By Luke Ryan
Religious Islamic leaders met in Afghanistan on Monday, issuing a “fatwa,” condemning the use of suicide attacks. This means that, under the Islamic law, suicide bombings are forbidden. The fatwa actually extended beyond suicide bombings to violent acts, considering them an offense toward Islam. They also plead for peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which they have not done in the past.
Unfortunately, as the meeting was dismissed and people were on their way out, a suicide bomber detonated himself near the entrance, killing up to 14 people, according to reports, one of which was a police officer.
Similarly, in Indonesia, Islamic religious leaders from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia met and declared a similar fatwa recently, condemning violent extremism and specifically mentioning suicide attacks as being “against the holy principles of Islam.”
After the attacks on Monday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani publicly showed his support for the fatwa, and said that the attacks on the clerics were “in fact an attack against the heirs of the prophet of Islam and the values of Islam.”
Religious moves like these might seem like the political blithering followed by inaction that we are used to in the west. However, one has to realize the significance and level of integration religion has in their system. Many Afghans aren’t very concerned with the fate of Afghanistan as a country — they are very concerned with the well-being of their families, their tribes, or their city or other subgroup — much of their concern revolves around religion as well. The United States has largely unsuccessfully integrated a secular, singular government into this country because secularism, separation of church and state, and singular, nationalistic rule are all generally foreign concepts. For example, many Pashtuns don’t even recognize the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and they travel freely over the border.
However, there is one thing that many of them do recognize and respect: the adherence to the principles of Islam. It’s just translated and adhered to in a myriad of different ways.
As the direction in Afghanistan begins to change toward the strategy discussed by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Afghanistan must work to some sort of reconciliation with the Taliban. This will likely never happen if the government continuously tries to do it without incorporating the language and doctrines of Islam. If they are to survive the United States pulling out in the future, as well as keeping Sharia law off the streets, the government will have to make many concessions and negotiations, all admitting the fact that Islam is an integral part of that culture and rule of law. If they wish to transition out of that and into a more secular form of government in the long-term future, that will be up to them.
Again, the concept of a fatwa might be somewhat strange in the west. There is some religious authority throughout the Catholic Church, but for the most part people adhere to the idea that religion is a purely personal journey; while the opinions of others may be correct; they are no more an authority on anything than anyone else. This is not so in many countries around the world, and certainly not in a fundamentalist Islamic country like Afghanistan. The word and decrees by the mullahs, especially a counsel like the one on Monday, are taken very seriously.
Will this fatwa immediately stop all suicide bombings? Of course not, as vividly seen in the bombing on the same day in the same place that the fatwa was declared. So, if it does not spur immediate action, then what is the point?
Even if the Afghan government and Taliban never come to a point of reconciliation, Fatwas like this can signal major culture shifts. A study done by the Pew Research Centre in 2013 showed some troubling ideas about suicide bombing — 39% of surveyed Afghans said that they supported the act of “suicide bombing in defence of Islam,” as opposed to much of the rest of the Islamic world, who largely condemns it. This fatwa could not only lead the way in lowering those numbers in Afghanistan, but may serve as a sign that they are already going down and the mindset is already shifting.
As the mindset shifts in the general population, so it will shift in the population that the Taliban uses to recruit newer militants. Generational shifts like these can take years, or even much longer and so obviously do not provide a short-term turnaround. But then again, this has not been a short-term war.
Hopefully this is one step of many that will shift the sweeping ideologies of the area toward a culture and people of peace in all regions of Afghanistan.