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Taliban's Spiritual Fathers Denounce Terror. Could Taliban Be Next?

Fighters with Afghanistan's Taliban militia stand on a hillside at Maydan Shahr in Wardak Province, west of Kabul, in late September.
Fighters with Afghanistan's Taliban militia stand on a hillside at Maydan Shahr in Wardak Province, west of Kabul, in late September.
By Jeffrey Donovan and Abubakar Siddique
What would happen if the Taliban’s spiritual fathers denounced terrorism? That, in effect, is what has taken place in Deoband, the northern Indian hometown of the austere form of Sunni Islam followed by the Taliban.

In May, Darul Uloom Deoband Madrasah, located north of New Dehli, issued an unprecedented fatwa, or religious decree, against terrorism. Earlier this month, 4,000 senior Indian ulema and muftis -- Muslim clerics with the authority to interpret Islamic law -- backed the fatwa in a mass gathering in the city of Hyderabad.

Now, the Deobandi political leader in India has told RFE/RL that the next step is to gather Muslim leaders from across South Asia, including the Taliban, to discuss endorsing the antiterror decree.

It looks set to be a hot debate.

“The killing of innocents or atrocities against them is terrorism,” Maulana Mahmood Madani, general-secretary of Jamiat Ulama-i Hind (JUH), the conservative political party founded by Darul Uloom Deoband, told RFE/RL in explaining the May 31 fatwa. “That is how terrorism is defined.”

Strong Stand

The fatwa was issued in a strictly Indian context. In recent years, amid a series of terrorist attacks, India’s 150 million-strong Muslim community has come under strong criticism from majority Hindus. Stigmatized as terrorists, Indian Muslims have been seeking to take a strong stand to dissociate themselves from violence -- and the fatwa is the latest, if perhaps the most vocal, contribution to that effort.

Maulana Mahmood Madani
But given Deobandi influence on Muslims across the subcontinent, the fatwa is seen as having a potentially significant regional impact.

Darul Uloom Deoband was formed about 150 years ago as a spiritual resistance movement to British rule. Over the years, its austere form of Sunni Islam, which harkens back to the early days of the faith, spread across northern India and what is now Pakistan. Thousands of madrasahs propagating its teachings cropped up across the region, including along the Afghan-Pakistan border. It is here that many Taliban, including leader Mullah Omar, received their schooling.

With their teachers now coming out against terrorism, will the Taliban in Pakistan or Afghanistan follow suit? Madani is unsure. But he wants senior clerics from the eight member states of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to come together to debate whether to endorse the Deobandi decree.

“I don’t know what [the Taliban and clerics who support them] will say,” Madani said. “But my intention is that this issue must be debated. I am trying to bring together the ulema and muftis from all SAARC countries in India. Then I will request them to endorse this decree.”

Critical Stage

The Deobandi efforts come at a critical stage of the Afghan conflict, which has spilled over into the bordering tribal regions of Pakistan with militants also striking targets in and around Islamabad. In October, Saudi King Abdullah hosted allies of the Taliban and Afghan government for a religious dinner in Mecca. That meeting fueled talk that Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants a peace deal with the Taliban -- provided they accept the Afghan constitution and renounce ties to Al-Qaeda.

On November 16, Karzai offered to provide safe passage to Omar and other Taliban leaders to take part in any peace talks. Taliban sources said they were considering a response.

Late last month, Pakistani and Afghan politicians and tribal leaders met for two days of talks in Islamabad. Their so-called “mini jirga” reiterated the desire of both countries to combat extremism and terrorism, and extended an olive branch to militants willing to lay down their arms.

The jirga process, which is continuing, is a positive development, according to Maulana Syedul Aarifeen, who heads a major Deobandi Madrasah in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s restive Northwest Frontier Province.

In the 1980s, Aarifeen’s late father -- Maulana Rahat Gul -- was instrumental in bringing together ulema to issue a fatwa declaring the fight against Afghanistan’s Soviet occupiers as jihad. But Araifeen now wants an end to nearly three decades of war in the region. He tells RFE/RL the jirga between Pakistan and Afghanistan is the best forum to bring an end to the Taliban insurgencies in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“This jirga should be held among Muslims,” Aarifeen said, “because Allah and his Prophet [Muhammad] said that when two Muslims have differences among themselves, you should seek rapprochement among them though consultation. And this process is called jirga in Pashto [language]. Now we see that there are differences among Muslims, who were united before. Now, the jirga is a good forum for us to unite again.”

Parallel Track

Alongside the jirga process, the Deobandi effort amounts to a parallel track on the theological front.

