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 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Taliban 311
(photo credit: 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 Israel.”
Salafism is the inspiration for the Taliban ideology, and both have manifested themselves in the battlegrounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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 brethren.”
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.
The current 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 and policies.
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 world.
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 policymakers.
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.