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The rise to power of the Taliban in August 2021 has raised a number of questions about how the world community should deal with the organization, an ardent proponent of Islam that calls for an all-out Sharia system to be established in Afghanistan. As a case in point here, many experts and media outlets refer to the Taliban as either a structure linked to the terrorist Islamic State or as a legitimate Sharia state, much like Saudi Arabia or Iran.
The group is seen as both jihadist and traditionalist. All these differing and often mutually exclusive assessments make it difficult to identify the group’s ideological leanings within Islam. At the same time, accurate forecasts of its influence on the world of political Islam—and on the global processes at large—will depend on a correct understanding of the Taliban’s role and place in the many-faceted world of Islam.
The Taliban and Salafi-jihadis
The most accurate definition to characterize the various international terrorist organizations purportedly acting on behalf of Islam is that of “Salafi jihadism,” which was introduced in 2002 by the scholar Gilles Kepel to describe a “hybrid Islamist ideology” developed by volunteers from Arab and Muslim countries during the first Afghan War (1979–1992) . Salafism came to be the spiritual, doctrinal and methodological foundation of this radical movement.
This fundamentalist and conservative trend in Islam originated in the 18th century in Najd, Arabia, and was formulated by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It then acquired not only its own doctrinal but also theological attitudes that differ from other schools of Islam, including the Sunni school. Essentially, all international jihadists are mostly followers of the teachings of Najdi Salafism. This also applies to Al-Qaeda and the IS (both banned in Russia), as well as other organizations. Besides, Salafism seems to be a fairly moderate movement, like in Saudi Arabia or Qatar, unless it is tied to the ideology of global jihad, which otherwise turns it into Salafi jihadism.
The Taliban, however, do not adhere to the Najdi school of Salafism, which puts them beyond the jihadist mainstream. They consistently support the Hanafi madhhab and Maturidi Kalam (Maturidism), both being typical of Afghanistan. Many affiliates of the Taliban studied in religious institutions—primarily, in the Deobandi madrasah “Hakkaniya” in Pakistan. They mostly arose as a branch of the Islamic university in Indian Deoband that occupies a special place in the Hanafi school of Islam, giving its name to a trend in Hanafism.
At this point, it should be borne in mind that insurmountable doctrinal and theological contradictions stand between the Hanafi-Maturidis and the Salafis. For instance, some Salafis see Maturidites as heretics because of their stance on the divine properties and attributes, in the interpretations of which they allowed allegory (ta’wil). In turn and for the very same reason, Hanafis-Maturidites regard Salafis as Mujassim, impious anthropomorphists.
In addition, discrepancies related to the permissibility of Sufi practices, the celebration of Mawlid, the use of rosaries and amulets are unacceptable innovations from the point of view of the Salafis. This is often accompanied by mutual accusations of disbelief, which severely limits the potential for interaction between Salafi jihadists and the Taliban.
Such differences appeared before the rise of the Taliban, during the first Afghan War as well as in the disputes between the founders of Salafi jihadism, Abdullah Azzam and Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, who arrived in Afghanistan to help the Mujahideen. While Azzam adhered to Salafism, he believed that the Afghans still remain Muslims, be they Hanafi-Maturidis or Sufis.
Meanwhile, al Maqdisi insisted that they must first be forced to abandon their own views and “innovations” to be turned to Salafism. That is, they should first be taught “monotheism”, only then followed by military sciences. Subsequently, Azzam’s position was also adopted by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who became the leaders of al-Qaeda, although it resulted in a split in al-Qaeda’s ranks, since other representatives and spiritual leaders, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his mentor Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, opposed any ties with non-Salafis.
Several of the jihadists, for example, Abu Musab al-Suri, tried to settle this conflict. In his publications, he tried to refute the thesis that the Taliban are Maturidites in theology and “convinced Hanafis” in the madhhab. He attempted to prove that the views of the Taliban do not contradict the teachings of Salafism and that they are open to partnerships. This was done, of course, through distorted facts and false arguments, with suitable episodes and quotes selectively used, while the words of Pakistani Islamic scholars who dealt with the Taliban, those that did not fit his arguments, were omitted. The purpose of such publications was to preserve the global “unity in the ranks” of Salafi jihadism.
