Deobandi extremism that funds the Taliban

It was not surprising that during the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, Deobandi seminaries on both sides of the Durand Line, as many scholars have pointed out, were the prime target of Saudi funding and influence. Along with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia was one of the few countries that recognised the Taliban after they assumed power in 1996.

Deobandi extremism that funds the Taliban

IN POWER: The international community should try to influence the Taliban’s worldview. Reuters

Luv Puri

Senior Journalist and Author

NOW that the Taliban control Afghanistan, the most important question being asked is how could nearly 75,000-odd Taliban fighters defeat 300,000-strong Afghan security forces, which were well equipped with modern American weaponry.

President Biden, while referring to the Afghan security forces, said on Monday, “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them the will to fight for that future.” In a separate analysis, Michael Mullen, former United States Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that courage is something that can never be imparted to another army. Apart from inextricable support from state institutions across the Durand Line, one needs to closely examine the other enabling factors, with greater nuance and objectivity, as they proved to be far more powerful. This will also shed light on exploring possible ways and instruments, which at the moment are quite limited, that the international community could possibly employ to influence the Taliban’s governance model and worldview.

In a conflict-ridden situation like that of Afghanistan, there is often a tendency by the unpopular controlling power to bring in suave technocrats who speak the same language and have similar points of reference like them. They no doubt demonstrate efficiency in managing technical projects, however, when it comes to political dexterity required to navigate political complexities, they learn on the job. There is often disdain for local political realities, and consequently, more damage. President Ghani epitomised this trend as there were continuous past accounts that he lacked the political skill and temperament to cohere and glue the mosaic of Afghanistan, including varied Pashtun tribes. In the end, he couldn’t inspire his well-equipped army which was no match to the Taliban, whose ideological inspiration comes from a potent mix of Pashtun nationalism and extremist version of Deobandi Islam.

In this connection, the question of Deobandi Islam and its relationship with Pashtuns has to be examined in more detail. In the last 20 years, Afghanistan was viewed by the Western policy-makers as largely outside the South Asian matrix. The religious idiom and lexicon of the Taliban, which in this case is the most important source of understanding their governance model, comes from the Deoband school of Islam which started during 1866, as part of the revivalist movement that was sweeping British India. At the time, the town of Deoband was already a centre of Muslim culture, and many families from the area, served in various capacities within the Mughal empire — proximate as Deoband was to the Mughal capital of Delhi, about 100 miles distant. In 1866, Darul Uloom at Deoband, was founded as one of the first seminaries to train in Deobandi Islam, and has remained its most important institution.

The Deobandi movement became the most popular school of Islamic thought among Pashtuns living on both sides of the Durand Line. Many prominent Pashtun community leaders established Deobandi seminaries in these areas. In other parts of British India, however, they faced competition from other Islamic schools, primarily Barelvi Islam. Barelvi Islam, for example, remains the most popular Islamic school in what is now Pakistan’s Punjab province. It was not surprising that during the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, Deobandi seminaries on both sides of the Durand Line, as many scholars have pointed out, were the prime target of Saudi funding and influence. Along with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia was one of the few countries that recognised the Taliban after they assumed power in 1996.

As this author learnt during his field work on Deobandi Islam at Darul Uloom a few years ago, Deobandi clerics have mixed views on the issue of allowing Afghan Pashtuns for studies. Some clerics strongly oppose any move to allow students from Afghanistan and Pakistan as they could radicalise Indian Muslim students. On the other hand, there is also a view that educating students from Afghanistan and Pakistan at Deoband would have a sobering influence on the Muslim populations in these countries. This is because at Deoband now, there is an emphasis on research, contextual interpretation of various religious edicts, debate, engagement and co-existence with non-Muslims.

In the present context, Deobandi Islamic scholarship in India is a rare religious instrument available to the international community to creatively and imaginatively broaden the worldview of Taliban clerics, including on issues related to women and minority rights.

Lastly, the issue of Pashtun nationalism which was employed by Taliban propaganda repeatedly during the 20-year stay of US troops in Afghanistan requires a fresh look. The English translation of over 200 Afghan Taliban poems by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn is one such example to understand a dimension of this argument. Pashtun nationalism also underscores the need to shun non-binary understanding of their regional connections, including with Pakistan. No doubt, there is an intricate relationship between Taliban and Pakistani state with the former having their bases and families in various parts of Pakistan. However, it is a fact that the Taliban don’t recognise the Durand Line, which is one of the existential issues for Pakistan’s Punjabi elite, both in the military as well as political spectrum.

The old headache of relationship between the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban is already bothering the Pakistani governing elite. This is reflected in the recent release of TTP terrorists such as Maulana Faqir Mohammad, who is from Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. He is the former deputy chief of the TTP with reported ties to the al-Qaeda leadership. In this context, Pashtun nationalism and its quest for autonomy is an instrument available to the international community to leverage, but it has its limits too. Giving too much heft to Pashtun nationalism may further worsen the insecurity of ethnic minorities, who are nearly 60 per cent of Afghanistan’s population.

The instruments in the tool-box for the international community to positively influence the Taliban are limited. In this space, a more contextual, creative and calibrated approach may provide some initial and potent openings of engagement with Afghanistan’s new political governing elite with an aim to protect and instill a greater sense of security for millions of vulnerable Afghans.  

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