Country Profile



Four decades of war in Afghanistan have left a political and military environment infused with religious language and justifications, stifling legitimate debate and allowing the suppression of opposition. There is a widespread assumption among the elites that international norms and freedoms are 'anti-Islamic'. However, while Afghan society remains religiously conservative, the use of Islam in defence of human-rights violations committed by many of those still in power has left many Afghans suspicious of religious arguments.

1Afghanistan’s conflict years can be divided into five phases but in every one, political forces have expressed and legitimised themselves in religious terms.

2The largest and most influential insurgents are the Taliban, although it is unclear how much of a religious debate occurs within the movement.

3The Taliban began a new offensive in May 2014, which tested the capabilities of the government and pushed the prospects of further peace talks into the future.

Situation Report

Ninety-nine per cent of Afghans are Muslims, and the current constitution, adopted in 2004, defines Afghanistan as an "Islamic Republic". It also stipulates that Islam is the "the religion of the state" and that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam". Popular Islam in Afghanistan has very strong, though not publicly displayed, Sufi undercurrents, with the Naqshbandiya and Qaderiya the most influential tariqa (orders). Going beyond the provisions of the 1964 constitution that gave the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam dominant status, it establishes equal rights for the Shia minority for the first time. As the constitution prohibits "any kind of discrimination", it also gives equal rights to non-Muslim minorities. It further stipulates, "Followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law". These legal provisions do not always translate into practice.

Afghan society before the Soviet occupation was religiously conservative, with a few liberal urban enclaves and little Islamist influence. However, throughout the 20th century, repeatedly top-down and violently enforced modernisation by various Afghan governments provoked armed resistance from conservative tribal actors and the Islamic clergy. The first such instance concerned the 1920s reforms of King Amanullah, and similar resistance befell Soviet-backed regimes between 1978-92. In general however, the clergy – the mullahs, who were often uneducated and outsiders in many communities, and the better-educated ulema (higher-ranking Islamic scholars; singular: alim) – remained politically weak and only of local importance. Their monopolistic grip on education had largely been broken by Amanullah's reforms. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Islamists had a marginal presence at the few universities and some rural madrassas. They were repressed under the monarchy (until 1973), the Republic (1973-78) and the leftist regimes (1978-92).

Increasing polarisation over the 1960s and 1970s between conservative and leftist reformist forces culminated in the takeover by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in 1978, and the Soviet military intervention on their behalf in the following year which led to a mobilisation of the Afghan Islamists. With Afghanistan now a hot spot in the Cold War, they took over leadership of the anti-Soviet resistance, supported by the West, Arab regimes and foreign extremists. Support to the country's Islamists was channelled through the influence of Pakistan's Islamist military dictator, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (ruled 1978-88). When in 1981 he decided to support only seven Islamist mujahedin groups, other groups that had participated in the resistance were marginalised and cut off from Pakistani supplies. This allowed the mujahedin to reinterpret the national liberation struggle more narrowly in religious terms, as a 'jihad'.

  • Global Overview
  • 1. Violent Religious Extremism Incidents: September 2016 17
  • 2. Violent Religious Extremism Incidents: August 2016 18
  • 3. Violent Religious Extremism Incidents: July 2016 11
  • 4. Violent Religious Extremism Incidents: June 2016 29
  • 5. Violent Religious Extremism Incidents: May 2016 17
  • 6. Violent Religious Extremism Incidents: April 2016 13
  • 7. Violent Religious Extremism Incidents: March 2016 6
  • 8. Violent Religious Extremism Incidents: February 2016 13
  • 9. Violent Religious Extremism Incidents: January 2016 11
  • Extremism
  • Fatalities: Civilians: September 2016 98
  • Fatalities: Extremism: September 2016 316
  • Fatalities: Security Forces: September 2016 56
  • Groups: Fatalities caused by Taliban: September 2016 153
  • Counter-Extremism
  • Counter-Extremism Incidents: September 2016 26
  • State Counter-Extremism: Arrests: September 2016 6
  • State Counter-Extremism: Statements: September 2016 8
  • State Counter-Extremism: Use of Force: September 2016 14