Francesco Zannini, an Italian author and expert on South Asian Islam, says the Deobandi fatwa appears aimed at condemning Al-Qaeda-style tactics -- atrocities against civilians -- while clearly leaving intact the Koranic concept of jihad, which among other things legitimizes defending Muslims against aggression.

“I believe it’s a big step forward in the sense that the Deobands are now promoting in some way a movement that goes against what Al-Qaeda is doing. This is a positive point,” said Zannini, a professor at Rome’s Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies. “But, at the same time, I would say that it does not attack classic fundamentalism but rather only condemns its most extremist aspects. In my opinion, the Taliban could very well end up backing it.”

The Deobandi fatwa comes amid other recent developments in Muslim countries that have condemned terrorism and embraced tolerance.

Saudi King Abdullah has led ongoing efforts to promote interreligious peace and tolerance, including a United Nations meeting last week in New York. Earlier this month, Catholic leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI and representatives of Islam’s major schools of thought, signed a statement after three days of talks at the Vatican pledging to combat violence waged in the name of religion.

Zannini, who took part in the Vatican talks, says it all adds up to a trend: “I believe at this point we find ourselves faced with what is, essentially, the great Islamic middle class that has grown tired of this confrontation. As a result, it has begun to do something about it.”

Perhaps the most dramatic shift within radical Islam came last May, when Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, the Egyptian ideological father of Al-Qaeda, published a major condemnation of the tactics used by Osama bin Laden’s terror network.

“We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do,” al-Fadl wrote.

RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.
 
RFE/RL Afghanistan Report
 

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: ARSHAD from: PAKISTAN
November 18, 2008 15:29
I think Deoband are too late but ok their effort is very good at this time when the muslims of all world suffering because of the DRAMA held in the name of islam. I appreciate Mulana Madni for his efforts for tollerence.Al qaeda is not representative of islam but it is the helper team of capitalism

by: David from: Melbourne, Australia
November 18, 2008 23:11
"The killing of innocents ... is terrorism" but who is considered innocent? The salafist interpretation has all citizens of countries that fight them being non-innocent, all apostates and heritics (eg Shia for the Sunnis) non-innocent, so they can carry on with car bombings etc while obeying this fatwa.

by: meelash from: USA
November 19, 2008 13:40
The Taliban are already obeying this fatwa. They do not engage in terrorism, they are freedom fighters combating the US terrorists that have invaded their land. The US is the one blowing up and air-raiding civilians, and then blaming it on our brothers.

by: Scott from: South Carolina
November 19, 2008 18:44
What the terrorists don't seem to understand is that they will never establish a world wide Islam through control and intimidation. The human spirit will not be jailed by any religon or anything else that doesn't allow freedom.

by: Martin Bright
November 19, 2008 19:36
It came too late. I must have been done 40 years ago. If so, it would had save thousands of Afghan innocents lives killed by bombs and other terrorists acts commited by CIA trained al-Qaida guys inthe 80s.

by: Fazal Habib Curmally from: Karachi
November 20, 2008 05:14
Perhaps it would be best to define what the war in Afghanistan is about. The USA and NATO are fightingthe Al-Qaeda first for 9/11 and the Taliban for giving refuge to the Al-Qaeda.Secondly, they are backing anethnic minority against an ethnic majority. The taliban want the invaders out. The Government in kabul has lttleor no say in what is going on in the country. As I see it, the war is a civil war between an ethnic majority who have traditionally ruled Afghanistan and an ethnic minority that is backed by foreign invaders. Where the Al-Qaeda are is anybody's guess. With the USA bombing the FATA and the settled areas of Pakistan, one wonders who is fighting who and why? Most of all, I don't understand why Pakistan is being bombed and I don't care what the NSDD-207 of 1986 says bombing Pkistan is an act of war.<br /><br />AS far as the Deoband fatwa goes, its just another fatwa or a legal opinion. No more and no less.

by: a man
November 24, 2008 20:32
what the taliban should realize is that if they lay down arms long enough the us will leave the country.so if they want piece just be smart and lay low for a while and the us will leave.trust me the soldiers of the us want to leave just stay quiet and we can all be happy.

by: pranit from: uk
December 06, 2008 21:45
Untill the quran is purged of certain verses which promote killings of the non-mulsims its difficult to get rid of terror. Quran tells Muslims to kill the disbelievers wherever they find them (2:191), murder them and treat them harshly (9:123), slay them (9:5), fight with them (8:65 ), strive against them with great endeavor (25:52), be stern with them because they belong to hell (66:9) and strike off their heads; then after making a “wide slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives” for ransom (47:4).<br /><br />