Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

Afghanistan’s vain attempts at wooing Pakistani Islamists for peace

Borhan Osman 10 min

The recent assertion by Pakistan’s chief cleric, Tahir Ashrafi, about the permissibility of Taleban’s suicide attacks was completely the opposite of what Afghanistan had been looking for. Indeed, Kabul has had difficulties in mobilising religious leaders to speak against suicide attacks. A long sought conference of ulama from Afghanistan and Pakistan aimed at delegitimising militancy has never happened due to disagreements between Afghan and Pakistani clerics. Pakistan’s support is at the heart of Kabul’s intended roadmap for peace, but assertions such as that of Tahir Ashrafi clearly go against the Kabul plan. So who is Ashrafi and how much can Afghanistan hope to secure Pakistan’s support when it comes to religious backing? Borhan Osman has talked to Ashrafi and the leaders of two main Pakistani religious parties to gauge the opinion of these key religious-political actors regarding war and peace in Afghanistan. He concludes that Afghanistan is hopelessly trying to use the Taleban’s longstanding friends against the Taleban.


Anti-Pakistan sentiments were boiling across Afghanistan last weekend when the chairman of Pakistan’s ulama council was quoted saying that suicide attacks were lawful in Afghanistan, but not in Pakistan. Officials in Kabul termed his words as ridiculous and treacherous, and the press and social media went further to label him a kafir (“infidel”, Arman-e Melli Daily) and his rhetoric as “satanic” (state-run Bakhtar News Agency). Some media then showed optimism stating that reactions to the fatwa was a sign of an increasing consensus among Afghans on how to deal with Pakistan. Even president Karzai commented on the issue, asking for the blacklisting of such people ‘who incite to terrorism’.

Tahir Ashrafi, the chairman of the Pakistan Ulama Council (PUC), is the very man who sat with his Afghan counterpart Qiamuddin Kashaf for 16 hours last month to discuss a long-awaited joint ulama conference, which was planned to declare suicide bombings as antithetical to the rules of war in Islam.  According to Maulawi Shahzada Shahid, an MP and a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, Ashrafi had agreed to attend the conference in Kabul, as did other senior Pakistani ulama. Shahid told AAN the Pakistani ulama agreed on the three-point details of a conference to be held in Kabul in March 2013.

Ashrafi, however, told AAN that he never agreed on anything with the Afghan clerics’ delegation. He said:

‘We agreed on nothing ultimately. The Afghan ulama initially agreed with us on an agenda, which was to include the Taleban and not to say anything against them or anything in support of the Afghan government. But then they turned back from the agreement. They expected us to say that Karzai is an Islamic ruler and mullah Omar is a rebel. We are not ready to say that. The [Afghan] ulama delegation actually didn’t have a clear agenda for this conference. They only said it was about peace. I told them that peace is a big word. If you really want peace, why don’t you invite the Taleban?’

Who is Tahir Ashrafi?  A former member of Jamiat Ulema-e Islam of Sami ul-Haq (JUI-S), Ashrafi has since 2008 led the Pakistani Ulama Council (PUC), the creation of which dates back to the 1980s. He is described in a Pakistani magazine report as “a passionate jihadi” who in the 1980s, while still a teenager, took part in the Afghan jihad with Harkat ul-Jihad al-Islami, a Pakistani Jihadi group affiliated with JUI and active in Afghanistan as well as, later, in Kashmir. He is a graduate of one of Pakistan’s major madrassas of the Deobandi school of thought, Jamia Ashrafia in Lahore, and is currently running his own madrassa there.

Ashrafi is known in Pakistan for being supportive of the Afghan Taleban and even of Al-Qaeda. In 2007, he bestowed the religious title of Saifullah or Sword of Allah on Osama bin Laden in response to a British knighthood for the author of the novel The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie.

