Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

The Challenge of Effectiveness: ‘Pro-Peace’ Ulama in Afghanistan

S Reza Kazemi 7 min

A number of ulama, or religious scholars, from Afghanistan and outside, recently renewed their resolve to promote Islam as a religion of ‘moderation, tolerance, peace and cooperation’ and to work towards a ‘just and sustainable peace’ in Afghanistan. They are part of what is called the ‘Project for Islamic Co-operation for a Peaceful Future in Afghanistan’. As part of Afghanistan’s ‘civil society’ (1), the ulama can serve as another hope for providing an added impetus to the apparently stalled peace negotiations. As follow-up to a recent AAN blog on the controversial youth peace jirga(2), AAN’s S. Reza Kazemi, provides background information and addresses the question if the ulama can actually do what they said, because of questions over their internal unity, the gradual decline of their influence at least in major urban centres, and their potential instrumentalisation for political purposes.

The ‘Project for Islamic Co-operation for a Peaceful Future in Afghanistan’(3) is, according to its organisers, run by ‘imams, civil society leaders, world renown [sic] Islamic scholars’ ‘[from] Afghanistan and from around the world’ (see the project’s booklet here, p 1). Muhammad Farid Hamidi, an Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) commissioner and member of the project’s advisory board(4), told AAN that the aims of the project are to familiarise the Afghan ulama with their counterparts from around the world and explore what the ulama and the broader civil society can do for promoting peace-building and a culture of tolerance and non-violence in Afghanistan. Although Hamidi emphasised that this is an ‘apolitical’ initiative, it may also have potential implications for official peace negotiations.
So far two conferences have been held as part of the project: one from 30 November to 2 December 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey and the other from 19 to 21 June 2012 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The participants and speakers in the two conferences have included Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlo, secretary-general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Rashad Hussain, US president Barack Obama’s special envoy to the OIC, Ján Kubiš, UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Salahuddin Rabbani, High Peace Council (HPC) chair, Muhammad Massum Stanekzai, HPC chief executive officer, Yusuf Niazi, minister of hajj and endowment, and diplomats and ulama from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UK. Internationally, the participating ulama include Usama al-Abd, president of Al-Azhar University, Mustafa Çağrici, mufti of Istanbul, Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, founder of Minhaj-ul-Quran International(5), and As’ad Said Ali, vice-chair of Indonesia’s Nahdhatul Ulama (Ulama Movement) (for more information, read a statement on the OIC website here), among others; nationally, the ulama, who are also part of the project’s advisory board(4), comprise Mustafa Barakzai, member of the Ulama Council and of the Afghan Supreme Court, Shahzada Shahed, member of parliament and of the HPC, Atta-ul-Rahman Salim, director of the Islamic Research Centre and former deputy minister of hajj and endowment, and Muhammad Asef Mesbah, Islamic scholar and imam.

The participants released an eight-point resolution in the first conference (see in the booklet here, pp 2-3) and a 12-point resolution in the second conference (read the English, Dari, and Pashto versions of the latest resolution here). In these documents, they advocate for a ‘just and sustainable peace’ in Afghanistan; condemn religious interpretations justifying or encouraging violence ‘particularly against civilians, religious leaders, places of worship, and cultural heritage in Afghanistan and beyond’; promote specific Islamic teachings as a point of reference for ‘moderation, tolerance, peace and cooperation’; commit themselves to a ‘responsible and active’ participation for peace in Afghanistan; state that there have been ‘mistakes and shortfalls’ in Afghanistan’s peace process that require addressing ‘legitimate grievances’ non-violently and reforming the HPC ‘current membership’ (they gave no reason for this, however); and urge the ulama and Muslim communities worldwide, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to support the Afghan peace process.

Particularly remarkable is that the project regards ‘peace-building’ as a ‘cultural strategy’ and a ‘collective and universal attitude’ and not a ‘political or military tactic’, countering the dominant existing politico-military views on ensuring peace in Afghanistan (for more information, read the presentation by Neamatullah Nojumi, one of the project’s organisers, whose research constitutes the basis for the project, here).

The question is how effective the members of the project, particularly theulama from Afghanistan, are in doing what they said and in implementing what they decided. At least three issues stand out. A first issue is about the internal unity and changing social status of the ulama. Although theulama have historically been involved in making political peace happen in Afghanistan, they currently are internally disunited (e.g. the serious and basic divide between moderate ulama and extremist ones) and face the challenge of post-2001 socioeconomic developments in Afghanistan. The latter particularly refers to the widening generational gap between the ulamaand the growing urban population, especially the youth who constitute around 70 per cent of Afghanistan’s over 30 million population (see the UN report here). The latter factor has weakened the influence of the ulama at least in major urban centres; in rural areas, and especially in outlying villages, they still command huge influence.

Besides, it is not currently clear how the participating ulama will counter their extremist colleagues who say that Afghanistan is a country attacked by an ‘invading force’ and justify armed jehad against the Karzai-led ‘puppet’ government and whoever backs it. These arguments are not only used by the Taleban on their website Voice of Jihad but also by mullas and imams not linked to the armed opposition in some Friday congregational prayer sermons. It is also unclear if and how the project’s participating ulama will relate to Afghanistan’s existing ulama councils (nationwide, with Sunni and Shia participation) and former jehadi leaders, who are themselves heavyweight ulama in the country.

It seems that the project and its participating ulama are either overly optimistic about the situation in Afghanistan or have to initially overlook their own internal differences (among participating ulama from India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, for example) and ignore those with the more extremist ulama to make their dialogue and co-operation possible.

