The Taliban, Salafi ideology: Learning from history
Salafism is the inspiration for the Taliban ideology, and both have manifested themselves in the battlegrounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Taliban jihadists Photo: REUTERS
October 7 marked the eleventh year of the Afghanistan war, and American
casualties reached 2,000, while many more thousands of Afghans have been killed
or maimed by conflict-related casualties as well as terrorist suicide attacks.
As US and coalition forces prepare for the 2014 pullout, the International
Crisis Group just released a report warning that the Afghan government could
collapse, precipitating a civil war.
Most likely that is what the Taliban
and fellow insurgents are counting on, allowing history to repeat itself once
again. If we were to pull one thread from today’s situation in the
Afghanistan-Pakistan region, we would see it woven into an ideological fabric
that goes back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan era. Very little has
changed in the militants’ worldview and strategies since the 1980s. In fact,
that very thread is also connected in many respects to the post-Arab Awakening
environments in North Africa, where Salafists are asserting themselves in the
most unsavory ways.
The Washington Post (October 6) describes the
Salafists’ tactics in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt: “As moderate Islamist leaders in
all three countries begin to craft post-revolutionary constitutions, the
Salafists in their midst are pushing – sometimes at the ballot box, sometimes at
the point of a gun – to create societies that more closely mirror their
ultraconservative religious beliefs and lifestyles.”
What is the
relationship between the current Salafist trends and tactics in North Africa and
the Taliban in Afghanistan? Although both consist of degrees of conservatism in
the ideological spectrum, in general the militants are violently and
theologically totalitarian, and both combine their religious ideologies with
politics and militarism, or “jihadism.” Everything they view is through their
narrow religious lens, according to their literalist, ultra-conservative
interpretation of Sharia, Islamic law.
SALAFISTS IN particular are not
confined to North Africa, as the Washington Post explains: “Salafist groups are
also becoming significant players in Kuwait and Yemen, and they are even posing
a challenge to Hamas, the Islamist party that rules the Gaza Strip. The US
government views Hamas as a terrorist organization, but militant Salafists fault
it as too moderate because of its de facto cease-fire with
Salafism is the inspiration for the Taliban ideology, and both
have manifested themselves in the battlegrounds of Afghanistan and
The late Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad talks about
this in his insightful book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden
and 9/11. Referring to the waves of foreign jihadi volunteers fighting against
the Soviets in Afghanistan, Shahzad says, “The first arrivals were Egyptian
youths from the Muslim Brotherhood, and they were later joined by others from a
number of underground organizations opposed to various Arab governments.” He
adds that “Hundreds of young men from Pakistan belonging to the Salafi school of
thought joined the organization to fight alongside their Afghan
Then, once the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the
organization Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT) was created in the Kunar Valley, with Osama
bin Laden affiliations, and “before the Taliban took up the reins of government,
an Islamic Emirate, based on Salafi tenets supported by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia,
was founded in the valley.”
Fast forward to 2011 and 2012 North Africa,
and we see that a similar Salafi ideology is proliferating and perpetrating
violence, as seen with the attacks on US embassies in Benghazi, Cairo and Tunis.
The warning signs from all of these examples are unmistakable. The same jihadist
ideologies that served as the engine for the fight against the Soviets in
Afghanistan constitute the backbone of Salafi ideologies that are trying to take
advantage of political and security vulnerabilities in North Africa following
the Arab Awakening. They are also reportedly fighting against the Bashar Assad
regime in Syria.
DESPITE THE insistence by some Salafists that their
intentions are purely political, they should not be trusted. By virtue of their
ideologies, which, by definition, do not allow any flexibility in their
interpretations of religious laws and principles, they pose the most dangerous
risks of derailing any potential for real democracies to flourish.
reports on the drafts of the Tunisian and Egyptian constitutions already
indicate some red flags, particularly concerning blasphemy laws and gender
inequality. The post-Arab Awakening governments are under tremendous pressures
from hard-line Islamist and Salafi constituents to bend on some Islamic issues
The fight against extremist ideologies is not just on the
asymmetric battlefields (including cyberspace), it must start with schools and
education. The sad truth is that the Salafi/Wahhabi sponsors are endowed
with immense oil wealth, and hence possess an advantage over the powerless
moderate and secular voices and educational institutions throughout the Muslim
Countering extremist ideologies is a multifaceted endeavor, and
more resources must be allocated for this extremely important effort.
Unfortunately, such strategies fail to appear in the agendas of most
This will permit the violent Salafists to further smother
the voices of reason, which will only doom the world to repeat history with
increasingly ominous results.
Hayat Alvi, PhD, is an associate professor
at the US Naval War College. The views expressed are personal.