Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Is the Taleban Insurgency a Holy or an Unholy War? An Afghan-Pakistani ulema debate

Borhan Osman 9 min

The Pakistani ulema were never particularly vocal supporters of the current Taleban’s insurgency in Afghanistan until the Afghan government approached them to talk about peace. Or at least their support had not been expressed publicly before. Then one Pakistani mulla, Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, head of the Pakistan Ulema Council, made such controversial remarks about suicide attacks being permissible inside Afghanistan that he became one of the most talked about people in Afghanistan for a week or two. After that, Ashrafi and other ulema from Pakistan were challenged to a live radio debate with Afghan counterparts to which Afghans listened keenly. Curiously, the ulema from both countries did not particularly use religious language and sounded more like political commentators. AAN’s Borhan Osman listened to the debate and shares his thoughts on it. He writes that it demonstrated how the clergy of both countries – particularly those involved in politics or close to the state – contribute to the very narrative of war.

If we defined the term fatwa – as many wrongly do – as any religiously-wrapped opinion of a Muslim cleric, then we could call an on-air debate that was broadcasted by two popular Afghan radio stations on 30 March a ‘war of the fatwas’. The Ter Shne Asman Lande (‘Under the Blue Sky’) programme, according to the trailers run by Azadi Radio – the station that organised it in conjunction with Mashaal Radio(1) – well in advance, meant the debaters to have an exchange of views about the status of the war in Afghanistan and particularly suicide attacks from the perspective of Sharia. But neither was discussed in a scholarly manner.

The debate came in the wake of controversial remarks about the permissibility of suicide attacks in Afghanistan by Maulana Ashrafi, Islamabad’s handpicked mulla for helping the Afghan ulema to organise a conference about peace. He led the Pakistani ulema delegation in February in a Track II meeting with their Afghan counterparts in which they discussed the role religion might play in ending militancy. Both delegations were given the task by their governments to bring together hundreds of ulema from the two countries as envisioned in the High Peace Council’s ‘Afghan Peace Process Road Map’. (Read this document here and our earlier blog on the fate of the proposed conference here.)

The two sides have since engaged in a rhetorical war of religious edicts. The Afghan government’s hope that it could mobilise the Pakistani ulema’s support for rejecting militancy not only remained unfulfilled, but what followed was the opposite. The very Pakistani ulema appointed by Islamabad to help Afghans in their peace efforts started disseminating their ‘fatwa’ of the permissibility of the strictest tactics of jihad in Afghanistan. And some found a keen audience in spreading their fatwa, thanks to the massive media interest. The media attention continues to help the voices for jihad echo further and live on.

In the Azadi/Mashaal Radio debate, three participants were from the Afghan side:

1. Qazi Muhammad Amin Waqad, head of the Public Outreach Committee of the government’s peace and reconciliation programme, the High Peace Council (HPC). He is also a former deputy head of the Hezb-e Islami faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar;
2. Mawlawi Enayatullah Baligh, a senior member of the government-funded Ulema Council (for an in-depth profile of the council, see our post from last year here). He is also khatib of Kabul’s famous central mosque, Pul-e Kheshti;
3. Mufti Sarfaraz Haqnawaz, who was introduced on the programme as a former senior Taleban representative and one-time senior advisor to Mulla Muhammad Rabbani and also the emirate’s once-special envoy the UAE. However, several Taleban-era officials said he had been an ordinary Taleb and never had this or any other high portfolio.

Three representatives were from the Pakistani side:

1. Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, head of the Pakistan Ulema Council,(2) who spoke in Urdu. He is widely perceived as close to the establishment (for a detailed account of who Ashrafi is, how he became relevant to the Afghan peace affair and of the role of his council, readhere);
2. Maulana Gul Nasib Khan, deputy amir (leader) of the islamist political party Jamiat-e Ulema-e Islami (Fazl) (JUI-F) and former senator;
3. Maulana Sayed Muhammad Yusuf Shah, the provincial chief of Jamiat-e Ulema-e Islami (Sami, a rival party to JUI-F) for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and principal of JUI-S leader Maulana Sami ul-Haq’s Dar ul-Ulum Haqqania madrasa in Akora Khattak, which has functioned as an alma mater for many Taleban leaders.

