Religious extremism taking hold in Afghanistan as Taliban influence spreads

Salafist movements, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Jamiat-E Eslah, while opposing Taliban methods, are generally the same, and these movements, consciously or unconsciously, pave the way for Taliban recruitment in Afghanistan, Writes Saleem Payenda for South Asia Monitor

Saleem Payenda Jan 22, 2020

Those who cross Shah Dushamshira Street (the street in downtown Kabul now called Farkhonda) will never be able to forget Farkhonda, a young girl killed in the most outrageous manner by a group of angry religious fundamentalists on March 1, 2009. The men, provoked by the mullah of Shah Do Shamshira’s shrine (shrine of Liath ibn Qais bin Abbas, an Arab religious figure), charged Farkhonda with burning the Koran and stoned her to death, after which they drove a car over her dead body and finally burned her body near the Kabul river. After this gruesome murder, Farkhonda was found to be blameless. As a religiously educated girl, she became a symbol of the victims of ruthlessly violent religious extremism. A memorial minaret was built in the area where she was killed and is commemorated on March 5 each year. Her murder again highlighted the rise of extremism within the social layers. Now, more than 10 years after her death, fears have been raised about the rapid growth of extremism in Afghanistan. This time too, a Salafist mullah's reaction in western Afghanistan, on the type of hijab a woman was wearing, revealed the extent of fundamentalism in Afghanistan.

Mullah Mujib Rahman Ansari, a Salafist mullah in Herat city, spoke against what he considered as "increasing of prostitution" in Herat, He said that if he saw a boy and a girl together outside the framework of blood relations and customs, he would impose Hudud (religious punishments of Islamic law Shariah) on them. He termed the walking of girls and boys together as "adultery" and told his supporters to execute, by "Islamic law," any such people together in Herat. Subsequently, supporters of Mullah Ansari posted billboards that read, "Women without hijab have husbands without zeal".

Subsequently, Maulvi Hanif, a Parliament member, also said publicly that 100% of those leaving their homes on Friday were in violation of public morality. He later apologized for his remarks which, he said, were made in rage. The uproar that ensued showed that concern for the rise of extremism in society was slowly becoming a nightmare.

So how did traditional Islam become so radical? Throughout post-Islamic history, the people of Afghanistan have been associated with a kind of traditional, balanced Islam that derives from the influence of custom and social traditions on society. The structure of society in Afghanistan is the result of the integration of religion and social traditions. The Afghan nation is made up of various tribes and groups and the status of the tribe and its affiliations is still strong in the social structure. Tribal customs and traditions have also largely overshadowed people's religious beliefs. The majority of people in Afghanistan follow Hanafi Islam, and everyone knows that Imam Abu Hanifa was one of the most balanced and moderate practitioners of Islamic jurisprudence.

For this reason, until the 1980s, views such as Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia and the Salafism of Pakistan had little effect on the religious culture of the people in Afghanistan. When King Mohammad Zahir Shah made the veil optional and a number of women discovered the veil, religious scholars did not stand up to it and, for years, the veil was accepted as an optional tradition in Afghanistan. Following the May 7 coup of leftist officers in Afghanistan and the coming of the former Soviet-backed regime, religious 'jihad' as a rally ignited the flames of war in Afghanistan.

In addition to US support for the mujahideen’s battles against the government and the former Soviet forces, Arabs and Pakistanis have not only provided much mujahideen aid to the jihadists in Afghanistan, but also participated themselves. With the presence of Arabs, Wahhabism and Salafism - both puritanical and rigid forms of Islam - in Afghanistan also became widespread. A large number of Afghans in Pakistan's religious madrasas, where Salafism was taught, increased their influence in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia also brought a number of Afghan mullahs to Saudi Arabia to speak against the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Afghanistan, and to teach them Salafist beliefs. Returning to the country, these mullahs became fierce Salafist propagandists in Afghanistan, and their influence and attitudes have now reached such a level that the Hanafi religion in Afghanistan is stepping back.

"The concern is that the government is not taking any action. Governments have been unable to respond to the rapid growth of extremism over the past 18 years because of continued clashes with the Taliban and military opposition, fearing the opening of a new front in the cities. The fear continues, even though it is well-known that Salafist followers in Afghanistan make it possible for the Taliban to recruit," writes Nasima Bari, an Afghan human rights activist in southern Afghanistan, who recently published a book, ‘The Monster’s Shadow,’ in Pashto language, which explains how religious and social extremism threatens Afghan society and women’s rights.

Salafist movements, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Jamiat-E Eslah, while opposing Taliban methods, are generally the same, and these movements, consciously or unconsciously, pave the way for Taliban recruitment in Afghanistan. These movements, which are far more dangerous than the Taliban, have targeted academic and educational institutions. Several university professors have been detained by security agencies on charges of promoting extremism and even of fighting the government, but the process of bolstering Salafism in Afghanistan has not stopped. 

While responses and reactions on social media to some extent compel them to give up their bitter views, occasionally, the reality is that extremism is taking wider and faster steps to fully dominate the geography of Afghanistan and these steps can put Afghanistan's complex social structure in a dangerous turmoil.

(The writer is a Research Fellow of International Relations at University of Mysore, India)


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