Politicized Islam

Politicized Islam

Although Shariah courts existed in urban centers after Ahmad Shah Durraniestablished an Afghan state in 1747, the primary judicial basis for the societyremained in the tribal code of the Pushtunwali until the end of thenineteenth century. Sporadic fatwas (formal legal opinions) were issuedand occasional jihads were called not so much to advance Islamicideology as to sanction the actions of specific individuals against theirpolitical opponents so that power might be consolidated.

The first systematic employment of Islam as an instrument for state-buildingwas introduced by Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901) during his drive towardcentralization. He decreed that all laws must comply with Islamic law and thuselevated the Shariah over customary laws embodied in the Pushtunwali.The ulama were enlisted to legitimize and sanction his state efforts aswell as his central authority. This enhanced the religious community on the onehand, but as they were increasingly inducted into the bureaucracy as servants ofthe state, the religious leadership was ultimately weakened. Many economicprivileges enjoyed by religious personalities and institutions were restructuredwithin the framework of the state, the propagation of learning, once the soleprerogative of the ulama, was closely supervised, and the Amir became thesupreme arbiter of justice.

His successors continued and expanded Amir Abdur Rahman's policies as theyincreased the momentum of secularization. Islam continued central tointeractions, but the religious establishment remained essentiallynon-political, functioning as a moral rather than a political influence.Nevertheless, Islam asserted itself in times of national crisis. And, when thereligious leadership considered themselves severely threatened, charismaticreligious personalities periodically employed Islam to rally disparate groups inopposition to the state. They rose up on several occasions against KingAmanullah (1919-929), for example, in protest against reforms they believed tobe western intrusions inimical to Islam.

Subsequent rulers, mindful of traditional attitudes antithetical tosecularization were careful to underline the compatibility of Islam withmodernization. Even so, and despite its pivotal position within the societywhich continued to draw no distinction between religion and state, the role ofreligion in state affairs continued to decline.

The 1931 Constitution made the Hanafi Shariah the state religion,while the 1964 Constitution simply prescribed that the state should conduct itsreligious ritual according to the Hanafi School. The 1977 Constitution, declaredIslam the religion of Afghanistan, but made no mention that the state ritualshould be Hanafi. The Penal Code (1976) and Civil Law (1977), covering theentire field of social justice, represent major attempts to cope with elementsof secular law, based on, but superseded by other systems. Courts, for instance,were enjoined to consider cases first according to secular law, resorting to theBCShariah in areas where secular law did not exist. By 1978, the government ofthe Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) openly expressed its aversionto the religious establishment. This precipitated the fledgling IslamistMovement into a national revolt; Islam moved from its passive stance on theperiphery to play an active role.

Politicized Islam in Afghanistan represents a break from Afghan traditions.The Islamist Movement originated in 1958 among faculties of Kabul University,particularly within the Faculty of Islamic Law which had been formed in 1952with the announced purpose of raising the quality of religious teaching toaccommodate modern science and technology. The founders were largely professorsinfluenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a party formed in the 1930s thatwas dedicated to Islamic revivalism and social, economic, and political equity.Their objective is to come to terms with the modern world through thedevelopment of a political ideology based on Islam. The Afghan leaders, whileindebted to many of these concepts, did not forge strong ties to similarmovements in other countries.

The liberalization of government attitudes following the passage of the 1964Constitution ushered in a period of intense activism among students at KabulUniversity. Professors and their students set up the Muslim Youth Organization(Sazmani Jawanani Musulman) in the mid-1960s at the same time that the leftistswere also forming many parties. Initially communist students outnumbered theMuslim students, but by 1970 the Muslim Youth had gained a majority in studentelections. Their membership was recruited from university faculties and fromsecondary schools in several cities such as Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat. Theseprofessors and students became the leaders of the Afghan Resistance in the1980s.

