Where did the Taliban come from and what is their appeal?

By Kit Roberts

MOST people are aware of the Taliban on some level, but not all Jihadi movements are the same, and there is a lot of internal confrontation and distinction between the theological roots of different groups.

For movements such as Al-Qaeda or Daesh, their radical interpretation of Islam has its roots in Wahhabism.

This is a 19th century school of Islam founded by Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab. It argued against the more mysticist forms of Islam, such as Sufism, and for a renaissance of ‘traditional’ Islamic values derived directly from the Qu’ran and the Hadith.

Wahhabism became prominent in Saudi Arabia after Wahhab cut a deal with the house of Saud to promote the ideology. The movement was then later used by the Saudi State as a way of encouraging people to come to Saudi Arabia to fight against the Soviets under the pretext of Jihad.

Meanwhile, another formerly British mandated territory also started to see a conservative Islamic movement gain prominence in the form of ‘Deobandism’.

Deobandism is another movement of Sunni Islam which came to prominence in northern India in the mid 19th century under the British Raj, and continued in the subsequently founded state of Pakistan. The ideology advocated by the movement played a role in the campaign for Indian independence, as well as the Partition.

The reason for Deobandism’s importance is that it is to the Taliban what Wahhabism is to Daesh and Al-Qaeda. However, whilst Wahhabism has grown from the oil dollars of Saudi Arabia, Deobandism has grown as a more grass-roots based movement. 

At the time of its founding, British colonial power was viewed as insurmountable, and the movement could have been viewed as a way of reclaiming cultural space. 

Within Islamic movements such as Deobandism and Wahhabism, there are different approaches to promoting the ideology. The ‘Quietism’, which is a more passive approach focussed on study, all the way to Jihadism, which advocates for taking military action with the ultimate goal of establishing a society which reflects these Islamic values.

Up until the mid 20th century, the Deobandi movement had to operate within a separate system of government which had ultimate legal jurisdiction. Partition and the founding of Pakistan created an opportunity for Deobandi mullahs to take a far more active legal role. 

This is a crucial moment, because Deobandism was able to make the shift from being a movement within a distinct legal system, to being able to more explicitly influence how laws were written and enforced. 

The Taliban are an offshoot of this. Most people are now aware of the USA supplying the mujahideen in the 1980s to combat against Soviet encroachment. The use of jihadis as a buffer against the Soviets was not a new idea, as we’ve seen by Saudi Arabia’s similar use of this tactic.

What we do have in the Taliban is a movement that was further emboldened within the country, and which has ultimately become strong enough to seize power in Afghanistan on two occasions.

The tragedy is that a common trait of Deobandism and Wahhabism is their extreme conservatism. The Deobandi view on women’s role in society actively opposes women being taught to read, to say nothing of the brutality of punishments it deals out.

Nonetheless, the legal system being pushed by the Taliban has gained popularity because it can be called effective on its own terms. Important questions include asking whether rules are applied consistently, or whether judges rule for the side with the best legal claim.

The Taliban’s ideological roots nonetheless remain at their core deeply socially conservative.

Opposition from a secularist standpoint has proven ineffective in containing them. Those at the top are not anti-intellectual fanatics, but calculating political strategists driven by a frightening ideology which has been propagated by years of study and an in-depth understanding of Islamic theology.

Secularist approaches to opposing Wahhabism and Deobandism have clearly failed.

One suggestion is a renaissance in modernist Islam that can beat these movements on their own ground. Tragically it is the people of Afghanistan who must now pay the price for the catastrophic failure to effectively counter the Taliban. 

Featured Image: Drew2k2 @WikimediaCommons

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