Petrocci and Catie McQueeny