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Undermining The Taliban? Kabul Tries To Bolster Its Religious Credentials

Afghan boys read the Koran at a madrasah in Ghazni Province. President Ghani has stressed that the Koran and Islamic Shari’a law should be the basis of the ongoing peace talks between the government and the Taliban. (file photo)

Afghanistan’s government has been fighting the Taliban militarily for many years, but Kabul is increasingly waging an ideological battle with the Islamist group.

On the battlefield, government forces and Taliban militants are fighting a grinding war for control of the country. Off the battlefield, the foes are fighting a war for religious legitimacy in the predominantly Islamic country.

That latter struggle has intensified as the adversaries hold peace talks aimed at ending the 19-year war.

Among the most contentious issues under negotiation is the role of Islam in a future power-sharing government and whose version of Islam should shape postwar Afghanistan.

The Taliban, a militant Islamist group, upholds a radical interpretation of Islam. It considers the internationally recognized government in Kabul a “foreign puppet” that has adopted Western values and trampled on Islamic ones.

The Taliban’s stated goal is to establish what it calls a “pure” Islamic state in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government considers the current political system -- an Islamic republic that is modeled on Western-style democracy -- sufficiently Islamic. Kabul maintains that the Taliban is waging an illegitimate jihad, or holy war, and contravening Islamic beliefs by employing terror tactics.

To push back against the Taliban’s narrative, the Afghan government has attempted to demonstrate its religious credentials.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (file photo)
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (file photo)

Observers say the government’s goal is to broaden its own appeal while undermining the Taliban’s claim to Islamic authority.

In recent months, Kabul has proposed a raft of conservative policies, including changes to the education system and family law. But critics say in pursuing a Taliban-style agenda, the government could roll back progress made in the country since the Taliban regime's ouster in 2001.

“This is an intentional and calculated move by the government to redefine the nature of the state further toward Islam,” says Omar Sadr, a Kabul-based political analyst.

‘Powerful Islamic Identity’

In December, the Education Ministry announced a plan under which children would study in mosques for the first three years of school, an unprecedented move that critics said would promote the Talibanization of society.

The ministry said the aim is to provide schoolchildren with a "powerful Islamic identity" and give Islam a more central role in education.

But critics said the move was reminiscent of the Taliban regime in the 1990s, when madrasahs -- or Islamic schools -- were common.

After a public outcry, the government shelved the proposal.

In June, the Afghan government approved changes to the media law, including a provision that would force media outlets to reveal their sources without a court order.

After condemnation by the press, the government backtracked and called off the changes.

Afghanistan’s flourishing media scene has been hailed as one of the biggest achievements of the past 19 years, coming after the Taliban had banned an independent press.

Burqa-clad women in Kabul. (file photo)
Burqa-clad women in Kabul. (file photo)

The government has also proposed changes to family law, which is governed by the Civil Code of 1976. It was adopted by the secular government of President Daoud Khan.

A presidential spokesman said in August that a new family law was needed to “reflect the new realities of Afghanistan” and “ensure that the rights of women and children are upheld while also ensuring convergence with our Islamic principles.”

Under the proposed changes, underage marriage would be permissible with the consent of a male relative and the approval of a court. Meanwhile, a woman would forfeit her right to maintenance -- basic necessities needed to live -- if she refused sexual intercourse or left home without her husband’s permission.

“Introducing these random conservative policies will only reinforce the Taliban’s narrative that the government lacks an Islamic identity,” says Ali Adili, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul. “It will also bring chaos to the governance system.”

‘Our System Is Islamic’

In recent months, President Ashraf Ghani has been campaigning to assert his government’s religious legitimacy.

“Our main problem is that we are unaware of the deep roots of our culture, civilization, and religion,” Ghani said at a gathering in October marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. “The nature of our system is Islamic and the security and defense forces share Islamic beliefs.”

During the same address, Ghani stressed that the Koran and Islamic Shari’a law should be the basis of the ongoing peace talks between the government and the Taliban.

Since the talks began, the government has insisted on referring to itself by its official name -- the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. That is seen as a way to contrast itself with the Taliban, which refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the formal name of its brutal regime that ruled from 1996-2001.

Ghani has also announced plans to build and renovate hundreds of mosques across Afghanistan.

“We build mosques, but the Taliban destroy them,” he claimed recently, a reference to government accusations that the militant group attacks mosques.

Afghan men pray at a mosque in Herat during the Islamic month of Ramadan. (file photo)
Afghan men pray at a mosque in Herat during the Islamic month of Ramadan. (file photo)

In recent years, Ghani has also sought the support of Islamic councils throughout the Muslim world to declare the Taliban’s insurgency illegitimate.

In 2018, some 70 Muslim clerics gathered in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. The clerics issued a fatwa, or Islamic decree, at the conference, declaring that the Taliban’s “violence against civilians and suicide attacks are against the holy principles of Islam.”

The Taliban has rejected the fatwa and urged clerics to boycott events organized by the government.

Religion's Supreme Role

Observers say the government faces a major test to balance the need to reach a peace settlement with the Taliban while also safeguarding the gains of the past 19 years.

Kabul is seeking to preserve as much of the current constitutional order as possible, including key democratic tenets like women’s rights, free speech, and competitive elections.

The Taliban, meanwhile, is seeking to transform the Afghan state into a theocracy. It envisions playing a central role in a future power-sharing government.

The intra-Afghan peace talks are a key part of the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February 2020 that is aimed at ending the war.

That deal calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces in Afghanistan by May in return for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which is to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing arrangement with the government.

Members of the Taliban delegation at the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha.
Members of the Taliban delegation at the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha.

Fragile and deeply divided, the Afghan government has come to the peace negotiations that started on September 12 in the Gulf state of Qatar in relative weakness.

With roughly half of the country controlled or contested by the Taliban, Kabul lacks the military advantage to drive a hard bargain, especially as U.S. forces continue to withdraw.

As a result, some observers say, the Afghan government will likely have to accept significant constitutional changes and alterations to the current political system to achieve peace.

Common Ground

There is some common ground in the legal and governance systems of the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Both the Taliban’s political vision and the Afghan political system rely heavily on the centralization of power and the supreme role of Islam.

Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution prescribes that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam" and sometimes appears contradictory with more liberal and democratic elements within it.

Power resides in a heavily centralized government.

According to the Taliban’s views on governance, power should be centralized in an "Amir ul-Momineen," or leader of the faithful. This supreme leader is the head of state and has ultimate authority.

The Taliban, too, regards Shari’a as the supreme law.

But the warring parties have staunchly different interpretations of Shari’a law and the role of Islam.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.