Sunday, July 5, 2020

Afghanistan nearing a turning point?

Zahid Mehmood Zahid

 Islamism, with its revolutionary rigor, has been a very potent force for the last five decades. Although it has many strands and faces, it is generally defined as, ‘instrumentalization of Islam by individuals and groups for political purposes.’

When Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran introduced reforms in political and social spheres, this conscious project was termed as ‘Post-Islamism’ by scholars. It was in reference to the Islamist movements, who had been, as claimed by their leadership, striving for Islamization of the states and societies under the banner of Sharia law. These were societies having faith in divine sovereignty, opposed to the Western democratic system, enshrined in popular sovereignty and secularism. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Turkish AKP, Taliban in Afghanistan, and Tunisia’s Ennahda are a few examples in this regard.

Gilles Kepel, a French scholar on Islamism, defines post-Islamism as “the departure of Islamists from the Jihadi and Salafi doctrines.” Olivier Roy, another intellectual giant believes, “It is changing the lives of the individuals rather Islamization of the state.” Asef Bayat, who coined the term Islamism defines it as, “Transcending Islamist rationale to political, social, and intellectual realms.”

He contends that when Islamist movements feel their appeal and legitimacy is losing lustre among supporters, they realize the inadequacies in their manifestoes and attempt to rationalize themselves with public demands. There emerged a serious disconnect between people’s expectations and the appeal of the Taliban who had no solution for public issues – employment, modern education, quality health and a delivery system for other services that demanded a political solution, not a religious one

One should not consider post-Islamism as un-Islamic or secular.

It appears deviant from the monolithic interpretations of Islam; a plural form that fuses faith with freedom, rights with religiosity, focuses on rights instead of duties, and plurality instead of singular authority. It is equally distant from French-styled radical Laïcité brand of secularism. More importantly, it is futuristic and rejects traditionalist past-oriented Salafist thinking. For that reason, many consider post-Islamism, an ‘Islamic modernism’ and ‘alternate modernity.’

Muslim societies have always witnessed exclusivism – takfiri rejectionism, and violence on the question of who will interpret the religion – state or individual. History guides that violence either leads to revolutions or reforms. Post-Islamism is an unheeded reform project in the Muslim world. Many would disagree because to them, rescinding the existing order and replacing it with the other is called reformation, like the Westphalian order – that established the secular nation state system by overthrowing the papacy. This will not happen in the Muslim world, as Muslims will not accept any system that has no roots in religion.

Islamist Taliban of war-ravaged Afghanistan are in transition to their post-Islamist moment. This article aims to identify the drivers that compelled the Taliban to re-orient themselves in the age of democracy and globalization, as postulated by Post-Islamism.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Taliban’s ouster from power was a serious setback to their efforts for the establishment of “Islamic Emirates” with a puritanical version of Islam. This removal also coincided with the introduction of a new constitution and electoral form of government in Afghanistan. These state building efforts by the international community in post-Taliban Afghanistan triggered a much-needed nation-building process in the country.

An international coalition poured cash into resource-starved Afghanistan that brought a bust into education, media, and internet connectivity. This information revolution mainstreamed Afghans into the globalized world, enhanced Afghan diaspora’s involvement in domestic affairs; enabled the emergence of a civil society and gave voice to the youth by sensitizing people about their rights and duties under the auspices of 2004 constitution and successive elections.

There emerged a serious disconnect between the peoples’ expectations and the appeal of the Taliban who had no solution for public issues – employment, modern education, quality health and a delivery system for other services that demanded a political solution, not a religious one. Ordinary people recognize that religion might be a source of redemption in life hereafter, but public welfare necessitates politics in this one. Taliban’s tempt seriously lost relevance and they started losing support and were eventually reduced to the traditional rural Pashtun populace only.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and Pakistan all want Taliban into the political mainstream of Afghanistan. They are no more favourites of any state. Saudi Arabia thinks they are misfits in their reform scheme and Sufi interpretation of Islam is being preferred over Deobandi one [followed by Taliban] by Imran khan’s Pakistan in its bid to promote tolerance in the society. Therefore, both countries, haunted by extremist threats, seem to be shredding the burden of their past and are moving towards more tolerant and inclusive societies by investing in social aspects of public life.

Maulana Fazalur Rehman’s ouster form the political mainstream of Pakistan and inclusion of Pashtun nationalism in Pakistan; cinema and sports promotion in Saudi Arabia are self-evident. Individual charity that once ended in the hands of the Taliban is now being spent on poverty alleviation, promotion of health and education in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Because of these developments post-Mullah Omer Taliban seem to be re-appropriating themselves to stay relevant in Afghan society. Instead of Emirates, they now are inclined towards the nation state system and are engaged in dialogue with many states. They are more open to the world and are equipped with better diplomatic skills which they displayed by securing the release of five top commanders from detention in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for one US sergeant – Bowe Bergdahl. Their ability for diplomatic manoeuvring has not only deterred US from including them into the designated list of foreign terrorists, but also managed the removal of Taliban leaders from terror blacklist of the United Nations.

In response to the challenges posed by the Afghan society and the international community, the Taliban are no more revolutionary, rejectionist, and revisionist. They want to join hands with the international community as a political entity rather than a bunch of bad guys. They support girls’ education and women in certain professions. And even if they wish to push US out of Afghanistan, this has more to do with Afghan nationalism than religion – that nationalism happens to be the political feature of nation state system.

According to post-Islamist assumptions, Islamist Taliban found it difficult to offer an ‘Islamic’ solution to the fundamental economic and social issues of Afghanistan. Hence, they had to broaden the spectrum beyond Islamist assumptions to political, social and economic spheres. This is the point where the political logic transcends religious logic of Islamists. This is not anti-Islamic; instead, it aims to make an individual religious and less interested in Islamizing the society at large.

Taliban are in transition, they have taken a great leap forward by moving away from Salafi Islamism to the pluralist post-Islamism. Also, because this generation of Taliban found it difficult to frame an enemy against whom they could fight with religious zeal because they had to do most of the fighting against their own countrymen – Afghan forces; opposed to their predecessors who fought against godless communists.


The old guards of Taliban ideology are falling apart, Afghans have rejected the violence and the Taliban are in the process of re-inventing themselves by crafting an appeal acceptable to the masses. From that stand point, the international community should facilitate this transition in Afghanistan. Afghan hawks who oppose the political mainstreaming of Taliban must be shelved. Taliban are a reality that cannot be eliminated but can be managed. Therefore, post-Islamist Taliban will be a win-win presumption: on one hand, it will render Taliban legitimacy to exist and operate and on the other, US and Afghan government will have peace dividend of post-Islamism.

The author is a PhD candidate at National Defence University, Islamabad and is a research fellow at University of Maryland, USA. He can be contacted on Twitter @zmzahid30



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