On the 18th of August this year, just days after the Taliban captured Kabul and overthrew the Ashraf Ghani government, riots broke out in some areas of Afghanistan when Taliban soldiers began pulling down Afghan national flags from buildings, replacing them with their own. These protests took many by surprise, because the Afghan army and anti-Taliban warlords had been easily overpowered by the Islamist group. 

Some observers insist that this group of Taliban are somewhat ‘different’ than the one which ruled the country from 1996 till 2001. But if these are not as harsh as the Taliban of 1996, this is because this is not the Afghanistan of 25 years ago. A whole generation has grown up in Afghanistan since the ‘old Taliban’ were ousted by American forces in 2001. The new generation of young Afghans, at least in the country’s urban areas, have little or no tangible memory of the first Taliban regime. Just horror stories.

In pictures: Afghans mark Independence Day as challenges to Taliban rule rise

Flags are curious symbols. Pieces of cloth, they can evoke powerful emotions. According to T.H. Eriksen and R. Jenkins in their book Flag, Nation and Symbolism in Europe and America, flags are one of the pillars of nationhood. But Eriksen and Jenkins add that flags have been around for centuries, or much before modern nation-states began to emerge from the 18th century onwards.

They write that ancient flags had no association with nations, as such, because there were none. The idea of nation-states based on shared histories, languages, religions, etc., are not more than 250 years old. Therefore, ‘pre-modern’ flags were either identifiers of religions, or of particular religious sects, or of old empires and their armies. 

A lot of thought goes in the formulation of a national flag. There’s a whole field of study today dedicated to researching the history, symbolism and usage of flags. It’s called Vexillology. The colours and symbols used on national flags represent a country’s ‘national values.’ For example, most former communist countries often used the colour red in their flags because red was associated with socialism. They also used symbols such as hammer and sickle or other appliances associated with peasants and/or industrial workers (the proletariat). 

Flags can evoke powerful emotions, as can be seen in the flag protests in Afghanistan. The 2013 version of the Afghan national flag now remains the younger generation’s only connection to the country they grew up in

Meanwhile, the colour blue is prominent in the flags of most Western countries. Some vexillologists understand this as symbolising liberal-democratic values. Most Muslim-majority countries use the colour green because, over the centuries, green has come to symbolise Islam. Yet, it is not the colour green, as such, but the star-and-crescent symbol that is even more common on the flags of Muslim-majority countries. 

There are various theories about why green came to symbolise Islam. According to Martin Hinds in Studies in Early Islamic History, the colours white and black were frequently used on flags by early Islamic empires. The flag of Islam’s first major dynasty, the Umayyad (661-750 CE), was entirely white. The Abbasid Caliphate that emerged after overthrowing the Umayyad, adopted a black flag to differentiate itself from the vanquished Umayyad.

Interestingly, according to the 15th edition of The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, it was the Shia-Ismaili Fatimid caliphate (909-1171CE) that first employed the colour green on a flag of a Muslim empire. Later, the symbol of a lion was added to it.

India’s Mughal empire (1526-1857 CE) also adopted a green flag with the symbol of a golden lion, but added a rising sun to it. Even though, most vexillologists are of the view that, indeed, green flags began to symbolise Islam from the Fatimid period onwards, others find this theory problematic vis-a-vis the green used in flags of Sunni-majority Muslim countries.

They posit that the ‘Islamic green’ in this context can be understood as being derived from the manner in which it is associated with paradise in the Quran. However, according to the Professor of Religion H. Talat Halman, the reason why green can be found on the flags of both Sunni-majority and Shia-majority regions has a more obscure source in the shape of the elusive, ‘immortal’ and mythical figure of one Al-Khizar who, in many Islamic traditions, is explained as ‘The Green One’, who was the righteous servant of God, possessing great wisdom and mystic knowledge.

The star-and-crescent symbol that is more ubiquitous on the flags of Muslim majority countries was first used by the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922 CE), even though it wasn’t adopted until the 18th century.

Interestingly, the star-and-crescent symbol that went on to become common on the flags of most Muslim-majority nation-states, was also once used on flags and coins of pre-Islamic empires in Greece, Rome and Persia. In fact, according to Franz Babinger, in the anthology Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time, the Ottomans adopted the star-and-crescent symbol from the Christian Byzantine empire that the Ottomans vanquished in the 15th century. 

The star-and-crescent often appears on the flags of various modern Muslim nation-states, mostly over green, white or red backgrounds. Other latter-day additions to the flags of Muslim-majority countries were the inscription of the name of Allah, the expression Allahu Akbar (God is great) and the Kalima-i-Tawheed, one of the foremost declarations of belief in Islam. 

Saudi Arabia was the first country to put the kalima on its flag (in 1932). The word Allah was added on the Iranian flag after the 1979 Revolution in Iran, and the expression Allahu Akbar was put on the Iraqi flag during the first Gulf War in 1990.

The Taliban put the kalima on its flag over an entirely white background in 1996. This also became the new Afghan flag. Even though the post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan revived the black, red and green Afghan national flag in 2002, in 2013 it co-opted the kalima on this flag, perhaps to off-set the appeal of the Taliban insurgents. 

In the videos of the flag protests in Afghanistan, one can clearly see that the majority of the protesters were young men and women. After the way the previous Afghan government and military simply withered away, the 2013 version of the Afghan national flag remains the new generation’s only connection to an Afghanistan that they grew up in, but one that is now likely to be turned on its head.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 12th, 2021

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