The Taliban put an end to this dispute, though. In the course of the negotiations in Doha, its representatives demanded that the Hanafi madhhab be the only school of jurisprudence in Afghanistan.
In turn, the fact that some in the Taliban leadership are Maturidites was also emphasized by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, when referring to Mullah Omar in his letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After the capture of Kabul, it turned out that the Taliban had banned the activities of the Salafis in Afghanistan. In particular, they were forbidden to preach, build mosques and declare their beliefs in the open. The Internet has even seen videos where Afghan Salafis were forced to publicly recant their beliefs in front of the Taliban.
As for the very recognition of the existing world order and the architecture of international relations on the part of the Taliban, they—unlike Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other Salafi jihadists—have never advocated for its dismantling, willing to fit into it instead.
Between Modernism and Traditionalism
Thus, falling back on traditional legal and theological schools of Islam in the region and using them to find ground for their actions, the Taliban does not fit into the framework of either Salafi jihadism—or, as some researchers go on to suggest, Islamism itself.
The anthropologist Olivier Roy, for one, believes movements such as the Taliban to be “neo-fundamentalist”, distinguishing them from what can be seen as another set of Islamic movements, often called “Islamist.” Limited, as his argument goes, by the “simple application of Sharia” in matters of ritual, dress and behaviour, these “neo-fundamentalist” movements differ from Islamist parties primarily because the former have neither a systematic ideology nor a global political agenda that would be oriented towards the external environment, to one degree or another. They might be more accurately labelled as “Islamic traditionalists.”
At the same time, the Taliban have provisions that distinguish them from the traditional Islamic organizations and trends that existed in Afghanistan. This, first of all, implies their attitude to Sufism, which is widespread in Afghanistan. The Taliban tried to minimize the role of the Sufi orders in the religious affairs of the regions under their control, far from welcoming any preservation of ties between their members and the Sufi tariqahs.
The Taliban also criticized and banned many Sufi practices that were considered excessive. The leadership of the Taliban, though, was not opposed to Sufism as such, resorting to the heritage of the Sufi sheikhs in their writings and appeals.
Likewise, the Taliban, originally a Pashtun movement, have completely abandoned the use of Pashtunwali, the Pashtun customary law. This contributed to the marginalization of the role of the Pashtun tribal leaders and their elders in the affairs of the movement, while opening the door for representatives of other peoples of Afghanistan to join the movement.
Despite the various “modern” particularities in the methodology and the doctrines of the Taliban, the movement can be considered fundamentally traditionalist, focused on attracting conservative residents of Afghanistan living in accordance with the established Islamic traditions. But, on the other hand, one cannot simply ignore the fact that the beliefs of the movement were initially alien to the Afghans.
These beliefs were better masked and more in tune with the local dynamics than what the government in Kabul was trying to introduce. Therefore, it would also be correct to characterize the Taliban as a “hybrid” movement, which means that both Islamism (and not necessarily radical) and the consolidation of traditionalism in its ideology are plausible options.
The Takings of Kabul and Other Analogies
In fact, given that the Taliban is not a Salafi jihadist movement, it cannot (and will not) become a banner under which to rally for these forces in their struggle. Nevertheless, there are examples of events similar to the capturing of Kabul by the Taliban that have triggered transformation (or unrest) in the whole Islamic world.
Of course, the events surrounding the presence and withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan appear at first glance to be similar to those of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan (1979–1989), and it was the first Afghan War (1979–1992) that sparked the rise of the global jihadist movement. However, there are rather few grounds to suggest that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will have similar consequences.
In contrast to 1989 (or 1992, if we take the collapse of the pro-Soviet regime as the endpoint), the recent success of the Taliban belongs to them alone. There are no foreign volunteers acting in the ranks of the movement to “share the victory.” Of course, the “Afghan Arabs” (Arab volunteers in the ranks of the Afghan mujahideen in 1979–1992) did not play any significant role in the military operations of the first Afghan War but, having dispersed across their countries, they still emerged as welcomed guests to hold lectures and visit mosques, becoming heroes for young people and launching the appropriate discourse.