The debate seems to have attracted a large audience, especially in the Afghan countryside where the most common media outlet is radio. Although the partial language barrier stood in the way of the participants having a fully direct, lively debate (they spoke three different languages – Pashto, Dari and Urdu)(3), the discussion did manage to get across the main points of difference to the audience.

The conflict in the opinions presented by the two sides was not because the two groups had exceptionally different views of the religion or its laws overall. Nor was it a confrontation between opposing sects, schools of thought or even a theoretical conflict over legal interpretations – all of which are common in many parts of the Muslim world. Indeed, all of the panellists from both sides came from the same Deobandi tendency of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence (mazhab) in Sunni Islam. Under other circumstances, such a group of ulema would unanimously agree on the strictest version of Islamic law. Even if they were defining which war was jihad and which not, they would most probably fully agree with each other – except when it comes to the particular case of the ongoing Afghan conflict.

However, the current strife in Afghanistan had pushed these two otherwise likeminded groups worlds apart in their argument. This might not have happened had they been in a meeting purely between ulema, away from the always-heated political arena. But for the politically active ulema and those with links to the two governments, the Taleban’s insurgency is either a holy war or an unholy war depending on where they sit: Kabul or Islamabad. (Read our previous piece on how Pakistani religious actors see the Afghan war here.)

During the two-hour debate, three different lines of argument became apparent. The Afghans highlighted the Pakistani ulema’s supportive view of the Afghan Taleban insurgency and its tactics, portraying them as holding double standards and of being hypocrites for endorsing the Afghan Taleban’s armed struggle while rejecting the Pakistani Taleban’s. The Pakistani panellists stuck to one argument during the whole programme, namely that the US/NATO attacks in Afghanistan and US drone attacks on Pakistan were the source of all evil, and therefore the foreign forces alone should be held responsible for any reaction, whatever that might be. The presenters, for their part, tried to keep the conversation tight around whether the militants’ attacks and tactics were compatible with Islam and if the Pakistani ulema were playing a double-game. But every party stuck to its argument and would jump away from any question that threatened it.

This not-moving-from-the-goalmouth approach, plus the more politicised and, at some points, radicalised nature of the discussion made the debate feel less like a religious discussion than a confrontation between political commentators. Few words were said about the Taleban’s suicide attacks and targeting of civilians.
Indeed, only Ashrafi touched upon the issue of suicide attacks. Although he denied the Tolo TV report quoting him as saying suicide attacks were permissible in Afghanistan, he did not clearly spell out that he is opposed to this tactical means in all cases. Instead he said only that he had already issued a fatwa against such tactics in 2002 and added he was only speaking about attacks on the awam (the common people) or the innocent. He said at one point: ‘I have never told Tolo TV that suicide attacks against common Afghans or attacks on properties are permissible . . . There was no mention of suicide attacks’ [emphasis added].

The status of the Taleban’s war in Afghanistan and Pakistan consumed most of the time, although again it was not discussed in religious language. All three Pakistani panellists argued that US and NATO forces occupied Afghanistan and that they were to blame for all the militancy in the two countries. As Yusuf Shah put it:

As for killing civilians and the insurgency, we have to be mindful of the NATO attacks in Afghanistan and the drone attacks [in Pakistan]. What you mention is a reaction to the action of US and NATO troops. A similar reaction took place to the Soviet invasion earlier. The 40,000 killed [in Pakistan in a decade] are due to the coming of US and NATO to the region, and mainly because of drones. It is because of the partnership Pakistan holds with the US. It was only after this partnership [in the war on ‘terror’], that the insurgency started. Madrasas existed for a long time before that, but there were no bombings or suicide attacks.

To counter this recurring argument, the Afghan panellists emphasised that the invasion of Afghanistan happened with the very cooperation of Pakistan and therefore if militant attacks were considered jihad in Afghanistan they should also be in Pakistan. ‘NATO intervened in Afghanistan for chasing Osama bin Laden who was deemed responsible for 9/11 and this intervention was facilitated with Pakistan’s support and agreement. The Taleban’s government was toppled with cooperation of Pakistan,’ Waqad said. Haqnawaz followed the argument, by saying ironically, ‘So, if a suicide bomber in Afghanistan is rewarded with one paradise for carrying out an attack, he must be rewarded seven paradises [for carrying out the attack] in Pakistan.’

