A number of rallies in support of Egypt’s ousted president, Muhammad Mursi, and in solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood recently brought together Afghanistan’s diverse Islamist groups in rare unanimity of opinion. Kabul has not yet seen such a mobilisation, and with such diverse participation, caused by a political issue in another country. Pro- and anti-government Islamist forces were united in assuming a global conspiracy to prevent Islamists from taking power in the Muslim world, including Afghanistan. AAN’s Borhan Osman looks into the reasons for this mobilisation. He also provides background on the evolution of the Islamist movement in Afghanistan, introduces the current discourse around the idea of “democracy for Muslim countries” and explores how this could negatively affect the political transformation ahead in Afghanistan.
Thousands of members of over 20 political parties (most of them former mujahedin factions and religious organisations) gathered on 23 August 2013 in a public demonstration in Kabul and chanted, “Mursi, Mursi”, in support of Egypt’s president who was toppled by the military on 3 July 2013. This was the first time that such a large number of different groups had gathered in reaction to developments in another Muslim country. Prior to that, these groups had held at least three other events in Kabul,(1) but the final rally was the most dramatic one, with a symbolic funeral prayer for the protestors killed during the Egyptian military’s crackdown. Earlier, the Taleban and the Hezb-e Islami faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (usually known by the acronym HIG) had issued statements condemning Egypt’s generals and secular forces as well as their “tacit supporters” in the West.
After the symbolic prayer rituals, around 2,500 participants stayed on at the vast open grounds of the Eidgah Mosque, opposite the national stadium, brandishing colourful banners and poster-sized photos of the ousted Egyptian president with Dari, Pashto and Arabic captions reading “champion of freedom”. They listened for two hours to fiery speeches (see a video for example here). One of the organisers on the podium then asked the participants to raise four fingers – a sign used across the Middle East in solidarity with the Mursi supporters(2) – and to stand “well-disciplined in front of the cameras that will carry your message into the world”.
The protestors also held up placards and sported stickers with the four-fingered symbol on their shirts. The speakers, in addition to announcing solidarity with the protestors and stressing unity among the Muslims of the world, lashed out at the Egyptian Army, the secularists (a term used in Dari and Pashto by Islamists to refer to those who oppose an “Islamic state”) and the “hypocrisy of the West” for “condoning” the coup and the subsequent massacre when the army dismantled the Muslim Brotherhood’s protest camps. They urged the UN to restore the “people’s will” and “democracy” in Egypt.
This line was also taken by Ahmad Zia Massud, leader of the opposition National Front of Afghanistan and deputy leader of the Jamiat-e Islami party, during a press conference organised by the same group of parties that staged the Eidgah rally on 21 August 2013. Massud said there was a pattern evolving according to which the West “does not want to see democracy established in Islamic countries…. It fails to support democracies in which elections lead to the victory of religious parties”. He mentioned the victory of the Front of Islamic Salvation (FIS) in the first round of the 1991 Algeria elections against which a military coup was organised, causing a civil war that went on for decades. A mujahedin-era prime minister, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, went further to blame “the Americans and Zionists of conspiring with the Egyptian generals to topple Mursi”. In an interview with AAN, he said the Egyptian military trained by the United States worked together with the country’s secularists, who, too, “were close allies of the West”, to bring down an Islamic government long desired by Egyptians. “They did [the coup and massacre] with support from the United States and other vanguards of democracy in the West”, Ahmadzai said.
Apart from Massud’s Jamiat and Ahmadzai’s Hezb-e Eqtedar-e Islami, the most notable parties participating in the 23 August 2013 event were Dawat-e Islami led by Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf (Ahmadzai had once been its deputy leader), the officially registered wing of Hezb-e Islami (a large group split from HIG and led by Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, the minister of economy), another HIG splinter group led by presidential advisor, Wahidullah Sabawun, and Jamiat-e Islah, an emerging youth movement with an ideology close to that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whose aims are to inculcate Islamic values in the society and islamise the government through a bottom-up approach.(3) Hezb-e Islami and Jamiat-e Islah contributed the larger numbers of the younger participants. From among the party leaders, Arghandiwal, Sabawun and Ahmadzai were personally present as was Enayatullah Baligh, an advisor to President Karzai on religious affairs who is also a key member of the Ulema Council.
These groups appear to be reacting in a populist manner to an issue far from Afghanistan’s political reality. However, there is an understandable, but often unnoted, relevance of the coup in Egypt for them: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was the victim of the coup, was the model from which the Afghan Islamic movement took its inspiration. The ideological roots of most of the participating groups can be traced to the ikhwani (Brothers) as they are called in Afghanistan. If the coup hadn’t involved the Brotherhood, it would have been unlikely to see such a wide uproar about events outside Afghanistan.
