By Maha Akeel
July 18, 2018
The International Ulema Conference for Peace and Security in Afghanistan that took place last week was a significant event for various reasons, and it will be referred to in Afghan history as a turning point.
More than 100 Muslim scholars from around the world — including about 40 from Afghanistan itself, representing the diversity of the nation’s sects, ethnicities and regions — participated in the conference held in Jeddah and Makkah. That such a varied and elite representation of Muslim scholars united in their message to the Afghan people, government and stakeholders for peace, tolerance and dialogue, is powerful in itself. Added to that is the significance of the venue, in the holy city of Makkah, next to the Great Mosque. For a country where more than 99 percent of the population is Muslim and which has a society that is known for its strict adherence to Islam, and is the birthplace of many renowned scholars, such an event taking place in Makkah carries great weight.
Saudi Arabia is known for its strong support for peace in Afghanistan, and it has a long and much appreciated history of assisting Afghanistan politically, economically and through humanitarian efforts. King Salman received the scholars in Jeddah and praised their role in serving Islam, uniting Muslims and confronting the promoters of extremism and terrorism. The king urged the scholars to exert every effort to help turn a new page in Afghanistan that would help deliver to the Afghan people everything to which they aspire.
In the Makkah declaration adopted by the conference, the scholars stated unequivocally that suicide attacks targeting innocent people, and fighting among Muslims generally, are acts that are prohibited in Islam. They expressed their condemnation of the killings in Afghanistan and called upon all parties to the conflict to abide by Allah’s injunction, end this strife and resort to reconciliation.
No wonder the Taliban immediately — and while the conference was still taking place — issued a statement fiercely rejecting the meeting and whatever outcomes it produced. For them, such a gathering of respected scholars from around the world denouncing extremism and condemning suicide attacks is a threat to their legitimacy and religious authority. The Taliban and other like-minded groups feed on people’s ignorance of religious texts and understanding of their true interpretations, and use people’s piety and faith in God to misguide them.
Hence, the role of the real scholars in enlightening people about their religion should not be underestimated. And it would be wise of the Taliban to heed the scholars’ call for national dialogue as the optimal way to end the conflict between them and the Afghan government, and to realize that the solution to the problems in Afghanistan must be through mutual understanding and direct, peaceful negotiations.
President Ashraf Ghani has offered the Taliban unprecedented incentives and an opportunity for peace. He invited the movement to engage in unconditional dialogue. He made every effort to show his sincere will to go the extra mile in order to reach an agreement with the Taliban, including recognizing it as a political party, offering passports for insurgents and their families, working toward removing international sanctions against the group’s leaders, and allowing the Taliban to open official headquarters in the capital, Kabul.
But, for that to happen, he stressed a cease-fire must first be agreed on and that the Taliban has to become a political group rather than an armed insurgency.
The Afghans had a taste of what a cease-fire would be like when, last month, the Taliban accepted a three-day hiatus over the Eid Al-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan. Scenes of hugs and even selfies between the militants and the government in the first cease-fire in 17 years of war were celebrated across the country and indeed the world.
Unfortunately, the Taliban rejected a subsequent government call to extend the cease-fire.
It must be realized by the Taliban leadership that eventually they will need to sit for dialogue with the Afghan government; even if they did have direct talks with the United States, as they insist on, to reach an agreement on their demands, including the withdrawal of all American forces from Afghanistan. But first they have to stop the fighting.
After four decades of war, the Afghans are tired and they want peace. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation Ulema Conference offers a roadmap for a peace process owned and led by Afghanistan. It’s time for the Taliban to put aside their agenda and think of what is good for the country and people of Afghanistan.
• Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1