By Imtiyaz Razak –
Sociopolitical changes and tensions both at the elite and masses level may motivate some to form social movements, which can play a role in changing rules of governing social order. Studies suggest the formation and the growth of social movements in the Muslim- majority societies in west, central, and south Asia built their success and failure in catching the attention of masses and the social actors. The stories of Taliban and al-Qaeda are cases in point.
Taliban literally means “students from madrassas,” and is predominantly a Pashtun Muslim group in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban comprises more than just students. Its top leadership and high command are drawn from former mujahideen who fought against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. The movement also accommodated former communist followers from the Pashtun community, the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan. It emerged as a viable politico-military force in late 1994 made of madrassa students in Paki- stan who were refugees. Sociopolitical instability, eth- nic and ideological civil wars, and the presence of Soviet troops to support the Soviet-inspired government run contributed to the rise of the Taliban. The Taliban is led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, who is believed to have been hiding in Pakistan since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001. The Taliban captured state power in Afghanistan in 1996. Despite the fact that the Taliban government failed to win diplomatic recogni- tion from many countries, including the United States, it did manage to secure diplomatic recognition from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan. These countries, particularly Pakistan and Saudi Ara- bia, aggressively contributed to the Taliban’s financial and human resources. However, since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, these countries officially barred all forms of support to the Taliban. The group is known for having provided safe haven to Osama bin Laden who allegedly master- minded the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The top Taliban leaders practice Wahhabism, an orthodox form of Sunni Islam similar to that practiced in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism aims to embrace Islam in all state affairs with no separation between state and religion. The Taliban believes that social evils are the by-product of rejecting religion from everyday life. Therefore, Islamic societies should form a state that respects and practices Islam in all affairs, including laws and wars. The Taliban’s aspirations to form a state basically endorsed the messages of Seyyid Qutb, who called Muslim societies to challenge the non-Islamic political system and ideas and build an Islamic state through the channels of (militant) jihad.
The Taliban invested immense energy and resources to form a state and society influenced by basic Islamic principles. Therefore, it is safe to note that the ide- ology of the Taliban, with respect to forming a state and social norms, is primarily Islamic, with sharia becoming one of the major sources of law. However, it is not very clear whether sharia was the only major source of law that the Taliban implemented until it was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001.
Islamic understanding of women contradicts the teaching of modernity, which liberates women from the traditional male-dominated clutches. The status of women was pathetic under the Taliban. In addition to sharia, it is very likely that some laws of the Tal- iban pertaining to women and family could have been inspired by local customs and traditions. The Taliban regime (1996–2001) implemented harsh forms of social and religious norms. For example, women were barred from going outside their residences except for those working in the medical sector. Girls were not allowed to attend schools, and schools that catered to girls were violently closed. The Taliban also implemented a strict dress code for women, including a veil enshrined in Koran. Since these measures go beyond Sharia, it is safe to assume that the laws of the Taliban regime were a combination of Sharia and local customs of Afghanistan.
Although this group has been out of power for sev- eral years, it remains a socially and politically power- ful force in the region, running shadow government structures in isolated areas of southern Afghanistan where the elected government fails to deliver common good to the people. The 2007 report compiled by the London-based Senlis Council suggests that the Taliban maintains a permanent presence in 54 per- cent of Afghanistan. This explains the trend, and it is very likely that the Taliban will be a force to fear in building a future political system.
Al-Qaeda is a politico-military transnational organization led by Osama bin Laden, who met his death on May 2, 2011, at the hands of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team 6 in Abbottabad, a city located some 35 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. The word al- qaeda can mean a base, as in a camp or a home. By the mid-1980s, Muslim radicals who fought the Soviets alongside the local militants were also identified as al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda was established around 1988 by bin Laden to defeat the foreign occupation and to estab- lish an Islamic political regime in the Muslim-major- ity societies in the Middle East and beyond. In other words, bin Laden wanted to establish a Pan-Islamic caliphate throughout the world by actively associating with single-mind Islamic groups to bring down regimes it considered “non-Islamic.” The group also aims at expelling westerners and non-Muslims from Muslim countries. It is impossible to estimate membership. However, some estimates suggest a few thou- sand members.