However, when it comes to militancy and violence in Pakistan, he is seen as an advocate of moderation and tolerance, in a country where the clergy is deeply divided along sectarian and political lines. Inside the PUC, which is mainly made up of Deobandis, he also represents Shia and Barelvi ulama’s interests. This seems to be a break with his past. According to a Friday Times’ report, Ashrafi remained “the information secretary of the defunct Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan and been close to Malik Ishaq, the founder of the defunct Lashkar-e-Jhangvi”.(1) In recent years, however, he appeared frequently on TV channels, especially the state TV, to speak against sectarian attacks and violence in Pakistan.

Ashrafi condemned the assassinations of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the Pakistani cabinet, in 2011; both politicians were outspoken critics of the country’s blasphemy laws and their killing had been justified by several Pakistani religious leaders. His stance on such explosively controversial issues is at odds with the common tendency among the mainstream clerics. In the wake of Taseer’s killing, Ashrafi wrote in an article: ‘I still and shall always hold that Salmaan Taseer said nothing wrong and that he has been a true Muslim.’ He also led a campaign in support of Rimshah Masih, a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, and hailed her as a “daughter of the nation”. He similarly publicly denounced the killing of anti-polio workers by the Pakistani Taleban last year. This apparently made him a favoured cleric in the eyes of the government. In January 2012, he was appointed by President Asif Zardari as a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology, a highly influential constitutional body of over a dozen senior ulama that advises the government to ensure that no laws passed that are in contradiction to Islam. It seems to have been this favourable view of Ashrafi in government circles, that led the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to appoint him in February 2013 as head of the Pakistani delegation of ulama in the discussions with their Afghan peers regarding the ulama conference. It is also this closeness to the Pakistani government that leads many officials in Kabul to believe that there is a direct link between Ashrafi’s latest remarks and the official stance of Islamabad. President Karzai in a joint press conference with visiting NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen this week hinted as much, stating that Ashrafi’s assertion confirms the suspicions that Afghanistan had had since long ago about Pakistan’s lack of sincerity towards the peace process. Rasmussen also condemned the mullah’s declarations. Earlier, Afghanistan’s National Security Council had put the issue on top of its agenda.

But such a high-level reaction to remarks from a cleric who is known for being pro-Taleban, in a country where not only most of the clerics are by default supportive of the Taleban, but even secular politicians such as Imran Khan endorse the Taleban’s fight as jihad, may seem out of proportion. Kabul might have drawn a parallel between the Pakistan Ulama Council and its Afghan counterpart, and therefore reacted that way. But the two bodies, despite being homonymous, are not equivalent with each other. The Afghan ulama council is on the government payroll, created by a presidential decree, meets the president regularly and is often used as an instrument to garner a religious rubber-stamp to the government’s decisions (read AAN’s extensive writing on it here). The Pakistani ulama council, on the other hand, does not enjoy, at least on a publicly visible level, any of these official connections, although, to many, the stances taken by its chairman on religiously inflammatory issues such as the blasphemy case echo the line of the government.(2)

But it was not only Ashrafi who refused to help the Afghan government to hold the much anticipated ulama conference. Other religious-political actors known to have influence on the Taleban did the same. Senior members of the two main religious parties of Pakistan, Jamaat-e Islami (JI) and Jamiat-e Ulama-e Islam of Fazl-ur-Rahman (JUI-F), whose support for peace efforts has since long been sought by the Afghan government, similarly said that any genuine effort at peace should directly involve both the foreign forces ‘who occupied Afghanistan’ and the Taleban, and that they could not help Karzai ‘who is installed by the Americans’ under the name of a peace process. Deputy chief of Jamaat-e Islami Siraj ul-Haq told AAN: ‘As long as there are NATO forces in Afghanistan, none of our ulama would take part in such a conference. Their participation would justify Afghanistan’s occupation.’ For the JUI-F’s part, its provincial chief Senator Maulana Muhammad Khan Shirani told AAN:

‘It wasn’t a mullahs’ fatwa that initiated the war and therefore it will not end with a fatwa either. We are not the owners of this problem [war] and therefore do not own the solution. War needs money and weapons. Those who provide the means of war, they have full control of starting it and ending it. Public meetings will not solve the problem especially if you don’t have the authority. I mean if you are not part of it.’ (Read an earlier AAN blog on the tug-of-war over the ulama conference with extensive background on the issue here.)

