Political Landscape

AAN Paper: Afghanistan’s new generation of Islamic activists


Young religious activists demonstrate against the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law in Kabul in May 2013. Photo: social media

Since the fall of the Taleban, Afghanistan has gone through a great deal of changes. The efforts to establish a democratic and pluralistic political system, the hugely improved access to the rest of the world through media and telecommunication, the emergence of a middle class as a result of a growing economy and the influx of aid money, and the fast increase in education and literacy rates have all worked to reshape Afghan society and politics. One result of these changes is a greater pluralism in what has been largely a conservative country. However, the different socio-political forces emerging do not always coexist without problems. That means Afghanistan is likely to face complicated debates in the future on – among other things – what it means to be an Islamic country where people have differing opinions. One of the often-overlooked outcomes of the changes of the past 14 years is the emergence of a new politically active Islamist trend that appeals to segments of Afghanistan’s educated youth. To better understand this trend, a new report by AAN’s Borhan Osman, based on extensive fieldwork in nine provinces, explores the ideologies, activities and appeal of the four most influential of the emerging Islamist groups.

(Find the link for the download of the full paper at the bottom of the text.)

The debate in the aftermath of the violent murder of Farkhunda last March at a Kabul shrine brought to the surface a rift among educated, particularly young, urbanites. The young woman was killed in the centre of Kabul by people who believed she had burned the Quran, a charge which turned out to be fabricated by a ‘mullah’ serving as guardian of the shrine. He spread the false allegation after the two argued over the religious legitimacy of charms and amulets. In public reactions that followed the killing, two trends appeared as the most vocal. The first was those critical of the clergy’s (and other religious actors’) performance for what they saw as driving people to violence and extremism. The second trend was of those supporting the role of religious actors and casting their critics as hostile to religion. Both the first group (Islamic activists, especially the young and educated who tend to be organised), and the second, secular activists with a focus on human rights and freedoms poured into streets after the killing. They also turned to the media, the first in defence of muqqadasat (the sacred) and the second calling for justice for Farkhunda and for Afghanistan to be rid of superstitions and extremism. That clash (decoded further here) possibly foreshadows a future divide in which each tries to shape the future of the country in opposition to the other. The aftermath of the killing highlighted both an assertive religious current trying to preserve and boost its role in society and politics, and a more secular current critical of the prominent role of religious actors.

Moreover, Farkhunda was herself one of the ‘new Islamic activists’, someone who endeavoured to spread what she saw as the true version of Islam in Afghan society. She was a member of a generation of young women and men dedicated to a religious or politico-religious cause. Leaning towards an apolitical Salafi school, Farkhunda seems to have had no explicit political membership to any group, but her Islamic learning led her to challenge a religious professional (the attendant of a shrine) on his Islamic learning and beliefs. Farkhunda’s dispute with the guardian of the shrine shows that the young and better-educated Islamic activists are potentially not only at odds with their secular-minded cohorts, but also with parts of the traditional religious establishment.

Historically, Islamic activism had twice undergone an ill-famed experiment with power, once by the mujahedin and next by the Taleban. Both mobilised the masses and came to power in the name of religion. This failed experiment could have practically discredited ‘political Islam’ in Afghanistan. However, those past legacies have not rendered Islamism irrelevant. There seems to be a renewed appeal among segments of the Afghan youth for Islamic activism. And in many ways it looks like this new generation is bent on “out-Islamising” the old Islamists, by relating to ideology more ardently.

AAN’s latest report, “Beyond Jihad and Traditionalism: Afghanistan’s new generation of Islamic activists,” explores the ideologies, activities and appeal of four significant Islamic trends that appear to have a growing following among Afghanistan’s youth. When the research began in 2013, it was inspired by a key concern that the Islamic trends which had been, thus far, largely non-violent, were being overlooked because of the focus on security concerns and the fight against the Taleban insurgency. These days, the hype about the Syria and Iraq-based Islamic State (IS) further complicates and obscures the Islamic political landscape in Afghanistan. It has become even more important not to let immediate concerns over the conflict absorb so much attention, that other social and political undercurrents, which are likely to play a significant role in Afghanistan’s future politics, are overlooked.

The research has focused on four radical Islamist trends. These are: Hizb ut-Tahrir, which seeks a caliphate that encompasses the whole Muslim world and uses anti-nation state, clandestine political activism; Jamiat-e Eslah, the Afghan affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood which operates as a well-organised and grassroots-oriented organisation; the younger generation of Hezb-e Islami, which is seeking to revive the ideological cause of the party it inherited from the anti-Soviet jihad era; and a re-energised Salafism, which seems to become increasingly accepted as part of religious orthodoxy.

AAN’s research found that the young Afghans who join these groups have generally enjoyed modern and higher education (some in the West). A considerable number of them come from the middle class and modern professions. They appear to have strong passion and high levels of discipline, and are actively engaging in political discourse and reacting to current affairs. The variation in ideology means that there is a variation of ‘tastes’ on offer, allowing the Islamist trend to accommodate audiences with different types of Islamic leanings. The groups have adopted effective methods of recruitment and mobilisation, such as demonstrations, rallies, electronic media and, for three of the groups, a well-defined and well-followed membership process. They are politically active, socially connected and technologically media savvy.

While Afghanistan’s previous Islamist experiences, such as the Taleban, mujahedin and the earliest nucleus of modern Afghan Islamism, Nohzat-e Islami (Islamic movement) of the 1960-70s, has had an undisputable impact on the present Islamic trends, the new generation of Islamic activists are remarkably different from their predecessors. The Nohzat-e Islami was mostly made up of urban elite while the current Islamic activists, although many of them may be urban, seek to actively engage with the grass roots in both rural and urban areas. The mujahedin functioned as patronage-based factions, while the current Islamists seem, in the first place, bound by ideology. The Taleban was more a military movement with its method of change being mainly coercive, while the current Islamic groups mostly act as civil political entities and their method of change is working through existing political spaces. The adoption of peaceful means and civic engagement potentially represents a step forward from the last two Islamic forces that ruled the country. While both the Taleban and mujahedin used mainly aggressive methods to change the political system, the current Islamic activists have, so far, focused on using all the conventional means of a modern political movement, from demonstrations and conferences to mass media and female representation.

These Islamic activist organisations, to varying degrees and in different ways, seek to change the country’s political system, its legislation and the scope of its (current) civil liberties in order to make the state and its laws more compatible with Islam. It has been this struggle for ‘Islamisation-from-within’ that the non-insurgent religious groups have used to justify their presence and activities under a government they do not consider (fully) Islamic. How these groups have been operating and how they have been building their support bases are some of the issues studied in the AAN report.

The full report can be downloaded here.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape