Confronting the Taliban's Claims to Religious Legitimacy
15 Apr 2015
A recent biography of the Taliban's leader reminded the world of the centrality of religion to the movement's identity. Religion will also play a part in any meaningful peace process, writes Michael Semple.
The keystone of the Afghan Taliban movement's claim to religious legitimacy for their struggle is the movement's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. According to Taliban dogma, Mullah Omar is a righteous and divinely guided leader, which provides a religious cover for all actions undertaken with his guidance. The doctrinal importance of Mullah Omar remains intact, despite the passage of thirteen years since he was last seen in public. On 4 April 2015, on the nineteenth anniversary of the gathering of ulema (religious scholars) in which senior Taliban figure Ehsanullah Ehsan orchestrated the proclamation of Mullah Omar as 'leader of the faithful' (ameer ul momineen), the movement's Cultural Commission published a biographical note on Omar. This narrative of Mullah Omar's life provides a timely reminder of the supreme leader's lingering centrality in the Taliban's doctrine and showcases several elements of their religious case.
The Taliban use five main elements in their narrative of Mullah Omar to assert the religious legitimacy of their struggle. These elements include the personal attributes of Mullah Omar, the means and terms of his appointment as leader, the social and political context within which the Taliban have operated, the righteousness of the guidance which Mullah Omar has provided the movement, and the righteousness of the Taliban's actions under his guidance. They attribute to Mullah Omar all the qualities of one who was destined to lead Afghan Muslims, arguing that he is descended from a leading clan, and is part of a family of religious scholars and martyrs. He himself performed jihad "as a religious obligation", and is presented as wise, taciturn, humble, incorruptible, good-humoured and pious. Along with being a practical man of action, he is shown as a visionary seized of the problems of the wider Muslim community, committed to the liberation of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Regarding Mullah Omar's appointment, the biography says that a respected senior veteran of the jihad against the Soviets first called on Omar to lead the Taliban movement in 1994 and then in 1996 the assembly of religious scholars (ulema) by proclamation elevated him to the status of 'leader of the faithful', a title which was adopted by the Muslim caliphs who led the community after the death of the Prophet Mohammad. As an added detail, the chroniclers quote Mullah Omar as calling upon the ulema who appointed him to continue helping him follow the path of Sharia.
The biography describes the changing conditions in Afghanistan which required the Taliban and Mullah Omar's intervention. In the first phase, the Taliban had to protect vulnerable Afghan Muslims, threatened by the anarchy which prevailed in 1994 when warlords and communists displaced the true mujahideen after the collapse of Dr. Najib's government. In the second phase, Islam itself was under attack, when America and the hostile world powers invaded Afghanistan because they could not tolerate the Taliban's application of true Sharia. To show that the movement is rightly guided, they assert that Mullah Omar is still in charge ("no major change and disruption has been observed in the routine works of Mullah Mohammad [O]mar"), but they supplement this by claiming that a deputy and the rest of the Taliban organisational hierarchy act under Omar's authority. Finally, to establish the righteousness of the Taliban's actions, the narrative asserts that, during their period in power the movement brought peace, security and a perfect Islamic system to Afghanistan. The Taliban also claim to do the same today, "restoring law and order", "safeguarding the life and property of Muslims" and generally implementing the "Islamic way of life", in the areas they control.
Claims of religious legitimacy rest upon the Taliban's status as a clerical movement.
Produced by the Taliban's Cultural Commission, the biography should be considered an officially approved narrative, the version of the Mullah Omar story which the current leadership is happy to project. It thus forms part of a broader project to build and renew the Taliban Movement's religious credentials, an enterprise that makes use of multiple communications tools, such as war videos, news commentaries, the twice-annual homilies attributed to Mullah Omar and statements and positions taken by the Taliban diplomats of their Political Commission. Many of the religious themes in the Mullah Omar biography can be found elaborated in other parts of the wider Taliban corpus.