With the takeover of government by the PDPA in April 1978, Islam becamecentral to uniting the opposition against the communist ideology of the newrulers. As a politico-religious system, Islam is ideally suited to the needs ofa diverse, unorganized, often mutually antagonistic citizenry wishing to forge aunited front against a common enemy; and war permitted various groups within themujahidin to put into effect competing concepts of organization.

The mujahidin leaders were charismatic figures with dyadic ties to followers.In many cases military and political leaders replaced the tribal leadership; attimes the religious leadership was strengthened; often the religious combinedwith the political leadership. Followers selected their local leaders on thebasis of personal choice and precedence among regions, sects, ethnic groups ortribes, but the major leaders rose to prominence through their ties to outsiderswho controlled the resources of money and arms.

With the support of foreign aid, the mujahidin were ultimately successful intheir jihad to drive out the Soviet forces, but not in their attempts toconstruct a political alternative to govern Afghanistan after their victory.Throughout the war, the mujahidin were never fully able to replace traditionalstructures with a modern political system based on Islam. Most mujahidincommanders either used traditional patterns of power, becoming the new khans,or sought to adapt modern political structures to the traditional society. Intime the prominent leaders accumulated wealth and power and, in contrast to thepast, wealth became a determining factor in the delineation of power at alllevels.

With the departure of foreign troops and the long sought demise of Kabul'sleftist government, The Islamic State of Afghanistan finally came into being inApril 1992. This represented a distinct break with Afghan history, for religiousspecialists had never before exercised state power. But the new governmentfailed to establish its legitimacy and, as much of its financial supportdissipated, local and middle range commanders and their militia not only foughtamong themselves but resorted to a host of unacceptable practices in theirprotracted scrambles for power and profit. Throughout the nation the populoussuffered from harassment, extortion, kidnapping, burglary, hijacking and actsdishonoring women. Drug trafficking increased alarmingly; nowhere were thehighways safe. The mujahidin had forfeited the trust they once enjoyed.

In the fall of 1994 a Muslim "student militia" came forth vowing tocleanse the nation of the excesses sullying the jihad. Their avowed intention isto bring in a "pure" Islamic state subject to their own strictinterpretations of the Shariah. Many of the leaders of this movement called theTaliban (seekers or students of Islam) were one-time mujahidin themselves, butthe bulk of their forces are comprised of young Afghan refugees trained inPakistani madrassas (religious schools), especially those run by theJamiat-e Ulema-e Islam Pakistan, the aggressively conservative Pakistanipolitical religious party headed by Maulana Fazlur Rahman, arch rival of QaziHusain Ahmed, leader of the equally conservative Jamaat-e-Islami and long timesupporter of the mujahidin.

Headquartered in Kandahar, initially almost entirely Pushtun, predominantlyfrom the rural areas, and from the top leadership down to the fighting militiacharacteristically in their thirties or forties and even younger, the Talibanswept the country. In September 1996 they captured Kabul and ruled overtwo-thirds of Afghanistan.

The meteoric take over went almost unchallenged. Arms were collected andsecurity was established. At the same time, acts committed for the purpose ofenforcing the Shariah included public executions for murder, stoning foradultery, amputation for theft, a bann on all forms of gambling such as kiteflying, chess and kawk (partridge) fighting, prohibition of music andvideos, proscriptions against pictures of humans and animals, and an embargo onwomen's voices over the radio. Women are to remain as invisible as possible,behind the veil, in purdah in their homes, and dismissed from work or studyoutside their homes. Like many before them, the Taliban wave the flag of women'schasteness to prove their superior Muslimness.

Because of the strong religious sentiments that animate their minds, ruralAfghans are still mostly captivated by the Taliban at the beginning of 1997.Others look on appalled at the rigidly orthodox dictates of theseself-proclaimed arbiters of Islamic rectitude. To them Taliban interpretationsof the Shariah are foreign deviations alien to the Islam practiced in Afghansociety which has always stressed moderation, tolerance, dignity, individualchoice and egalitarianism.


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