Maulana Gul Nasib’s reaction to this was that the reasons for violence in the two countries were different. He said the fact that foreign troops were on Afghan soil and hunting the Taleban made the Taleban’s fight legitimate. ‘The ulema in Pakistan believe in a political struggle and in votes and democratic traditions,’ said Nasib. ‘In other parts of the Muslim world, where tyrannical forces use violence against the opposition such as Palestine and Afghanistan, the ulema believe that as [in the case of Afghanistan] NATO uses guns and the opposition reacts with guns. Pakistan is different from Afghanistan and each country has its own conditions.’

As the foreign forces issue came into the discussion, Ashrafi tried to bring in Waqad to compare the fight against the Soviets and the current fight of the Taleban – bearing in mind that Waqad was a well-known figure of Hezb-e Islami. ‘Mulla Omar’s government was toppled by infidels whom he had not attacked. He fights for freedom . . . If you find justifications for America’s invasion today, then the Soviet’s invasion yesterday was also justified. Why did you fight the Soviets, but not the US?’

This analogy left the Afghan ulema without a straightforward answer. Even government mullas, it seems, find it difficult to rebuke the Taleban for attacking foreign forces or the Afghan government, its officials and security forces. Instead they sidestepped the question and turned back to the Taleban’s killing of innocents. Waqad, for example, said: ‘We did not comment on the armed struggle by the Taleban against the foreign forces. … But we protest the killing of innocent people and the destruction of bridges and schools both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.’

At this point, Baligh came down hard, arguing that Afghans were fighting against ‘American conspiracies’ and comparing religious characteristics as well as the history of the two countries, concluding from it that Afghanistan fared better than any other Muslim country and Pakistanis were in no state to issue fatwas about Afghanistan issues. He said Pakistan’s support of the Taleban’s jihad was a bitter irony. He lambasted fatwas of jihad given by mullas sitting in a ‘less Islamic’ country and led by a ‘far less pious Muslim leader’ against a country which is ‘most Islamic and its leader the most pious’ in the Muslim world. Then, it came to labelling: ‘There are a limited number of ulema in Pakistan playing in hands of the intelligence,’ Baligh said.

But after Ashrafi left the programme during the last half of the debate (ostensibly, for a meeting), the two sides did agree on one point: the ulema the Afghan delegation met in February to discuss the agenda of an Afghan-Pakistani ulema conference were not the real representatives of Pakistani clergy. (Ashrafi had led the Pakistani ulema delegation during that meeting. Read here an earlier AAN blog on the proposed conference.) The two Pashto-speaking Pakistani ulema from the two namesake Jamiat-e Ulema-e Islam said their parties held the real clerical power when it came to the Afghan peace effort. Waqad agreed and said the HPC was now trying to reach out to them.

Religious institutions, and ulema as an important part of them, are one of the most influential elements of civil society in deeply religious countries, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. The sharp polarisation of the ulemas’ views about militancy, arguably the biggest problem that both countries equally suffer from, should serve as a lesson for the civil society institutions that work on a cross-national level. They can fail to play a constructive role – and even have a destructive role – if they opt for uncritically following the official line. The same could be said about other influential traditional structures that become part of civil society, such as jirgas, as well as the media.

The debate by Azadi and Mashaal Radio turned from a discussion of different religious viewpoints on militancy in the two countries into an exchange of politically charged mutual labelling and sloganeering. Polarised along political and nationalistic lines, some panellists even made remarks legitimising violence against the other country. It sounded as if, in a reversal of the debate’s original intent, this legitimation of violence became its purpose.

(1) The radio stations, Azadi and Mashaal, are two of the most listened to and furthest-reaching in the two countries – the latter only among the Pashtuns of Pakistan. Azadi broadcasts for Afghanistan in Pashto and Dari; Mashaal broadcasts only in Pashto for audiences mainly in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the tribal areas, aiming to counter extremist propaganda channels there. The two stations are members of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) funded by the US Congress.

(2) The Pakistan Ulema Council, according to its chairman Ashrafi, consists of 26,000 ulema, mainly Deobandis, who run thousands of madrassas.

(3) There was no real-time interpretation among the different language-speakers not all of whom understood each other’s language. The co-presenters would summarise what the panellist had just said to the other person to whom the comment had mainly been addressed. It seems only Ashrafi got over-the-phone real-time interpretation.

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Taleban Pakistan Ulema

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