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Afghanistan: Islamists Retain Powerful Influence

  • Charles Recknagel

When Afghanistan's next government takes office, it will most likely be known as the "Islamic" transitional administration of Afghanistan. That is due to a strong demand from Islamists to reject the government's Bonn-designated name of simply Transitional Authority as too secular. The dispute is a measure of how successfully Islamic fundamentalists are maintaining their influence as the country undergoes political change.

Kabul, 17 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- One of the emotional high points of Afghanistan's emergency Loya Jirga came last week when a prominent Islamist leader strode to the podium. Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, the leader of a fundamentalist Sunni Islamist faction that fought against the Taliban, called on the national assembly to include the word "Islamic" in the title of Afghanistan's new government.

Sayyaf commanded the instant attention of all the delegates for several reasons. He is the Pashtun leader of one of the recognized Mujahedin parties that ousted the Soviet Army from Afghanistan after a 10-year war. His Ittihad-i-Islami faction continues to maintain a powerful army that, along with other groups of the former Northern Alliance, occupied Kabul following the collapse of the Taliban last year. And he is a recognized professor of Islamic law who once lectured at the Sharia (Islamic law) faculty of Kabul University.

Sayyaf called on the assembly to reject the government's Bonn-designated name of simply Transitional Authority as too secular. He said God had chosen Islam as both the country's religion and its political system. "God has chosen this religion for us. [He cites the following Koranic verse in Arabic:] 'And I agreed with choosing Islam as a religion for you.' [He continues in Dari:] And at the end I have a proposal, that the name of the government should be the 'Islamic Transitional Administration of Afghanistan,'" Sayyaf said.

Sayyaf coupled his demand with a warning to Western-educated Hamid Karzai, the newly named head of the country's Transitional Authority. "It is our duty to obey Karzai as we obey God and [his Prophet] Mohammed. But if [Karzai] does not obey God and the Sharia laws, then we should not obey him," Sayyaf said.

The words ignited a strong reaction from the more than 1,600 delegates assembled under the Loya Jirga tent. Many cheered him with chants of "Allah Akbar" (God is Great), while others booed him loudly.

As the commotion died down, other speakers spoke for and against Sayyaf's proposal.

One of the most powerful opponents was the governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Shirzai, also a Pashtun leader with a powerful army. "I am a Muslim, but I am against using the name 'Islam' because there could be abuses in the name of Islam like there were under the Taliban or before," Shirzai said.

That position was in line with Shirzai's sympathies for Afghanistan's deposed monarchy, the Islamists' main enemy before the Communists took power in the 1970s.

The dispute was finally resolved in a show-of-hands vote that approved the name change. And, while some delegates have said no decision could be made in the absence of a secret vote, it appears highly likely that on 22 June, the new government will take office as Sayyaf named it.

After the vote, the attention of the Loya Jirga moved on to other things. But the brief spat remains significant as a measure of the deep divisions between Islamic fundamentalists and modernists.

Outside Afghanistan, it is the modernists who get most of the media attention. They are symbolized by Karzai, a number of his Western-educated advisers, and several powerful military commanders. Those include Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim and Deputy Defense Minister General Abdul Rashid Dostum of the outgoing interim administration.

But inside Afghanistan, the fundamentalists can claim to be at least as well-, if not better-, known to the public thanks to their dominance of the country's political life until very recently. Among their key personalities are Burhanuddin Rabbani, another mujahedin leader and professor of Islamic law, who was the internationally recognized president of Afghanistan prior to the interim administration. His picture, along with those of Karzai and the assassinated anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Masood, have appeared frequently along the streets of Kabul throughout the Loya Jirga.

The fundamentalist leaders say they are determined to play a major part in shaping the country's future and in assuring that it conforms to their vision of an Islamic state. That vision is for a society governed by Islamic law and resistant to change from the West, particularly with regard to the traditional role of women.

Keramatutullah Seddiq is a top official in the outgoing interim administration's Ministry of Religious Endowments, which oversees collection and spending of a mandatory religious tax levied on salaries. The money is intended for use in aiding the poor and maintaining the upkeep of religious sites.

Seddiq, in charge of the department for mosques and shrines, said Islamists played a major role in the interim administration and will maintain their influence in the new government. He said their power comes from the religious leaders' ability, through sermons, to influence the public. And he said if a government ignores the people, religious leaders retain the right to declare holy war against it. "The role of religious intellectuals is very prominent and no government can forget that. Generally speaking, they have their role, their [ability to issue] orders [to the public though sermons], and their declaration of holy war whenever there is a deviation," Seddiq said.

In reaching the Bonn agreement last year, four key Afghan factions agreed to share power in the wake of the former Northern Alliance's unilateral entry into Kabul after the Taliban collapsed under U.S.-led bombing. Rabbani, the former Northern Alliance's titular leader, agreed to hand over power to an interim administration headed by Karzai as part of a process intended to rebuild national unity. That process led to this month's emergency Loya Jirga to approve a new government that will lead the country to general elections within two years.

But Rabbani, while holding no official position in the interim administration, has remained a powerful figure outside it. Rabbani has said previously he plans to play a key role in writing the country's new constitution, which is to be presented to a constitutional Loya Jirga 18 months from now.

Seddiq said Rabbani and other mujahedin leaders did not see their power diminished by the United Nations-brokered interim administration and will retain it in the next government. "The mujahedin saved the whole world from the monsters of communism and terrorism. So it is not just or fair to take power from the mujahedin and give it to others. I think that will not happen. The mujahedin had their role in the interim administration and they will have their key role in the coming government," Seddiq said.

As fundamentalist leaders remain determined to preserve their power, confrontations with Karzai's new government may lie ahead.

One of Karzai's self-declared goals is to rid the country of warlordism as he seeks to build a strong central government with a national army. And many in Afghanistan, despite their respect for the mujahedin fighters, consider leaders like Rabbani and Sayyaf to be precisely the kinds of warlords the government should target.

Several female delegates to the Loya Jirga astonished their countrymen last week by publicly accusing both Rabbani and Sayyaf of killing civilians in power struggles. Rabbani's administration of Kabul from 1992 to 1995 saw fighting that destroyed 70 percent of the city.

But Islamist leaders dismiss any charges of warlordism and say that armed former mujahedin groups remain essential to preserving the country's current peace.

Enayatullah Baleegh, a professor of Islamic law at Kabul University, said as long as there are security problems, the mujahedin leaders should hold top positions in government. "In the current situation, there is no security in the country. So there is a need for some prominent Jihadi figures to be appointed in some ministries to maintain internal and external security. Otherwise, we [Islamists] want only to help the people. Neither we nor our leaders want a struggle for power," Baleegh said.

So far, Karzai has signaled he will go slow in challenging powerful military commanders even as he vows to end warlordism. He and U.S. officials have said the country's need for justice must be balanced with its need for peace, suggesting that for the present the controversial commanders will be included in the political process.

As for Sayyaf's warning to Karzai that "Islam is the name of our political system" and that the Mujahedin leaders will not be excluded from it, Karzai offers a guarded reply. He said he will safeguard Islam carefully, as a "humble servant of God and an Afghan citizen."

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