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Many observers are looking with hope at the progress in terms of education of Afghan youth and often describe it as a safeguard of democracy during the political transitions ahead. This, however, means painting Afghan youth with an all–too-broad brush and closing eyes to undercurrents that try to undermine further democratisation, says AAN’s Borhan Osman. Not all young Afghans who obtained better education, training and skills over the past decade use their knowledge to help democracy take roots, he writes; many are actually vehemently against democracy and its essential pillar, popular elections. Osman is currently writing a paper on the radicalisation of youth and has, for this dispatch, pulled out some of his findings about this stratum and its ideas about elections.
Last September, in Faizabad, Badakhshan province, local imams and ulama were discussing ways to encourage people to participate in the upcoming elections. After three ulama had delivered their speeches, one young man rose and started arguing against the general notion of the seminar. Five more youth backed him as the debate intensified, and all of a sudden, the clerics found themselves in a tough theological debate over the legitimacy of elections in Islam. The young men called them “deviants” and “government puppets”. Finally, the policemen in charge of protecting the event intervened and arrested three of the men for sabotaging the seminar.
The ‘saboteurs’ turned out to be activists of a pan-Islamist radical group, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), members of which proudly claimed credit for the disturbance (for previous reporting on the group, see here and here). “One of our boys told the truth in the face of the government’s mullahs, saying: Election is a system of kufr [infidelity] and promoting it is haram [religiously prohibited],” one of the local HT leaders told AAN.
In several other provinces the author visited doing radicalisation research last autumn, HT members repeated the same stance about democracy in general and elections in particular. The diatribe against democracy and modern electoral politics is a well-known characteristic of the ideology of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The pan-Islamist group that was founded by a Palestinian jurist mid last century and is active in many Muslim and Western countries, has taken up campaigning in Afghanistan in recent years. It is difficult to say how many members the movement has here, but they have become increasingly visible, with activists systematically preaching against elections; some were arrested for anti-election propaganda in the run up to the 2009 presidential election. Now, however, the party is also making inroads among reasonably educated Afghan youth and students, focusing on recruiting them by campaigning to establish a global caliphate through non-violent means. Its publications are becoming quite ‘fashionable’ among young Afghans who speak about HT ideology, for example, on university campuses.
HT’s stark demonisation of electoral politics might be limited in influence; however, general disbelief in elections among Afghan youth with religious tendencies is wider. These young Afghans are chiefly urban and educated (most rural and less- or un-educated young people tend to be politically inactive). During provincial trips doing radicalisation research, this author found that election and democracy doubters had influence in conservative parts of society particularly in Nangarhar (traditionally a Pashtun hub of learning and politics), Badakhshan (the birthplace of leftist and ethno-nationalist movements, so its recent involvement in Islamic revivalist movements remains an issue for research), Herat (the equivalent of Nangarhar in the west) as well as, to some extent, the capital, Kabul. Rejectionists of democracy span various theological and political strains. One of these currents is Salafism (1) which AAN found strong, although not as an organised group, in Nangarhar province. Running their own madrasas, lecturing in universities and holding massive, free religious courses in towns, Salafis seem to be gradually growing in number among the youth. For them, the only legitimate political system is one based on sharia, not votes. “This system of election is not Islamic. It is not divine,” said one young Salafi leader in Jalalabad. “We don’t prevent people from voting, but those who listen to us will obviously not vote.”
In many cases, scepticism towards elections stems from experiences in the post-Taleban democracy era, which was riddled with war, corruption, manipulation, political exclusion and the rule of warlords and patronage politics. Dissatisfaction with the government seems to have tarnished the reputation of all democratic politics that produced the government, driving people to seek alternatives they perceive as ‘better’. In conservative segments of society, religious groups have often offered as an alternative the form of an Islamic state based on sharia law. This discourse pits an ‘Islamic’ system against a democratic system – in the marred form Afghans experienced during the past decade. In Khost, for example, in many discussions with young people, from school teachers to madrassa tutors and university graduates, the dominant discourse was that elections were un-Islamic because they have come from the West and are not based on Islamic principles of governance. Digging deeper in conversation, however, the author understood that opposition to election was based more on grievances with the politics of the past decade than an authentic and detailed religious argument. These young Afghans appeared more supportive of the Taleban than of the government, recalling grievances they and their communities had with the government and Western forces in recent years, for example, night raids and the killing and detention of villagers. The Taleban themselves have never been supportive of an electoral system – and have not spelled out or developed their general ideas about the country’s future political system, apart from vaguely seeking ‘an Islamic state’.
Additionally, small and loosely connected youth groups with strong Islamic revivalist tendencies can be found. They are against not only elections but every idea and political system they perceive as ‘from the West’. They, like the Hizb ut-Tahrir members, thrive among youths who place great value on education, but they differ in their priorities. They entertain a deep nostalgia for the return to the ‘true Islam’ of the era of the prophet and the few of his immediate successors. They draw inspiration from a wide range of literature, often on radical social and political reform, including works by two of the most prominent Islamist thinkers of the twentieth century, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s ideologue Sayyid Qutb and the founder of Jamaat-e Islami in the Indian subcontinent, Abul A’la Mawdudi. For these youths, democratic elections are part of jahiliyya (paganism) and against Allah’s hakimiyya, the rightful sovereignty and rule of God, although votes can be used to take over a government and then change the ‘evil system’. As one Kabul-based youth, who said that he was unaffiliated with a particular Islamist group, told AAN:
In democracy, people do not only vote to choose their leader, but also to change laws. In Islam, the supreme source of legislation is Allah and men cannot be lawmakers, as in democracy. Also, in electing a leader, the votes of all people regardless of their piety and understanding of religion are considered equal. However, with the majority of people in Muslim societies, impious and ignorant of Islam, we cannot wager on elections to choose the right person. So, democracy is essentially in contradiction with Islam and challenges the sovereignty of Allah.
For some of these revivalists, the ousting of Egypt’s former Islamist president Muhammad Morsi last June represents divine proof of the ungodliness of pursuing democratic means to rule, as put by a young preacher in Herat (more about the reactions of Afghan Islamists to Morsi’s ouster here).
On the other hand, one of the biggest and most disciplined Islamist organisations, Jamiat-e Eslah (the Afghan version of the Muslim Brotherhood), does say it has faith in electoral politics in general; however, it does not support this election, because the country is still ‘occupied’ and war is continuing, making free and fair elections impossible. It has reportedly found vocal sceptics of elections among its young followers after Morsi’s fall.
On the whole, while electoral politics are still received sceptically among the religiously conscious Afghan youth, adamant anti-election rhetoric exists only among a small, but apparently growing minority, like Hizb ut-Tahrir. These sceptics might need time and exposure to democratic experiences better than the ones so far witnessed in Afghanistan to come to terms with democracy. Yet, ideological rejectionists will always have an appeal among those young religious activists who shun anything they perceive as ‘Western’ and continue to entertain their nostalgia for a ‘purely’ Islamic political order.
(1) For a comprehensive history and definition of Salafism, have a look here at this chapter on Salafis in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (Princeton University Press 2013).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020