Some leading figures of the early Afghan Islamist circles – who started to organise against the increasing role of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan as early as the 1960s and became stronger in reaction to the leftist movement at Kabul University – studied at the influential al-Azhar University in Cairo. There, they came into contact with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This included Ghulam Muhammad Niazi, who became a professor at Kabul University’s Sharia Faculty and is considered the mentor of the founding members of the Muslim Youth Organisation (Sazman-e Jawanan-e Musalman) from which Jamiat-e Islami and Hezb-e Islami later emerged. The founder of Jamiat-e Islami, the late Burhanuddin Rabbani, and Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf had also studied at al-Azhar in the late 1960s. Rabbani translated the works of the Brotherhood’s most influential theoretician, Sayyid Qutb, into Persian. Many of the next generation of ikhwani-inspired leaders, including Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Massud, were also among those active in student politics in the 1970s.)
Today, the spiritual link with Egypt’s Brotherhood is most visible in Jamiat-e Islah, which can be called a neo-ikhwani organisation. Recruiting mostly among the youth and banking on its increasing radicalisation, Jamiat-e Islah shuns the “old” ikhwanis as deviants and has very successfully presented itself as the heir and true representative of the Muslim Brotherhood in Afghanistan. It, therefore, was the loudest pro-Mursi voice and was heavily present at all rallies held in relation to the Egyptian coup, not only in Kabul, but also in a number of provinces, such as Herat, Balkh, Takhar and Nangarhar (see here the page of reports of activities on Islah’s website).
While the Afghan Islamists’ rallies, in the first place, indicated a revived link to the “mother organisation” in Egypt, their attacks on the West as alleged instigators of the military coup became the second point of focus. The pattern is, however, a familiar one – the West is being accused of causing every problem, from the economic crisis to the conflicts in the Muslim World. This conspiracy-oriented interpretation of the problems has been spread for a long time by some Islamist groups in order to find a scapegoat that could be easily demonised. It is this kind of thinking that has shaped the hatred of the West that is prevalent today among Afghan Islamists.
However, not all the anti-Western feelings expressed in relation to the Egyptian coup carry the same message. In the case of Jamiat’s Ahmad Zia Massud, it can be best explained as demagogy, given that he and his party make good use of the Western-backed, pluralistic political order set up over a decade ago in Afghanistan. But for Ahmadzai’s party and more prominently Jamiat-e Islah, who have declined to endorse the current political order, their blaming of the West can serve as a good tool for hiding the failure of their paradigm of an “Islamic democracy”. The neo-ikhwanis’ constant emphasis on election as the mean to power makes them evidently distinct from the militant and fundamentalist Islamist groups who refuse the very concept of democracy. For model movements, they look to the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Jamaat-e Islami of Pakistan, both of which participate in elections. However, when things go wrong with the model “Islamic democracies”, like the recent one in Egypt, there is this strong feeling that the West, represented by the United States, has made a mockery of democracy. By saying this, the implication is that if democracy looks discredited now, it is because of the West’s “double standards” towards it. Islah and Ahmadzai’s disapproval of the current Afghan political system is, however, not because it entails democracy, but on account of it being brought about with an international military intervention, which they sometimes refer to as occupation.
Nevertheless, the coup in Egypt has awoken again the dormant appeal in Afghanistan for a trans-national Islamist current that once inspired Afghan factions in the heat of jihad against the Soviet occupation, four decades ago.
The expressions of sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood were, however, not confined to the parties once strongly inspired by its ideology. The Taleban have also showed their solidarity with the Egyptian Islamists. In its official statement about the coup in Egypt, the Taleban condemned “the hypocrisy of the West and of the seculars” who use terms such as “people’s will to reach their specific goals and deceive the people.”
On pro-Taleban websites, in-depth analysis appeared on how to determine the future political system of Afghanistan. One article on the Taleban’s website, titled “Lessons for Islamists from Mursi’s unjust fall”, presents arguments against an engagement of Islamists in electoral politics. The writer, who goes by a pseudonym but is reportedly an influential Taleban ideologue, says that even when disregarding the controversy around elections from a Sharia point of view, it has become unrealistic for Islamist movements “to reach the goal of [establishing] an Islamic state through a democratic struggle”. The writer supports the argument with two “facts”. The first is the perceived corruption of Muslim societies by “a century of Western imperialism” that makes them choose a “non-Islamic” person over an “Islamic” candidate in elections. Secondly, the writer concludes that those Islamist movements that stuck to democratic processes were doomed to bloody failure; he refers to the coups against Islamists who won democratic elections in Algeria in 1991, in Turkey in 1997 and in Egypt today. He writes that they should change their approach to use “force, dawah (missionary work) and revolution” instead, in order to reach the goal of establishing an Islamic system.
Other articles on the Taleban’s website draw close parallels between Egypt and Afghanistan specifically with both having “American-trained puppet armies whose main job is to curb Islamic movements and Muslim people”. Another website which is popular with the Taleban also put up a special page dedicated to Egypt. The writers call on the Taleban’s negotiators in Qatar not to be fooled by the drama of peace talks, “which is aimed at discrediting the holy jihadist movement”. Other articles call on the world’s Islamists to resort to jihad as the only way to Islamic state in the Muslim World. This is a type of rhetoric which might seem more typical of al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups, for the Afghan Taleban have often tried in recent years not to sound like advocates of an unending “holy war” against the West (see here for difference of the rhetoric and ideologies of the Taleban and al-Qaeda). Rather, they focused their commitment on waging jihad against the Afghan government and its foreign backers.
