As the leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Britain meet in London today to discuss the peace process, AAN looks at an earlier plan to present a common Pakistan/Afghan face against the Taleban over the issue of suicide attacks. In November, Islamabad and Kabul announced they would be holding an ulama conference in January in which Islamic scholars would issue a fatwa ruling that suicide attacks are illegal under Islam. But as AAN analyst Borhan Osman reports, the conference has quietly slipped into oblivion, amid threats by the Taleban and accusations by both Pakistan and Afghanistan that the other has been playing a double game. (*)
Suicide attacks used to be viewed by Afghans as alien to their martial culture. But since 2003, when the first suicide attack took place in Afghanistan(1), the Taleban have embraced this tactic of attacking the enemy, and even regulated it in their layha (code of conduct). The tactic has revolutionised warfare in Afghanistan, with the Taleban insurgency now wage its most spectacular attacks using suicide squads. All this has happened without stirring any serious debate among Afghan ulama. Now the Afghan government wants to challenge the Taleban on its own turf – through the declarations of ulama.
In its quest to extinguish the insurgency, the Afghan government has tried to mobilise any popular actor it thought might have influence on the conflict, from tribal elders to the youth and from politicians to poets.(2) Since such mobilisations have mostly been given the title of jirgas, one can coin the term jirgaland for a country which has, in the past decade, seen this concept expanded beyond its traditional meaning as a gathering of elders. Since its early years, the Afghan government has particularly tried to instrumentalise religious leaders to counter the Taleban’s religious rhetoric, though this has frequently been ineffective (read an AAN blog on this here).
In January this year, Afghanistan had expected to host an ‘ulama jirga’ of Afghan and Pakistani Islamic scholars who, in turn, might have decided to convene a second conference with multinational ulama participation. The aim of the conference was to discredit the Taleban by challenging their discourse on the legality of suicide attacks. The ulama would invoke the very Islamic law on which the insurgency depends for justifying its war.
This is its second attempt to hold an ulama conference. The first had been planned to be held in Saudi Arabia in 2011 with the participation of scholars from across the Islamic world but it never happened. The High Peace Council (HPC) told AAN the Saudi meeting was initially discussed, but never turned into a concrete plan and then was ‘forgotten’ due to ‘problems’ which the HPC members left vague.
The government’s new venture into confronting the insurgents on the controversial topic of suicide attacks was inspired by a strongly worded speech by the noted former mujahedin leader and al-Azhar trained scholar, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf. During commemorations for the assassinated United Front commander, Ahmad Shah Massud, last September, Sayyaf denounced suicide attacks as antithetical to Islam and challenged those who disagreed to debate with him. In his well-articulated and widely-resonated diatribe against the Taleban’s fighting tactics, Sayyaf told an applauding audience which was broadcast live on the national TV that:
It is well proved in Sharia with no doubt and I challenge all the ulama of the ummah to bring forward a single reason [to consider] suicide acts [attacks] permissible… Those who consider wearing suicide vest as allowed in Sharia, a mufti would have worn one, or at least, the son of a mufti would have worn one, or his grandson. I swear by Allah and I again swear by Allah that all muftis know that the suicide act is haram (translation by author).
Sayyaf’s speech encouraged the government to seek a more authoritative religious verdict on suicide attacks.(3) When Afghanistan’s High Peace Council chairman Salahuddin Rabbani visited Islamabad in November last year, the much-hyped peace-related trip culminated in a joint statement which said in its article 7 that:
The two sides agreed to jointly work for holding an Ulema Conference which will include religious scholars from Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Islamic countries. The conference could either be held in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan or any other Islamic country. The Ulema Conference would address the issue of rising militancy and suicide attacks in the name of religion and the defamation of our glorious and peaceful religion Islam due to its unjustified linkage with terrorism (the full statement is available here).
Although the statement mentions the participation of ulama from other Islamic countries, HPC officials told AAN the conference would host only Afghan and Pakistani religious scholars at this stage. In a later stage, according to HPC deputy chair, Ataullah Ludin, the (yet-to-be-established) executive board of the joint conference would discuss holding another gathering with participation from other Islamic countries. That conference, which remains completely tentative at present, would draw ulama from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and India, the latter home to the grand madrassa of Deoband.
Pakistan’s support for the initiative was reiterated by its foreign minister and prime minister two weeks later, during a follow-up visit by the Afghan foreign minister Zalmai Rassul.
According to the HPC officials AAN spoke to, Pakistan had agreed to facilitate a trip of an Afghan delegation to discuss details of the joint conference with a host delegation which would be made up of ulama. But with the January deadline already over, even preliminary steps have not been taken. Each side blames the other for the delay and doubts the other’s intentions. The Pakistani press, citing ‘dependable sources’, recently reported that the delay had been caused by disagreement over the nomination of the five-member delegation of Pakistani ulama who would help the visiting Afghan delegation organise the conference. A report by The News said the five Pakistani ulama proposed by Afghanistan were categorically rejected by both the Pakistani government and religious parties because they were ‘likely to take sides with the Afghan and American establishment.’ An unnamed (Pakistani) source is quoted saying Kabul and its western allies wanted to ‘bulldoze the conference’ by trying to keep the Afghan Taleban out of the peace process.
The HPC was unwilling to discuss the allegation that Pakistan holds it responsible for the delay. Qiamuddin Kashaf, head of the Ulama Council who is also spokesman for the HPC and a member of the commission tasked with organising the conference, told AAN: ‘Our delegation has not been extended invitations due to some problems in Pakistan.’ He refused to elaborate on what ‘problems’ might mean. However, the deputy HPC chair, Ataullah Ludin, explained that the problems were related to domestic political turbulence in pre-election Pakistan: ‘We even have not determined the delegation members. The conference is now delayed indefinitely due to the internal problems of Pakistan, such as the election coming up there.’ These two HPC officials, as well as a third one, Aminuddin Muzafari, secretary of the council, declined to give more information or face-to-face interviews.
So, what is really holding back the much hoped for event? Afghan officials in Kabul involved in the peace efforts speaking informally believe the reason for the uncertain fate of the joint conference lies mainly in Pakistan’s double-speak. However, this is the same accusation Pakistan makes about Afghanistan, according to The News report. A relevant Afghan official privy to the affair who did not want to be named told AAN he learnt soon after Rabbani’s visit that, ‘the Pakistani government has in private told the main religious groups not to help the process.’ AAN tried to get the official response of the Pakistani government on the issue, but multiple attempts with the foreign ministry yielded no results.
Another likely reason for deterring the initiative is a veiled warning issued by the Taleban to any prospective participant. In late December, the Taleban warned any ulama attending the conference that they would be seen as supporters of the US ‘occupation’ of Afghanistan, that they would be ‘accountable to Allah’ about it and that the gathering was an ‘American intrigue’.(4)
The Taleban’s fervently-worded statement was followed by an even stronger declaration published on its website and attributed to ‘a gathering of 300 rightful ulama’ of Afghanistan(5) which implied the Taleban would not let the conference go ahead undisturbed. In the words of political commentator and former Taleban official Hassan Haqyar, the Taleban’s warning actually amounted to a threat against the participants’ lives. He told AAN: ‘Since the Taleban consider themselves the good students of the ulama, they don’t want to send direct threats as they do to politicians and others. They don’t want to look impolite and disrespectful to religious leaders, so they pussyfooted around their message.’
The Taleban’s statement was, according to The News’ report, followed by meetings by representatives of the movement with senior members of Pakistan’s influential religious parties during which the latter were warned against attending a conference which lacks Taleban representation. The News said that, based on these meetings, Pakistan’s religious parties unanimously supported the idea of including the Afghan Taleban, or ulama from within the movement, in the proposed conference.
The Islamabad-based journalist, Tahir Khan, who follows Afghanistan-related developments told AAN the Taleban’s threat did have an impact on some of Pakistan’s key religio-political leaders who, in turn, are known for their tremendous influence on the Taleban. He said: ‘Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman and Maulana Sami-ul Haq did not give a positive [response] when they were contacted by Afghan diplomats in Islamabad.’ The two maulanas, leaders of their eponymous Jamiat-i-Ulama-i-Islam parties, are known for their longstanding public support for the Taleban, both during its emergence and resurgence periods. Both operate series of madrassas where most of the Taleban leaders studied. Sami’s Haqqania Madrasa in Akora Khattak is particularly known as the educational hub of many of the Taleban in 1980 and 1990s, something which made him known as the spiritual father of the Taleban. Because of this linkage, when President Karzai (February 2012) and Salahuddin Rabbani (November 2012) visited Pakistan to enlist Pakistan’s support for the peace process, the two maulanas were at the core of their meeting schedules (read here). Maulana Sami’s meeting with President Karzai grabbed special media attention as if he was a senior Taleban representative.
Kabul would have been trying hard to get the two maulanas, or at least their trusted representatives, on board the joint ulama conference since it seeks to gather together religious leaders who have influence on the Taleban, rather than run-of-the-mill ulama. But the Pakistani press quoted Sami as saying he lacked belief in a conference that left out the Taleban themselves. ‘In a veiled reference to the Afghan Taliban,’ reported the Express Tribune, ‘Haq said the “main part of the conflict” should also be invited to the conference. “There are many ulama in Afghanistan… if you invite scholars from the whole world but do not accommodate the Afghan ulama’s opinion, then the conference will not produce any result.”’ The paper also reported that the Afghan ambassador in Islamabad, Omar Daudzai, had met Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman, but did not report any the details of any outcome.
Having on board Pakistan’s influential ulama in the joint conference and Islamic scholars from India’s Deoband, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in any subsequent conference, would have made any fatwa they issue of huge potential impact on the Taleban and the general public in Afghanistan. According to Habibullah Fawzi, head of the foreign relations committee of the HPC, if Pakistan did not collaborate in holding the joint gathering, Afghanistan would try to get international scholars to its own conference.
