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Afghan Clerics Vocal In Challenging Taliban Narrative


Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf

Afghanistan's Islamist leaders are eager to undermine the appeal of insurgents by questioning their religious credentials and violent campaigns.

Clerics across Afghanistan appear to be united and increasingly vocal in challenging claims by the Taliban and other insurgent groups that they are fighting to end foreign occupation and would implement the Islamic Shari'a law to end all Afghan miseries.

Conservative Afghan clerics are taking action following a spate of recent high-profile attacks in the Afghan capital, part of the most violent summer campaign by the Taliban in the past 13 years. Previously, they had shunned such efforts because of reprisals by insurgents and the risk of being labelled foreign agents for backing Kabul's Western-backed government.

"Islam doesn't permit the killing of innocent people. Nobody is permitted to deprive mothers of their children or turning women and children into widows and orphans by killing their husbands and parents," Mawlavi Mohammad Yaqoob recently told a gathering of clerics and tribal leaders in the southeastern Afghan city of Khost.

During the past 13 years, the teeming city has seen frequent attacks by the Haqqani network, a deadly Taliban branch operating out of sanctuaries in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region across the border from Khost.

Yaqoob says he has seen many fellow clerics and tribal leaders targeted for speaking out against the Taliban. Still, he is determined to stand up for what he insists is the true message of Islam. "Islam is a religion of peace, harmony, compassion, and understanding," he said.

Such messages have been echoed across the country. After a massive truck bomb flattened a Kabul neighborhood on August 7, causing hundreds of casualties, the country's leading clerical organization vehemently criticized the Taliban for the attack.

Members of the Afghanistan Ulema Council held a gathering at the site of the attack in Kabul's Shah Shaheed neighborhood.

"Our message to the Pakistani clerics who sanctioned such attacks is that if you issues fatwas (religious decrees) to justify such violence against our vulnerable and impoverished people in the name of allowing jihad, then our fatwa is that waging jihad inside Pakistan is the individual obligation of every Muslim," Mawlavi Abdul Basir Haqqani, head of the council's Kabul chapter, told supporters. "From now on, we will support and stand behind [militant] factions waging jihad against Pakistan."

The national leadership of the council, however, was more measured in its response. After meeting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on August 14, the council questioned the rationale of Taliban violence.

"Declaring jihad against Afghanistan's government and people is a clear violation of Shari'a law and a tremendous betrayal of the nation because 99.9 percent of our population is Muslim," said council leader Mawlavi Ghulam Rabbani Rahmani while citing a unanimous council statement.

Rahmani questioned the Taliban's rationale for keeping the death of founding leader Mullah Mohammad Omar a secret for more than two years.

"The recent revelations prove that control of this war is in the hands of others and those who have been used as mere tools in the war have been kept in the dark as to who is leading the war against the people of Afghanistan," he said.

The idea that the fighting in Afghanistan is being imposed by outsiders -- Pakistan in particular -- is popular among Afghans. The country's clergy and Islamist leaders, who have traditionally faced public loathing for their role in the bloody civil war in the 1990s, now want to cash in on patriotic sentiments running high after Kabul ended its pivot toward Islamabad this month over Pakistan's apparent failure to rein in the Taliban.

Lawmaker Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf is one of the most senior Sunni Muslim religious leaders in Afghanistan. He was a leading anti-Soviet mujahedin leader in the 1980s and fought against the Taliban in the 1990s.

Sayyaf, 68, is still one of the most vocal critics of the Taliban, which has made him a top target for insurgents. "People who fight against their homeland, people, and the honor and dignity of their county will face the worst kind of death as often happens to oppressors and slaves," he said of a message he had sent to the Taliban leaders 15 years ago.

"I told them that the people who support you and motivate you to fight against your own people will one day arrest you and will even try you as war criminals," he told journalists in Kabul earlier this month.

Sayyaf says the Taliban movement is a conspiracy against Afghanistan. "Declaring Mullah Omar as the 'Leader of the Faithful' went against Shari'a law," he said. "Now the leadership and activities of his successor are even more blatant violations of Shari'a."

The Taliban have long struggled to defend their religious and patriotic credentials. In a statement last week, the insurgents denied any involvement in the August 7 bombing in Kabul's Shah Shaheed neighborhood. However, they claimed responsibility for another bomb attack in Kabul the same day. Some 20 recruits were killed when a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest near the city's police academy.

An ongoing leadership struggle over the succession of Mullah Omar has exposed deepening rifts within the Taliban ranks.

When Syed Mohammad Tayyab Agha resigned as director of the Taliban's political office in the Qatari capital, Doha, earlier this month, he declared the apparent appointment of current Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in Pakistan as a "historic mistake."

"Our oppressed people have suffered terribly as a consequence of every leader elected outside the country," he wrote in his resignation letter.

Such pronouncements from Taliban insiders give Afghan clerics even more ammunition.

Mawlavi Abdul Rahman, a leading cleric in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, says the Taliban's foreign sponsors only aim is to keep Afghanistan engulfed in a perpetual war and fuel instability in their country.

"They [the Taliban] should have mercy on our people. Killing more [Afghan] Muslims will resolve nothing," he said.

Rohullah Anwari, Najibullah Alokhel, and Ajmal Toorman contributed reporting from Kunar, Khost, and Kabul, Afghanistan.

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