Last April, the Aligarh Muslim University in India convened a high-profile international conference on the “Intellectual Crisis of the Muslim Ummah: Rethinking Traditional Solutions.” Of the four thematic questions posed in a bid to provoke thoughtful, open-minded discussion, this author found the question of “Is a United Islam Possible?” relevant to the Afghan security context, which has been shaped by regional and extra-regional players, largely involving Muslim countries or countries with a sizeable Muslim population. Building on the discussion of the above question at the conference, this piece explores whether a common religion can actually unite nation-states.
Afghanistan’s 36 years of suffering and victimization in the midst of Muslim countries demonstrates that nation-states, regardless of whether they share a common religion, are essentially realist and strive to advance their self-interest in the international system. In other words, Muslim countries, including self-declared “Islamic States,” do not consider themselves members of a supra-national community, known in Islam as Ummah, with a common history, even though they may selectively invoke the teachings of Islam to achieve their political and geostrategic objectives.
As Afghan President Ashraf Ghani often says, “Islam has always been inclusive and reflective in Afghanistan, not violent and angry.” Accordingly, Afghans practice the true teachings of Islam as a tolerant religion, which stands for and promotes social justice, peace, harmony, and coexistence among humanity.
Before the violent invasion and occupation of their country by the former Soviet Union, the destitute and yet devoutly religious people of Afghanistan were content with their way of life, exercising greater jihad in the face of many hardships. They neither fought each other, despite their poverty in a multi-ethnic country with the countless difficulties of a rugged terrain, nor did they ever venture out to harm others outside of their borders. Neutrality, based on strict adherence to the principle of non-interference, underpinned Afghanistan’s foreign relations in general, while the country always followed, as it does today, the tenets of Islam in pursuing peaceful relations with all of its neighbors, Muslim and non-Muslim countries alike.
Indeed, this was how Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) conducted diplomacy, and invited others to Islam through a message of peace and tolerance. Following this prophetic tradition, the Afghan people resorted to lesser jihad for defensive purposes only in order to preserve peace and stability in their country. A prime example was their collective popular resistance against the invading and occupying forces of the former Soviet Union.
In fact, it was with the blood of the Afghan people and the utter devastation of their country that the former Soviet Union succumbed and withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. Afghans believed in defensive jihad against the aggressive Soviet forces and fought it to victory. And that played a significant role in the collapse of communism.
Afghans proudly defended their country, responding to the concerns of the Muslim world about what some Muslim states termed as “Islam is in danger.” But soon after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan and the fall of the communist regime in the country, the “Islam in danger” narrative proved to be nothing but a propaganda tool of certain realist nation-states, populated and ruled by Muslims, which actually, effectively exploited Islam towards their geo-political ends.
By contrast, however, Afghanistan’s losses – on behalf of the Muslim world – in removing “Islam out of danger,” included more than one million Afghans killed, more than two million permanently maimed and disabled, more than five million refugees scattered around the world, as well as a financial loss of over $100 billion a year for a decade. After these catastrophic losses, the Afghan people naturally expected the Muslim world, the Ummah, to step forward and do their part through a greater jihad of stabilizing and rebuilding postwar Afghanistan. Indeed, the “Islamic States” neighboring Afghanistan and those beyond its immediate neighborhood had the means to do so.
But much to the dismay of the Afghan people, those very “Islamic States” did the opposite: They factionalized the Afghan politics and exploited Afghanistan’s many postwar vulnerabilities to further rip the country apart, in their realist geo-political games. For instance, they created the so-called Taliban and labeled it an Islamic movement, which would restore peace and stability in Afghanistan. Exhausted from war and violence, Afghans quickly embraced the Taliban’s deceptive message of delivering Islamic peace and justice in Afghanistan. But the Taliban soon turned out to be obscurantist mercenaries with an exported realist agenda that ruthlessly terrorized, killed, and maimed Afghans for years until the tragedy of 9/11.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – which, it should be remembered, also killed many innocent Muslims – the Afghan people welcomed the international intervention to help them stabilize and rebuild their country. Together, they ended the isolation of Afghanistan from the rest of the international community, a process that has immensely contributed to the stabilization and reconstruction of the country over the past 14 years.
India alone, despite its own many needs, has contributed some $2 billion in multi-faceted assistance towards reconstruction of Afghanistan, earning the gratitude of the Afghan people. Last March, Afghanistan’s National Unity Government leaders, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, visited the United States and thanked the American people for their enduring support in Afghanistan’s ongoing efforts to consolidate and sustain the hard-earned democratic gains the Afghan people have made, in partnership with the international community.
Thanks to continued international assistance, never before in the Afghan history have there been as many schools, universities, clinics, hospitals, telephones, banks, TV and radio channels, newspapers, shopping centers and sports facilities across Afghanistan as there are today. More girls and boys go to school in urban and rural Afghanistan today than at any time in the past. And an increasing number of Afghan women have been empowered to serve in the Afghan government and parliament, while playing a leading role in Afghanistan’s vibrant civil society where they further different societal causes, including the rights of women and children.
These are just some examples of the significant progress the resilient and enterprising people of Afghanistan have made in just over a decade. But these very transformational gains that have cost the lives of thousands of international troops and more than three hundred thousand Afghans over the past 14 years continue to be threatened by the so-called Islamic students. The Taliban was reconstituted shortly after their defeat and collapse more than a decade ago in a deliberate realist-nation-state effort to destabilize Afghanistan. Their aim has been to derail the stabilization, reconstruction, and development of the homeland of more than 30 million devout Muslims, who made the ultimate sacrifice in lesser jihad on behalf of the Muslim world, against an ideological, godless superpower.
Sadly, however, much like the post-1989 period after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, Afghans’ repeated appeals for an end to the conflicts imposed on their country have largely fallen on deaf ears. At the time of writing this piece, innocent civilians (most of them devoted, needy Muslims) across Afghanistan are being targeted by the killing machine of terrorists, who daily claim to be fighting for the sake of Islam. Despite this ongoing human tragedy that violates the basic values and principles of Islam, the Afghan government has reached out to convince the key regional stakeholders to end the suffering of the Afghan people, arguing that this is in their own long-term self-interest.
Afghanistan’s relentless efforts for peace notwithstanding, the Afghan people will not give up their just struggle, their continued lesser jihad against aggressors, be they Muslims or non-Muslims, state actors or their proxies, in order to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their country, in line with the basic principles of the United Nations Charter. They have learned the hard way, through decades of experience, that even when they have followed the timeless teachings of Islam to the letter, others have repeatedly violated, exploited, and abused them against Afghanistan and against Islam itself.
As the Afghan people defend their country and their hard-earned gains of the past 14 years, in continued partnership with the international community, they will continue to extend the hand of honest friendship and fraternity to their Muslim neighbors, and ask them to allow peace and stability to take root in Afghanistan and by extension throughout the region, for it is only peace that would enable the region to prosper together and coexist in harmony. That is what true Islam stands for; that is what Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) preached and practiced; and that is what the courageous Muslim people of Afghanistan will fight for, until they prevail over the forces of evil and their distortion of Islam.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the deputy chief of mission of the Afghan Embassy in India. He formerly served as Afghanistan’s deputy assistant national security adviser, as well as chargé d’affaires and deputy chief of mission of the Afghan Embassy in the United States.