The organization’s major agenda has roots in the message of Muhammad, who aggressively challenged the Jahiliya (the pre-Islamic Arabian age of ignorance) sociopolitical system and norms. The organization was also inspired by the messages of Hasan al-Banna, who ideologically defended embracing Islam for poli- tics and promoted militant Islam for the formation of Islamic states in the Muslim-majority societies.
The organization is inherently against Jews and Christians. In February 1998, it urged all Muslims of the world to kill U.S. citizens—civilian or military— and their allies everywhere. It was listed as a terror- ist organization after its direct involvement in engi- neering the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States. The United States led the war in Afghanistan to destroy the organization’s base and structure. The campaign seriously weakened the organization, but it continues to watch the West with deep interest, along with its political moves. Despite its organizational decay post-September 11, it was able to successfully challenge and test the West’s antiterrorist policies and attract sympathies among certain sections of Muslims in Muslim-majority and non-Muslim-majority societies.
Al-Qaeda does not have a central structure, unlike nationalist guerrilla groups such as Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Kurdish Kurd- istan Workers’ Party (PKK), Lebanon’s Hizbollah, or Palestine’s Hamas. But its activities confirm that it has a rich multinational network possessing a global reach, and has been supported through financing, training, and providing logistics to Islamic militants in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, Eritrea, Kosovo, the Philippines, Somalia, Tajikistan, Yemen, and Kosovo. Additionally, al-Qaeda has been linked to conflicts and attacks in Africa, Asia, Europe, the former Soviet Republics, the Middle East, and North and South America. In fact, no other insurgency group in history was successful as al-Qaeda at widely and globally recruiting foot soldiers. However, al- Qaeda’s core leadership is largely concentrated in two countries, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This fact poses
serious question about the organization’s true nature of transnationalism.
Looking Forward After the Death of bin Laden
It is unlikely that al-Qaeda will collapse after the death of Osama bin Laden. The organization is active, and its leaders are still capable of recruiting foot soldiers globally and convincing them to embrace death for the caliphate cause of al-Qaeda.
It is unclear what changes are in store for al-Qaeda after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Some express optimism, while some cautiously suggest otherwise. The same goes for the Taliban, which sheltered Osama bin Laden and his top associates when it was in power in Afghanistan. The West demands that the Taliban disown ties with al-Qaeda in order to be considered as a viable partner in peace talks for power sharing. The West may increase pressure on the Taliban to renounce violence. It is also likely that the Taliban might be gripped by the Pakistani political and military establishment in order to build Pakistani influence to perturb Western interests in Afghanistan, particularly if the American administration intimidates the Pakistani political and military establishment for their noticeable failure to identify bin Laden’s safe house in Abbottabad, a garrison town north of Islamabad, and go against the interests of Pakistan in the region.
Both the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been employ- ing Islamic symbols to garner Muslim sympathies in the region, and they may continue to seek shelter in these symbols to reach their eventual political aim. Fundamentally, social movements that employ populism and primordial symbols are capable of manipulating social tensions and grievances to promote their causes.
The events of the first decade of the 2000s, including the Arab Spring in Muslim majority societies, suggest that the grievances of Muslim masses can be channeled through nonviolent mechanisms, and the very methods (brand of violent extremism) recommended both by the Taliban and al-Qaeda can be neutralized if civil and social forces, including communication networks, guide mass agitation and pro- tests for sociopolitical changes. What is equally true is that the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as organizations, are active. Both movements largely ridicule the West, particularly America’s commitments to democracy and freedom, and claim that America’s only goal is to exploit the resources of Muslim land. These slo- gans still have an audience in the region, and thus it is likely that Islamic social organizations such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, run by Islamic extremists, will stick to populist slogans and religious symbols to win Muslim sympathies. Some claim that efforts from the United States such as nation building in the region may help weaken such rhetoric and, therefore, Islamic extremists.
[The article was published in Patterson and Geoffrey J. Golson edited, Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa: An Encyclopedia, Sage Publications, 2012.]
(Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz’ research and teaching are mainly focused on ethnic politics. He has published widely in peer-reviewed international journals. He currently teaches at the Asian Studies/Department of Political Science, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA.