AAN Papers

Ideology in the Afghan Taliban: A new AAN report


Kherqa-ye Sharif (the shrine of the Holy Cloak) in Kandahar. The cloak belonged to the Prophet Muhammad and was displayed to a crowd by Mullah Omar when he was declared amir ul-mumenin in the spring of 1996.
Kherqa-ye Sharif (the shrine of the Holy Cloak) in Kandahar. The cloak belonged to the Prophet Muhammad and was displayed to a crowd by Mullah Omar when he was declared amir ul-mumenin in the spring of 1996.

The Taleban’s ideology has transformed over the past two decades. While the movement once typified a ‘traditionalistIslam – that is, it sought to articulate and defend a particular concept of Islam found in southern Pashtun villages – it is now, in its insurgency phase, closer to forms of political Islam espoused in the Arab world. This does not mean that the Taleban are less conservative or authoritarian, rather that the objects of their repression and the way they frame their mission have shifted in important ways. In a major new report, AAN guest authors Anand Gopal and Alex Strick van Linschoten examine the changes as well as the continuity in the Taleban’s ideology from the 1980s to the present day. The report is the product of years of interviews, fieldwork in Afghanistan, as well as their time working with the Taliban Sources Project archive, a significant collection of documents relating to the Taleban movement.

Outsiders have been trying to understand the Afghan Taleban for over two decades. Most of the members of the movement’s leadership have avoided interviews and public appearances, and the ongoing conflict has made tracking them down for a wider ethnographic study extremely dangerous. Until recently, this left researchers with few options. Over the past seven years, however, an archival project took shape, culminating in the Taliban Sources Project. It has been tremendously challenging to collect, digitise and translate the Taleban’s written output over the years. The authors’ initial motivation was that it would stimulate new research into the movement’s history. As the authors collected more, they thought it was worth trying to examine the ways in which the Taleban’s ideology had changed over time.

The documents and interviews challenge three conventional notions of Taleban ideology:

  1. That the Taleban’s ideology is a mechanical, literalist interpretation of Islam that has not changed in over thirty years.
  2. That the Taleban’s ideology was born in Pakistani refugee camps, and represents a phenomenon alien to Afghan society.
  3. That the Taleban’s ideology represents a form of Deobandism (or, in some variants, Wahhabism) that stands in opposition to Sufism and other religious tendencies prevalent in Afghan society.

The main conclusions drawn in the paper are that the Afghan Taleban’s ideology is a) the result of a sophisticated internal logic that has changed in subtle but important ways over the years, b) the origins of the Taleban’s ideology lie in the southern Pashtun village, not the Pakistani refugee camp, and 3) their thinking is heavily infused with Sufism.

Recently, however, the Taleban have seen a shift towards a more ‘modern’ type of Islamist reasoning found in groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda. The key transformation in Taleban ideology has been a shift from an emphasis on outward conduct – the knowledge of rites, bodily comportment, a Prophetic lifestyle, prayer techniques and schedules and other aspects of everyday rituals – to behaviour that today focuses more on internal beliefs and loyalty. This shift is strongest in sections of the leadership – while the rank-and-file in some cases may still be espousing traditionalist viewpoints.

Revolutionary Islamism, however, does not necessarily translate as transnational jihad. In fact, what continues to unite all wings of the Afghan Taleban movement is a commitment to Afghanistan’s sovereignty—which is, in effect, a form of nationalism.

Publication date: 29 June 2017

The full report can be downloaded here.

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