In this regard, Mehreen Farooq, research fellow at the World Organisation for Resource Development and Education (WORDE), and Waleed Ziad, PhD candidate at Yale University, who work with ulama from around the world in peace-building efforts and who support the project, wrote to AAN about the various challenges the ulama face, despite their important role in community- and peace-building. According to them, the Afghan ulama are not ‘as well-networked’ as their counterparts are in other Muslim countries (e.g. Indonesia), theological differences are likely to make ‘communication and consensus-building between Deobandi, Salafi or Shia scholars very challenging’. Furthermore, the Afghan religious establishment lacks ‘institutional capacity’, and people are unaware about currents efforts by theulama in peace-building.

A second issue is how serious the Afghan government and its international supporters take this project. The project is clearly marked by a dominant presence of pro-government individuals and institutions (not unlike the High Peace Council) and a meaningful absence of the armed opposition groups. In the second conference, for example, minister Niazi referred to the historical and traditional role and status of ulama in Muslim communities and emphasized that ‘Islam has [a] solution to every problem’, including putting an end to war and violence. HPC chair Rabbani talked about a ‘stable and dignified peace’ backed particularly by civil society groups, including the ulama and the youth. He went on to say that ‘peace is only achievable if it involves an inclusive process based on people’s mobilisation and support’. UN special envoy Kubiš stated that ‘terrible actions, such as suicide bombings and targeted killings, happen in the name of Islam’ and that the ulama have a major role to play to counter these religiously based justifications for violence and to provide a ‘right’ orientation to Afghanistan’s predominantly young population. HPC chief executive officer Stanekzai said, ‘Peace is not possible only by the state. It needs a social context. That social context is created by you [ulama]’. He rejected ‘excuses’ that Afghanistan has been occupied by foreigners, that the Afghan national sovereignty has been violated, that foreigners are in Afghanistan for its natural resources, and that Afghanistan is a centre of international terrorism and extremism; he, instead, argued that peace is beneficial for ‘all’ and that we need to ‘reform’ the regime rather than ‘change it every day’.

It appears that the Afghan government and its international backers are interested to seize every opportunity to have their agendas endorsed by various groups of people, including the ulama. This certainly risks the manipulation of the initiative for furthering pro-government agendas. The armed opposition was and still is simply absent to make its voice, if any, heard.

There is also a last question over the future the ulama generally see for post-2014 Afghanistan, especially for democracy, human rights and citizens’ freedoms. Earlier this year, the Afghan Ulama Council released guidelines, according to which ‘women are subordinate to men, should not mix in work or education and must always have a male guardian when they travel’. Recently, when a woman was publicly executed in Parwan province, not far from Kabul, causing protests in Kabul (an AAN blog on this will follow), the Ulama Council was late to at least respond to it (6). A conference participant, who has worked both with the ulama and the UN in Afghanistan, told AAN that the Afghan ulama are generally very ‘pragmatic’ in the sense that they switch sides between the government and the armed opposition depending on their contextual interests.

All in all, although the ulama can use their social influence to contribute to peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, they also face internal challenges, such as inter-ulama divide on theological and other grounds, and external challenges, such as distance with at least the growing urban and young population and the risk of governmental manipulation. It seems that theulama’s peace initiative, as with the peace initiative by the youth, will have a long way to go before it can go beyond pure rhetoric and provide an added momentum to peace, both informal and formal, in Afghanistan. Otherwise, it may become another temporary, transient repetition of other peace ‘projects’.

(1) It is not clear, at least in Afghanistan, whether or not the ulama are part of ‘civil society’. The fledgling Afghan ‘civil society’ and the ulama have commonly disagreed and clashed on many areas, particularly on democracy and human rights and freedoms. The project’s proponents, however, regard the ulama and the religious establishment they belong to as part of ‘civil society’ in Afghanistan.

(2) Read the blog here.

(3) ‘Project’ is an interesting term as compared with the other buzzword ‘process’ or ‘prosa’ in Dari and Pashto, which are widely used in today’s Afghan public parlance. In Afghanistan, the dominant public perception of the term ‘project’ is one of a temporary, transient phenomenon.

(4) The project’s advisory board is composed of 13 representatives from various institutions from the Afghan government and ‘civil society’. Some of them include Mustafa Barakzai, member of the Ulama Council and of the Afghan Supreme Court, Shahzada Shahed, MP and member of the High Peace Council (HPC), Atta-ul-Rahman Salim, director of the Islamic Research Centre and former deputy minister of hajj and endowment, Munir Morowat, head of the Centre for Interpretation and Hadith of the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan (ASA), Abdulbadeah Sayad, professor of Sharia School of Kabul University, Mohammad Ashraf Rasuli, senior advisor to president Karzai, Muhammad Asef Mesbah, Islamic scholar and imam, Nafisa Kabuli, member of the Afghan Supreme Court and of the Afghanistan Bar Association, Muhammad Omar Sharifi, director of the Kabul office of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies (AIAS), Saeed Niazi, director of the Civil Society Development Centre, and Neamatullah Nojumi, senior fellow at the Centre for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) of George Mason University (GMU), among others.

(5) Founded by Qadri in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1981, Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MQI) is a worldwide Islamic movement in over 90 countries that intends to ‘promote and propagate true Islamic teachings and philosophy, revive Islamic sciences, and for the moral and spiritual uplift of Muslim Umma, dissatisfied with the existing religious institutions and organizations and their narrow-minded approach’.

(6) In a recent related development, on 9 July 2012, Qiyamuddin Kashaf, head of Afghanistan’s Ulama Council, said that Saudi Arabia had decided to hold a conference of ulama from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia itself (excluding Iran) to ‘propose Islamic ways to warring sides to end violence in Afghanistan’ and that the Afghan Ulama Council supports such moves (source: BBC Monitoring on Afghanistan).



Government Jirga Ulama