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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 47, New Delhi, November 6, 2021

The Taliban originated in Afghanistan, Not Pakistan | Apratim Mukarji

Friday 5 November 2021, by Apratim Mukarji

For long Afghanistan scholars had supported the theory, promoted by the Taliban themselves and Pakistan, that their particular brand of jihadism was developed in Afghan refugee camps in Baluchistan. New data brought forward by an Indian scholar have demolished it proving conclusively that it was developed in Afghanistan itself by Afghan madrassas.

    Anand Gopal has claimed that at least sixty percent of the Taliban ideology was developed in Afghanistan’s pre-1979 (the year of the Soviet invasion) southern Pushtun villages. A typical southern Pushtun village contains various and mutually competing ethical traditions, one of which laid the basis for the future Taliban movement.

     Key features of the Taliban repression, such as, restrictions on women or banning music, have their antecedents in the southern Pushtun countryside. The classic theory of the Taliban states that the movement is a product of the extremist Pakistani madrassas but data presented by Gopal suggest that at least 60 percent of the ideology received a significant portion of their education inside Afghanistan through a link with Deobandism and individual religious practices.

      The Taliban ideology featured in the past twenty years (since 2017 backward, i.e. 1997) while the movement once typified ‘traditionalist’ Islam---that it sought to find in southern Pushtun villages. It was during its insurgency phase (between 2002 and pre-August 2021) that the movement came closer to the form of Political Islam espoused in the Arab world.

     This does not mean that the Taliban are now less conservative or less authoritarian but the objects of their repression and the way they now form their mission have shifted I important ways. In the past, their epistemology was intimately linked to certain rural Pushtun traditions of virtue but in the present it is more similar to the modern type of Islam reasonably found in the groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Queda.

      This shift is largely a reflection of the practical concerns of statecraft and especially of running an insurgency. A study of he (epistemology) foundations of the present ideology suggests that the Taliban’s beliefs practices were never simply an imitation of texts or a blind attempt to recreate of the early days of Prophet Mohammad but rather a result of a sophisticated internal logic that was deeply tied to notions of honour, virtue and repressive power found among Pushtun villagers.

     The shift is from ritualistic emphasis on exterior behaviour patterns of people to intentional absorption of practicality and applicability to enhance the Taliban’s prestige and power over the people of Afghanistan.

       Anand Gopal’s conclusion that the Taliban’s ideology is mostly Afghanistan-owned in fact echoed Ahmed Rashid’s statement, made in 1997, that “The Taliban have never been anyone’s puppets and their strings are certainly not pulled in Islamabad.” Two quotes from the Koran and the Hadith encapsulate the fundamental approach of extremist Islam to dealing its avowed enemies. They are as follows : ‘But fight them at the Holy Mosque (of Mecca) unless they first you there. But if they fight you, say them. Such is the reward of those who suppress the faith.’ (The Koran) And, ‘ He who comes to you while you are unanimous in your opinion and wants to divide you and disperse you, strike off his neck.’ (The Hadith)

      In the history of Islam, the most noted instance when both the teachings were put to practice was the manner in which the Saudi Kingdom crushed the rebellion by Juhaiman al-Ataibi in 1979 against the monarchy and thereby lent new strength to the all-encompassing power of the Saudi monarchy. It would not be presumptuous to link the Taliban’s utterly harsh response to all revolts and protests against the Taliban in the 1990s to the legacy not only of Saudi Arabia’s handling and suppression of dissidence but also of the inspiration from the doctrine of Wahabism.

      While Wahabism as a religious doctrine is completely alien to the Afghan religious beliefs (even among the Sunnis), heritage and culture, political expediency led the Taliban to integrate nuances of it in selected manners in their ideology. However, eminent scholars have shown that the concept of suppressing people’s natural desire for freedom to act in their social lives mut invariably clash with an authoritarian approach to statecraft. William Maley says in his article ‘ Interpreting the Taliban’, contained in his edited volume ‘ Afghanistan and the Taliban The rebirth of fundamentalism?’ that in practice fundamentalism entails loyalty not so much to a particular doctrine as to a particular leader. From Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahab whose beliefs were so strongly contested in the 19th. Century Afghanistan, to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar whose views were to prove controversial in the 20th. Century movements have been built around men as well as texts. But there is an additional reason, beyond the silence of texts, why leadership is so important to fundamentalist movements, and that is their low level of political institutionalisation.

     Whether the Taliban are ‘fundamentalist’ in this nuanced sense is a question on which opinions may differ. Maley argues that while the Taliban hardly strike one as modernist, their appetite for theocracy, desire to remake the world and creative approach to scriptural interpretation, all have fundamentalist overtones. But perhaps the characteristic most starkly redolent of fundamentalism is the special role accorded to the Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, who was identified by his followers by the title of Amir al-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful), and who had reportedly exploited one of the holiest relics of Afghanistan, namely, the Cloak of the Prophet Mohammad (Khiraqa e- Mubarak), as a source of symbolic legitimisation for his authority. Omar’s proclaimed path to politics---allegedly through a call to action I a visionary dream, of a kind similar to those by which Amir Abdul Rahman Khan claimed to have been inspired over a century earlier---had a mystical dimension to set him apart from ‘ordinary’ politicians, and bears the hallmark of an attempt to synthesise a charismatic basis for personal authority. Here we find actually a paradigm case of a fundamentalist leader in the making.

    The then U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley suggested in a seminar on 6 November 1996 held in Washington D.C. that what the Taliban represented was the arrival of ‘village’ values and attitudes in the cities. While this view was strongly contested, it does allow us to ask questions over the extent to which tradition is a factor which shapes the Taliban phenomenon. However, the substance of ‘tradition’ is not quite clear as the casual reader might think.

    With the second coming of the Taliban into power on 15 August 2021, the debate over their ideology which broke out as far back as 1994 when the new group captured Kandahar city and district has been reignited. Anand Gopal’s new findings have helped the debaters to advance a bit in their interpretations of the Taliban’s ideology, and is a pointer to the unusual importance being accorded to a terrorist group which is perhaps no longer a mere killers’ party.

(* Author: Apratim Mukarhi is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs and the Indian Ocean Region geopolitics. He is available at mukarhiapratim[at]gmail.com)

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