As can be noticed from the assertions of HPC members, Kabul’s hope for the joint conference has waned, despite some Pakistani press reporting a rescheduling of the event (the date still remains undecided though). The HPC’s Qasimyar told AAN in response to this news report that there was no schedule on the horizon yet.
The delay has created deep doubts among Afghan officials about Pakistan’s commitment towards Afghan peace efforts. Pakistan’s agreement to cooperate over holding the conference had been one of the two main achievements of the HPC’s visit to Pakistan in November and was enthusiastically spoken about, including by the wider diplomatic community and many foreign media who detected a ‘change of mood’ in Pakistan (see for example a Reuters article here). The other achievement was the release of Taleban prisoners held in Pakistani jails, a move aimed at helping the peace talks. This one, too, did not have a tangible impact as particularly the Afghan side could not track where the freed Taleban have ended up. The way the prisoners were freed is not seen by Kabul as effective to peace efforts as expected. This has all gone a long way to dissipate the upbeat mood of the Afghan government and its allies in the wake of Rabbani’s visit. It seems now that the slow pace of reconciliation-related developments represents the wasting of another winter, which because of the lull in fighting is seen as the best season for making efforts for peace.
If Pakistan’s ambiguity regarding the ulama conference and the ineffectiveness of its prisoner release are taken as indications of its attitude towards Afghanistan’s peace efforts, then these must be seen as a setback for the HPC’s roadmap for peace (see our blog commenting on it here; the full text of the leaked document is here).(6) Pakistan, after all, is located at the heart of the roadmap. Having it sliding back from the position of reliable partner would mean re-writing the map.
All this means one must take with a pinch of salt any enthusiastic declarations coming out of meetings between Presidents Karzai and Zardari and Prime Minister Cameron. Promising action is usually less easy than actually carrying it out.
(*) Amendment 5 February 2013: Since the blog was published, presidents Karzai and Zardari have announced, after their meeting in London, that they ‘looked forward to a joint conference of Afghan and Pakistani Ulema in early March’. They presidents did not give any details how the problems outlined in this blog will be overcome.
(1) The first suicide attack reported by the media was on 7 June 2003 near the Kabul International Airport when a bus carrying ISAF troops was hit by an explosive-laden taxi. The bombing killed four German soldiers and wounded 29 others. This attack was one of the two reported in 2003. Suicide attacks gradually increased until they had become prevalent by 2006. Now, they are a fully integrated part of the insurgency.
(2) To name some of the major peace jirgas and gatherings:
* the Joint Afghanistan-Pakistan Peace Jirga (2007)
* the Joint Peace Poetry Session (with participation of Afghan and Pakistani poets) (2009)
* the Consultative Peace Jirga (2010)
* the Youth Peace Jirga (2012)
(3) Not only the government, but even international diplomats, such as the European Union ambassador to Afghanistan Vygaudas Ušackas, also proposed organising an ulama conference. According to the Ariana TV website, in his speech on the death anniversary of Burhanuddin Rabbani (two weeks after Sayyaf’s assertion) he said that Rabbani had told him of a plan to call such a conference. Ušackas is quoted on the website as saying: ‘In my view, a big conference of ulama from the Islamic world should be convened to prove suicide attacks are alien to Islam.’
(4) The Taleban statement addressed the perspective ulama participants as follows:
You understand that participation in this gathering in the time of defeat is not only support to America but also great betrayal to the Mujahidin who are your spiritual offspring…If God forbid, some of the scholars … participate in the gathering.., it is not far away that the history will give its ruling against them. They will be accountable to Allah Almighty and the people will consider them from amongst the scholars of evil.
(5) ‘The declaration by the great meeting of the rightful ulama of the Afghanistan regarding the rumours about the so-called ulama conference in Kabul’ was published on 10 January on the Taleban website. No such a meeting has been reported by independent media, nor it could be confirmed through any other sources. The Taleban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, told AAN that the meeting took place inside Afghanistan in a Taleban-controlled area. He said the security situation did not allow the meeting to be made public when it was convening and that only the meeting’s declaration was sent to the Taleban. The declaration’s language and content look very much to be in conformance with the Taleban’s official contents. The declaration likens those attending the planned government-organised ulama conference to an ill-famed body of clerics who served the communist regime of Babrak Karmal and Najibullah in 1980s. It warns the ulama that, by attending the conference, they would have served the ‘enemies of Islam’ and would stand as part of the ulama who distorted Islam (read the full declaration in Pashto here).
(6) Although the HPC’s Peace Process Roadmap to 2015 had already envisioned some sort of cooperation among religious leaders of the two countries as well as from the Muslim world, it differs somewhat from the perspective ulama conference in terms of agenda. The roadmap describes the aim of such cooperation as ‘to counter the influence of illegitimate centres of fatwa that promote hatred, extremism and violence in both countries (Afghanistan and Pakistan)’.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020