Due to this lack of cooperation from Pakistan’s religious actors, the ulama conference, an important part of the Pakistan-dependent peace efforts, has now been cancelled. The meeting was first enshrined in the High Peace Council’s peace roadmap, then in November 2012 it was officially agreed by the ministers of foreign affairs of the two countries to hold it in January 2013. No progress was made by that deadline. Again, in the trilateral summit at Chequers hosted by the British prime minister in early February 2013, the importance of the conference was reiterated and it was rescheduled for March 2013. According to the HPC member Shahzada Shahid, the HPC is now just trying to have a meeting of Afghan ulama and later one with clerics from different Muslim nations. ‘But it is just an attempt, nothing is in the shape of a plan,’ Shahid said.

With Afghanistan’s efforts to enlist the support of religious actors in Pakistan for peace ending on a gloomy note, one question keeps popping up: Why did the Pakistani ulama and members of the Islamic parties fail the ulama conference, despite all the emphasis put on it by Afghanistan and the repeated, apparent agreement of the Pakistani government?

A deeper look into the dominant view of the Afghan war and the Kabul government among Pakistani religious circles can help to find an answer. The view that foreign forces in Afghanistan are occupiers, with Karzai only as a figurehead, and that the Taleban are fighting a freedom fight or jihad appears to be rife among the religious parties and the ulama of Pakistan. Among them, Ashrafi goes to the furthest extent calling Afghanistan Dar ul-Harb or “territory of war”, which means its residents don’t have a treaty of non-aggression or peace with Muslims.(3)

From his five-star Serena hotel room in Islamabad, Ashrafi told AAN:

‘I think when infidels attack your country, why you don’t call it Dar al-harb… At this stage, as Americans are there [in Afghanistan], it is Dar al-harb… America came to Afghanistan and toppled an Islamic government. So, those fighting the Americans are freedom fighters and are doing jihad. This is not only my word. There is a consensus among all the ulama of Muslim countries on this. ’

JI’s Siraj ul-Haq also maintans that the view of his party on the war in Afghanistan is clear and that they consider the presence of foreign forces there an occupation. He said:

‘As long as there are foreign troops in Afghanistan, we call it a struggle for freedom and jihad. The foreign troops bomb and kill innocent people. And [president] Karzai has no authority to stop it. So, it is a freedom fight and a war for Islam… Karzai is installed by the Americans. The original parties of the war are the Taleban and Hezb-e Islami on one hand and Nato forces on the other hand.’

JUI’s Shirani considers the fight that is going on in Afghanistan part of a broader Western conspiracy, seeking a new enemy which is Islam. He said that the Taleban’s unawareness of global games, their naïvety and their love of Islam was misused by the world powers to pave way for a war on Islam under the name of war on terror. He said the invasion of Afghanistan by Western troops left the legal-Islamic status of Afghanistan lying between that of Dar al-harb and of Dar al-Islam. Shirani, who also chairs the Islamic Ideology Council, told AAN:

‘It [Afghanistan] is not Dar ul-Islam (Territory of Islam), but it is also difficult to call it Dar al-harb. However, if an area is Dar al-harb, but the majority of its residents are Muslims, it can be called Dar al-Muslimeen (the territory of Muslims). It means that not all the provisions valid for Dar al-harb are applied to it. The Islamic provisions for such people would rather be slightly different.’ 

