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Decree against Afghan Taliban

December 17, 2017

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THE strength of the Afghan Taliban mainly rests with their territorial control in Afghanistan and a ‘religious’ narrative of the struggle against the ‘foreign occupation’ of Afghanistan. Kabul believes they can be delegitimised if Pakistani religious scholars issue a fatwa, or religious decree, against the Taliban’s armed resistance.

Former president Hamid Karzai tried hard to pursue the Pakistani government and religious scholars from KP, including Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Maulana Samiul Haq, but all attempts proved futile. However, Kabul is still confident as army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa reportedly promised the Afghan government in October that he would try to obtain a fatwa from Pakistani religious scholars.

To what extent a fatwa can affect a resistance movement such as that of the Afghan Taliban is debatable; it is not certain who will issue and support such a decree, as Pakistani religious scholars have in many instances declared the Afghan Taliban’s resistance a jihad. It is no secret that most leaders of the Afghan Taliban studied in Pakistan’s madressahs and that sectarian affinity still exists between the two. Nevertheless, as part of a Pakistani media delegation that recently visited Kabul, this writer felt that Afghan officials were hopeful that an anti-Taliban fatwa would come from Pakistan soon.

As Pakistan’s media is busy covering internal political crisis, Afghanistan is rarely discussed at public forums; the Foreign Office and ISPR have also not issued any substantive statement on the issue of Afghans anticipating a fatwa. In connection with the army chief’s visit to Kabul in October, the media only reported on the establishment of high-level contacts between the two countries and formation of working groups to increase military, intelligence and economic cooperation, apart from evolving a joint mechanism for the return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. These were positive developments and will, indeed, help reduce the trust deficit between the two countries. Nevertheless, the reported fatwa component has not been highlighted in the media.

To what extent can a fatwa affect the resistance movement of the Afghan Taliban?

Generally, religious circles also know little about such commitments; only senior scholars have been consulted on the issue. Some insider accounts allude to the growing influence of Iran and India on the Taliban in describing how Pakistan’s image and interests are at stake in the changing regional scenario. An option to influence the Afghan Taliban in support of peaceful political reconciliation was also discussed during Gen Bajwa’s visit. But the Afghan Taliban are resisting against compromising their position that talks with Kabul will be possible only after the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Issuing a fatwa against the Afghan Taliban movement on the grounds that Afghanistan is an Islamic democratic republic like Pakistan and armed resistance is forbidden against Muslim rulers would be challenging for Pakistani ulema who did not issue such a fatwa, in clear terms, until recently when in May this year, 31 prominent scholars from all Muslim schools of thought issued a unanimous decree condemning extremism and terrorism. This first-time categorical religious decree defined jihad as being the purview of the state and disallowed the use of force to compel obedience to Islamic laws.

The fatwa came at the conclusion of a national seminar organised by the Islamic Research Centre of the International Islamic University, Islamabad, with the support of security institutions. Even in this seminar, many religious scholars were hesitant to give a clear verdict about the acts of Pakistani militant groups, but had to do so.

Religious scholars in Pakistan, including from moderate and traditional streams, have issued such fatwas in the past. At least two, Maulana Jan Hassan in Peshawar, and Maulana Sarfaraz Naeemi in Lahore, were killed by militants. Dr Tahirul Qadri, Jamia Ashrafiya, Lahore, and a few other Deobandi religious schools, as well as the Jamaatud Dawa, issued fatwas against terrorism. Yet these were conditional and the text was very carefully drafted. Usually, they mention the role of external powers, socioeconomic factors and injustice, which forced militants to take up arms against the state and address all issues to fix the problem.

Thus, the issuance of an unconditional fatwa to declare terrorism in Pakistan haram took more than 15 years. So how can one anticipate that religious scholars will issue a similar fatwa in the case of Afghanistan where the Afghan Taliban claim that their resistance is against foreign occupation?

Is a conditional, out-of-expediency fatwa, like the ones that emerged in Pakistan previously, a possibility? Pakistani ulema can consider this option with many caveats; for example, declaring the attack on public and religious places and gatherings, hospitals, schools, and markets, un-Islamic. They can endorse Saudi fatwas against the militant Islamic State (IS) group and make an appeal for them to be applied to Afghanistan. All this might condemn terrorist attacks without compromising the ulema’s position on the Taliban’s war of resistance against foreign occupation. Such a selective fatwa could also justify some of the Taliban actions against the public interest.

As far as the impact of a fatwa is concerned, militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan do not consider them worthy as they claim most such edicts are delivered on the state’s direction. The militant groups have their own councils on religious affairs and they follow their commandments. When Dr Fadl, an Egyptian surgeon and architect of the Al Qaeda manifesto, denounced the amendments in the Al Qaeda manifesto back in 2007, it was hoped that it would dent the terrorist group. But Al Qaeda remained attractive for many years until the IS came and challenged its operational strategy. The fatwas have an impact on public perception but hardly damage militant movements.

Even if such a fatwa were issued by Pakistani religious scholars, its legitimacy will remain under question and it will not hurt the Taliban movement in Afghanistan on a large scale. It may contribute to developing anti-Taliban sentiments amongst the masses. Diplomatically, it will boost confidence between Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the bigger question is: will the ulema take up an initiative which would not be popular?

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2017