Part of the movement's claim to be a rightful defender of the religion rests upon its composition as a movement of clerics – mullahs and taliban (religious students). This is reflected in organisational practice, in that only clerics are appointed to senior positions and the movement still consciously associates with religious institutions by recruiting from madrassas and holding meetings and basing personnel in them. The Taliban's claim to be engaged in a rightful jihad is also fundamental to their religious case, a claim which has dual significance. In the first place, the claim to be doing jihad is defensive, necessary to excuse the Taliban's use of violence. More fundamentally, the fact that they do jihad helps distinguish the Taliban as an Islamic movement. For the Taliban, as for other adherents of the broader jihadi-Islamic movement, there is an existential compulsion to participate in the violent jihad, defining what they do and who they are.
Much of the content of the Taliban's religious arguments can be understood as part of efforts to differentiate the movement from other Afghan political actors and indeed from notorious aspects of the country's recent past. As many of those actors have also claimed to act in the cause of religion, the Taliban must show themselves as truer defenders of Islam than their peers and rivals. ISIS has recently emerged as a potential threat to the Taliban, and the Taliban differentiate themselves from ISIS by asserting their adherence to Hanafi jurisprudence, one of the four orthodox Sunni schools of law, in line with the majority of Afghan Sunnis. Taliban opposition to ISIS thus rests on the movement's well-established position of rejecting Salafism as an alien deviation from Afghan clerical tradition. The Taliban narrative is also constructed to denigrate the other forces which fought against the Soviets, whose failings range from moral corruption to wanton destruction and compromise on Islamic purity by adopting Western political institutions.
The Taliban are also anxious to establish that they are neither terrorists nor criminals. Indeed their leadership find such appellations particularly offensive. They counter the terrorist label by asserting that their violence is necessary to counter US aggression, that it is discriminately directed against foreign invaders and servants of their lackey regime and that it takes place within an organisational and moral framework – the Taliban's command structure and their legitimate jihad. They counter the criminal label by asserting that the Taliban fight for God and not personal advantage and by boasting of the stewardship of resources obtained by the movement. Even if they collect money through extortion or kidnapping, it is supposed to be treated as belonging to the bait ul maal, or treasury for public purpose.
The Taliban are far from unique in constructing a narrative about themselves based upon a selective telling of history and the most favourable possible interpretation of their actions. Some core elements of the Taliban case are plausible, for example it can objectively be shown that the movement has indeed remained, since the outset, a movement of clerics. Piety remains an important part of the internal culture and the movement's officials and commanders do face pressure to maintain a reputation of moral uprightness, which obliges those engaged in activities such as promiscuity to hide what fellow Taliban would consider corrupt behaviour.
Piety remains an important part of the Taliban's internal culture.
Perhaps the most potent way in which Taliban practice demonstrates their use of the religious case is their continuing use of suicide bombers. Religious orientation forms a key component of the training which Taliban provide to their fidayeen (suicide bombers). Young men imbibe the message that their act of sacrifice is based on a covenant with God. Every two to three days, individually or in squads, these fidayeen lay down their lives, trusting that this is part of their religious duty. Fidayeen act as an elite corps, enjoying respect among their peers as the most dedicated of mujahideen, during the often extended period between their training and final deployment. These young men, with their trust in the covenant, are believers intent on dying as an expression of their faith. However misguided, their actions cannot be explained away as opportunistic or materially motivated.
Even if the Taliban can plausibly claim to be a religiously motivated movement, the claim that their violent struggle constitutes a legitimate defence of Islam is open to challenge on multiple scores. The dependence of the Taliban case on the saint-like status of their ameer ul momineen is highly problematic. On the one hand, it is unlikely that the Taliban could ever persuade a majority of Afghan Muslims or even of Islamic scholars, to accept Mullah Omar's credentials as a spiritual cum political leader. More practically, the Taliban propagandists can produce no evidence to back up their claim that Mullah Omar is actively involved in running the movement. Thus the reality seems to be that a deputy, who lacks the personal credentials to win acceptance as leader of the movement, invokes the name of an absent leader, to provide a cover for his usurping of authority. The dependence on such a ruse undermines the current Taliban claim to be a "rightly guided movement", with legitimacy comparable to the first four Caliphs.