At the same time, the impetus for the international Salafi jihadist movement to emerge was not provided by the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from the country but rather by the fact that the army of “Mulhids” (atheists, non-believers) entered the Islamic lands. Therefore, the current analogies with the post-Soviet period, including the collapse of the Najibullah regime, will probably be not entirely correct.
If we compared the capturing of Kabul by the Taliban with the Iranian Revolution of 1979, an important element would be missing. The Taliban movement does not call for a global expansion of its ideology, unlike the Islamic Republic of Iran, having attempted to export the revolution. Of course, we can say that the Iranian Revolution awakened, for example, the Syrian Islamists, pushing them into an armed struggle, but there is no direct evidence of this.
The Muslim Brotherhood of Syria (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) launched military operations against the government even before the Iranian Revolution in 1976, although they stepped up their activities at around the same time as the revolutionary events unfolded in Iran. Rather, both the Iranian Revolution and the uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria were links in the same chain, attesting to the growth of Islamist sentiments in the Middle East.
Today, the various groups that stand for moderate Islam are wondering whether it was a mistake to strive towards democracy, using its institutions to seize power. We are, in fact, referring to the events in Egypt in 2013 and Tunisia in 2021, when Islamists were ousted from power. Their supporters, who held machine guns and rifles instead of seats in the government, somehow managed to maintain their presence on the game board, whether in Libya or Syria.
Therefore, it is possible that a completely new round of the “Arab Spring” will lead to a radicalization of some previously moderate Islamic movements in terms of their readiness to embark on the path of an armed struggle. This, we should say, will come as the result of their independent and convergent evolution, regardless of any influence from the Taliban and its successes.
Finally, if we compare the implications of the Taliban takeover and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we should not forget that it was these attacks that brought the Americans to Afghanistan. This terrorist act, which “awakened” many jihadists, was rooted in the element of surprise, a strike on U.S. soil, to help it echo around the world in such a profound way.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, having begun back in 2014, was no secret—just as everyone, the Americans included, predicted the government in Kabul would stay afloat for more than six months, a year max, following the withdrawal of international forces. Ss such, the government’s collapse was then not a direct blow to the Americans but to the pro-American government only.
After all, the Taliban itself does not call on anyone to continue the “jihad” against the United States—on the contrary, it advocates for dialogue and cooperation, seeking recognition from Washington. This aspect cannot be ignored. Yet, it is precisely this approach that has led to the Taliban being seen as apostates from the idea of jihad, especially after negotiations with the United States were launched in Doha. This stance is common to many jihadist leaders, not only IS but also people like Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi.
The Threats and Challenges of the “Taliban Myth”: Real and Imaginary
The promotion of the Taliban myth, capable of “awakening” the radicals, is mainly hindered by the Taliban itself, who refuse to make jihadist calls for the Muslim Ummah. They are instead setting an example of how dialogue with global powers, such as the United States or Russia, rather than a “global jihad” can guarantee them success. Accordingly, the absence of such appeals makes it impossible for other radicals to conduct any activity on behalf of the Taliban, otherwise significantly reducing the propaganda effect.
Of course, many extremist movements have come out in support of the Taliban. One example is Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) in Idlib, Syria. In this case, though, it is worth mentioning that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has adopted the Taliban’s approach in terms of its own legitimization and deradicalization, assuring the world community that they do not plan to expand outside of Syria, being open to establishing relations with all countries, should they so desire. Thus, the Taliban’s example has already served as the basis for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham to change the rules of the game, trying to go global and starting to play by the rules of the international community.
Therefore, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, like the Taliban, will avoid embittering the world community with any form of aggression. On the contrary, they will seek support from the United States and Turkey by taking measures to suppress other radical and terrorist groups in Idlib, while choosing not to target the official Damascus. The Taliban has taken similar steps since they first made contact with the United States, albeit more successfully, as they have never been a branch of IS or Al-Qaeda, unlike Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
Although other Idlib-rooted radical groups, including those directly associated with al-Qaeda, celebrated the success of the Taliban, their spokespeople quite tellingly noted that they see Afghanistan as a refuge where they can move and live as civilians rather than a place to continue their military activity, seeing that the Taliban would not support any aggressive actions. In this context, it cannot be ruled out that the Taliban’s influence might lead to the abandonment of the “global jihad,” and not the radicalization of certain groups. Therefore, the “Taliban myth” might threaten the very ideology of Salafi jihadism.
For example, the ousting of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia after the Ethiopian invasion in 2006 led to the emergence of the Salafi jihadist Al-Shabaab group. Today, however, radical Somali Islamists might refute this globalist project, returning to the “Islamic traditionalism” of the times of the ICU. It should be noted that not all groups have the power and influence of the Taliban to seize power. Yet, following the path of the Taliban, these groups might initiate dialogue with official governments, thus launching the reconciliation process.
It is still possible that the Taliban’s attempt to integrate into the world system may cause turmoil. If the organization fails to receive international recognition and retains its terrorist status, the living standards of the local population will deteriorate under the pressure of sanctions. This could provoke the Taliban to take more active external steps, which could pose a threat not only to neighboring countries but also to the world community more generally. This could come in the form of attempts to harbor international terrorists to, with their help, overthrow the governments of neighboring states, winning a “living space.” Of course, this threat is most palpable for the Central Asian countries. Although in this case, the initiative lies with the world community to control the process and avoid this negative scenario.
The Taliban might also seek to transform Afghanistan into a new centre of Islam, using soft power to promote their influence. It would seem that that there is demand for a new Islamic centre of power in the Muslim communities of some states in Central Asia, the South Caucasus, Russia’s North Caucasus and the Volga Region as well as across the Arab world. Such a centre would reject Salafist ideology, opting for the traditional for most Muslims of the listed regions madhhabs in aqidah and fiqh.
At the same time, that demand would involve advocating for a Sharia state, open to the use of force (jihad) against the external enemies of Islam, albeit not through terrorist methods and not with the goal of external expansion. This is mostly about a “traditionalist” variant of Salafi Saudi Arabia or Shiite Iran as the Taliban and their project of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan do in many ways meet similar expectations.
Against this background, the Taliban is often seen in Muslim circles as a force against the foreign occupation of the country, on the one hand, and “Saudi Wahhabism” on the other, which can serve to promote the interests of the United States and the West. Conversely, it can become a platform to create global terrorist networks (such as IS or Al-Qaeda). Thus, globally, the ideology of the Taliban—as far as it relies on the traditional schools of Islam (four madhhabs) and the preservation of national characteristics, while establishing a comprehensive Sharia system based on traditional madhhabs—can challenge global Salafism.
The Taliban lack the necessary funding to promote their ideas as compared to the Gulf monarchies, but they do not yet seek to do so. Nevertheless, their success has earned the respect of many Muslims, leading them to believe that it is the “traditional” Islam, rather than imported Salafism, that is responsible for this. Therefore, it is tempting to contain the spread of the influence of Saudi theologians, focusing on the schools of law traditional for certain regions, although with a more consistent implementation of the Sharia principles, as the Taliban do.
Thus, although the “Taliban myth” is not a global threat, there is reason to believe that it might be effective at the regional level or within a particular state. At the same time, the bigger threat facing the Central Asian countries is not the possibility of an invasion by the Taliban or other more radical groups but rather the example set by the Taliban with their recent success.
When joining a radical organization in the past involved converting local Muslims to Wahhabism and a breach of local Islamic tradition, then now, as the example of the Taliban shows, organizations based on local traditional Islamic schools may emerge, albeit without its participation or approval. This will create a much broader base of hypothetical supporters, though: they will not set global goals, rather pursuing the goal of regime change in a particular country.
At the same time, the authorities in some Central Asian states are taking action to restrict rights and freedoms, increase repression, and suppress Islamic organizations that follow moderate Islam. In addition, they may introduce restrictive measures aimed at prohibiting hijabs or beards for certain categories of the population, which can further popularize the methods and ideas of the Taliban amongst some citizens, thereby prompting more radical groups to emerge locally.
- “Jihadist-Salafism” is introduced by Gilles Kepel in his Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2002).
- Ken Guest, “Dynamic Interplay between Religion and Armed Conflict in Afghanistan,” International Review of the Red Cross, Selected articles from issues 880–881, December 2010 – March 2011.
- Chernova, “The Impact of the Islamic Revolution on Monarchical Regimes in the Persian Gulf.” Bulletin of the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia, 161 (2013): 26.