Another well-known Islamist leader of Pakistan, Sami ul-Haq, who heads his own split-off of JUI (JUI-S) and is dubbed the spiritual father of the Taleban – as his madrasa, Dar al-Ulum Haqqania, functioned as an “alma mater” for many Taleban leaders – sees no differences between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the US-led invasion in 2001. He claims that both are occupying forces, and that those fighting against them are carrying out a jihad. In an interview with the Jamestown Foundation in 2007 he said:

‘When Russia left, the United States committed the same type of aggression. So, the situation is the same. One infidel force replaced another. No difference at all. Whether it is Russia or America, it is a jihad…[S]uicide bombing is an awakening…[T]his is a new and unbeatable discovery which some Muslim youth have found as an answer to the cruelties and damages being inflicted on the Muslim ummah.’

This view of the Afghan war among the influential religious actors of Pakistan has existed since a long time, and has remained almost unchanged in the past decade.  Their views on peace are also consistent with that. So whenever they are approached by the Afghan government, their stance on negotiations or any peace effort will reflect their general opinion.(4) Their rhetoric on the peace process and negotiations is almost the same as that of the Taleban. On the basis of this situation on the ground, Afghanistan’s efforts to solicit the Pakistani Islamists – who wield a potentially huge influence on the Taleban – to change their longstanding views are likely to be in vain. But it seems the Afghan government has realised this very late. The Pakistani Islamists will not even help to facilitate direct talks between the Taleban and Kabul (5), let alone contribute to a campaign that would condemn the Taleban and its tactics. Peace on their terms would mean peace on the terms of the Taleban, something to which the Afghan government has not agreed yet.


(1) Both organisations – one officially banned and now operating under the name Ahl-e Sunnat wa al-Jamaat, while Lashkar-e Jhangvi has been outlawed since 2001 – wage a brutal war against the Pakistani Shia communities. Lashkar-e Jhangvi has stated it carried out the bomb attacks that killed around 200 Hazaras in Quetta on 10 January and 16 February this year. A faction of it has also been implicated in a large-scale bomb attack in a Shia district of Karachi on 3 March this year.

(2) The Pakistan ulama council, according to Ashrafi, consists of 26,000 ulama. He boasts that it is the ulama body under the least government influence in the whole Muslim world. According to Ashrafi, the affiliated ulama run 6,000 madrassas out of the more than 20,000 madrassas in the country.

(3) Dar al-harb and Dar al-Islam are two much-disputed concepts of international relations in Islamic jurisprudence. Definition of these terms has been affected by historical changes and different interpretations according to the various schools of thoughts within Islam. To bring these interpretations to a common point, Dar al-harb can be defined as a territory, state or country which is in open war with Muslims or where Muslims are persecuted for their faith. A resident or citizen of such land is called harbi, someone whose blood and property is not protected. Muslims are prescribed to migrate from Dar al-harb. The opposite of this is Dar al-Islam, which means a territory or country where an Islamic government rules according to Islamic laws. There is also an in-between region: Dar al-kufr(territory of infidelity). The latter is a country or territory where the Islamic law does not prevail and the majority of residents are non-Muslims. Dar ul-Muslimeen (territory of Muslims) can be defined as a country where the majority of residents are Muslims, but the government does not recognise Islamic law as the state law. Since these divisions and terms are not mentioned in the Quran or in the Hadith, the two primary sources of Islamic law, Muslim experts of Islamic jurisprudence have largely differed over their definition. It still remains open to ijtihad, or the research of the ulama, to derive the correct rules from the mentioned scriptures.

(4) There are exceptions: when the HPC sat with the Pakistani ulama delegation last month, one cleric, Mufti Mohiuddin Abu Hurairah, head of a Karachi-based NGO Sawt ul-Islam, initially said they would go to Kabul for the conference and would readily take part in condemning suicide attacks. However, he reverted from his stance later by sending a letter to the HPC to the effect that he would not attend and neither would other ulama.

(5) JUI’s leader Maulana Fazl ur-Rehman’s reported trip to Doha to talk to the Taleban was denied by both the Taleban and Fazl ur-Rahman, although sources close to JUI had confirmed a meeting had taken place between the two sides of ‘a personal and informal type’.


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