The Taliban claim that their current armed struggle constitutes jihad can be countered on the basis that they have systematically misrepresented conditions prevailing in Afghanistan, such as their claims that the world has conspired to thwart implementation of an Islamic system or that there are blocks to the observance of religion. Contrary to the Taliban assertions that they are Islamising parts of the country under their control, the movement can be criticised for trying to apply extremist interpretations of Islamic social doctrine, which are out of line with the Muslim consensus in Afghanistan. In contrast with the recurrent Taliban assertions that their forces behave correctly, they are still open to the accusation of employing indiscriminate violence, as evidenced by the high rate of civilian casualties they cause. In a more profound sense, the Taliban insistence on sustaining their armed campaign creates civil war-like conditions, with an adverse impact on the welfare of the Muslim community for which the Taliban are supposed to be concerned. In a more positive sense there are multiple Islamic sources which stress the desirability of a state of peace and require Muslims to achieve it, and the Taliban's failure to be forward-leaning on resolving the conflict could itself be portrayed as counter to their Sharia obligations. Finally, the Taliban's opaque inner workings and lack of internal accountability mean that the leadership is not held to account. Despite the movement's austere and pious reputation, dissidents complain that senior figures have started to monopolise power and resources, but these concerns, which amount to an accusation of hypocrisy, go unanswered.
Religious discourse and institutions could be used in proactive peace-making.
Although the lines of a possible critique of Taliban religious claims are well known, there is also a range of possible strategies in drawing upon religion to assist in the transformation of the Taliban and their role in the conflict. Confrontational approaches seek to challenge the Taliban's claim to serve a divine cause and delegitimise them. This can be attempted by "taking God out of it" and asserting that the issues at stake in Afghanistan are inherently temporal, best understood as a power struggle. Another approach turns the Taliban arguments back at them, asserting that the movement are rebels against the legitimate Islamic authority of the Afghan government. In these approaches the Taliban can be dealt with as one among multiple contending Afghan factions, to be defeated or co-opted, with no particular regard for their aspiration to be the vanguard of an Islamic system.
An alternative approach is to apply religious discourse and institutions, such as the ulema, in proactive peace-making. This approach creates the space for Taliban, collectively or individually, to renew their assertion to be serving the cause of God, while moving beyond armed conflict. For example ulema can give rulings on the religious legitimacy of a ceasefire, without having to pronounce on the righteousness of previous acts of violence.
There has been a tendency among opponents of the Taliban to downplay the importance of religion in the movement. For the sake of their own legitimacy, most Afghans would prefer to be portray themselves as struggling against criminals or proxies of neighouring states, rather than as fighters who consider themselves mujahideen. Nevertheless, the Taliban movement has invested twenty years of effort in constructing the case that it serves the cause of God and Islam. The movement seeks religious legitimacy, not the democratic legitimacy on which the political order in Kabul has been constructed. Although many of the claims underlying the Taliban's religious case are tendentious, the movement has proven adept at co-opting amenable sources of religious authority and ignoring those which cannot be co-opted.
The issue of the Taliban's religious credentials is unlikely to be resolved on merits in an intellectual debate. Instead, the Taliban leaders, their internal critics and opposing forces in Afghan society can all be expected to claim to be following the path of Sharia in their political actions. The interplay between battlefield outcomes and religious arguments can be expected to continue, in the sense that reverses on the battlefield would render it more difficult for the Taliban to claim to be building an Islamic system. And if the Taliban do ever see fit to move beyond violent conflict, those who are making this move will seek to acquire a religious cover at least as strong as that which they adopted during the period of armed struggle. Whatever political economic interpretations might say about conflict actor motivations, the Taliban and their Afghan opponents should all be expected to continue asserting themselves as serving God, while the conflict evolves in the years ahead.
This article was informed by research conducted for the ESRC project ES/L008041/1 "The Taliban's War".
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