This kind of debate about Islamist groups’ approaches to power has never before been part of the Taleban’s public discourse. Particularly surprising is the Taleban’s turn towards sympathy with the Brotherhood. After all, it was the “old” ikhwanis – the mujahedin – who helped oust the Taleban twelve years ago. The two Islamist currents have been at odds with each other since the Taleban turned against the “old” mujahedin, accusing them of being un-Islamic when they failed to govern and rebuild the country after the victory over the Soviet occupation forces and the regime supported by them. However, the Taleban’s knocking of the coup and the West can be interpreted as more than just a simple expression of sympathy for the Brotherhood. The movement wants to cash in on the failures of political Islam, so it can show that the militant option, or at least a mix of the two, works better.
Another militant group that has joined the outrage over the dethroning of the Brotherhood’s government in Egypt is Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami. His group is the only old ikhwani faction that is still leading a militant struggle against the incumbent government. (There is an active political party registered under the same name, Hezb-e Islami, which has ostensibly broken away from Hekmatyar’s faction, but many Afghans doubt this split is genuine.) In a tone similar to that of the Taleban, HIG said in its statement that the coup against Mursi was part of orchestrated efforts by “remnants of the former Egyptian regime and the Americans” to make the Islamists fail: “From the day Egypt’s Islamist parties came to victory, …pillars of the American empire rattled, and efforts by the United States and its allies started to … create hurdles for Mursi’s government…. The United States… does not want to see the formation of an Islamic government according to the people’s will.”
The on-going discourse that brings together the militant strand of Islamists that are fighting the current political order in Afghanistan and the Brotherhood-inspired political Islamists that are part of that order, while scrutinising democracy, is not just surprising. It also risks subverting the envisioned transition of Afghanistan to peace and democracy at the critical juncture when Afghans themselves are expected to run the country based on a political system, the core of which is supposed to be democracy. It shows that major incidents happening to democracies elsewhere in the Muslim World are followed closely by key Afghan political actors and might discourage some of the Islamists among them from adopting democracy as the tool to achieve their political aims.
The concept of democracy has already become controversial with many Afghans, as early hopes of peace and welfare have faded. Its application to the country in the post-2001 period has come, in the eyes of many, to signify an era of increased corruption, a widening economic divide and seemingly unending conflict. This has provided political leaders the means and arguments to manipulate especially an uneducated rural population, but also a new generation of frustrated and radicalising urban youth, sowing doubts about the ultimate goals of the West and even the overall value of democracy, which is openly contested now by some as alien to Afghan and Islamic culture.(4)
The addition of new conspiracy theories to developments like the coup in Egypt, and its reading as “democracy is not going to work for Muslims” by some with enormous influence on the Afghan discourse, might further tarnish the credibility of democracy. The worst thing is that the militants are offering a “promising” alternative: they advise their political counterparts who failed in Egypt that the bullet, not the ballot, is the right way to power. This argument perhaps looks more valid to them now than ever before.
(1) The four events of solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood included a demonstration organised by the youth branch of Jamiat-e Islah, Nehad-e Jawanan-e Musalman (abbreviated to Najm) on 5 July 2013. Another was a conference organised jointly by Jamiat-e Islah and a loose coalition of Islamist personalities, called The National Unity Front Against Foreign Bases in Afghanistan, on 28 July 2013. The third event was a press conference with 20 political parties – most of them former jihadi factions – and religious organisations at the Intercontinental Hotel on 21 August 2013, which was followed by a funeral in absentia and rally by the same participating groups on 23 August 2013 at Eidgah Mosque.
(2) The sign featuring four fingers raised and the thumb drawn across the palm is being called “R4bia” (pronounced simply as “Rabia”). It has been flashed across the Middle East implying solidarity with the supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mursi who were massacred at the Rabia al-Adawiya protest camp in July 2013. Rabia al-Adawiya was a famous eighth-century Muslim poet and mystic. But “Rabia” also means “fourth” in Arabic, and the hand gesture of four fingers raised is being used to display solidarity with protesters. The Turkish-based website which sprang up after the crackdown, R4bia.com, says,
“R4BIA is a symbol of freedom
R4BIA is the birth of a new movement for freedom and justice
R4BIA is the birth of a new world
R4BIA is the return of Muslims to world stage”.
(3) One key difference between Jamiat-e Islah and the mujahedin parties is the rigorous process of recruiting members, which – in Jamiat-e Islah’s case – requires attending, for years, weekly classes of ideological training organised in small cells under a member’s supervision. Membership also requires strict vetting of the perspective recruits for their thinking, manners and obedience to the ideas and leaders of the organisation. While Jamiat-e Islah, at this stage, does not engage in public political participation, the other jihadi factions are officially registered as political parties, whose membership is easily obtainable. Islah’s take on the mujahedin parties is that they have rushed to power so quickly that they compromised the principle of building Islamic values as the core aim and that they have been corrupted by their leaders’ political ambitions. For them, this makes the mujahedin groups deviants from the Islamic movement’s line.
(4) About (mis)perceptions and interpretations of democracy among Afghans, read this paper from AREU, pp 9-12.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020