The ‘Good’, The ‘Bad’ & The ‘Deobandi’ Taliban

The seizure of Afghan capital, Kabul by the Taliban and their declaration to declare Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate has again raised the spectre of The Good, The Bad and The Deobandi Taliban.

The Good and Bad Taliban

I believe the distinction between the good and the bad Taliban, was first made by Shah Mahmood Qureshi during his first tenure as the Pakistani foreign minister from 208-2011. Interpreting his statement led to the fact that Pakistan believed that the Taliban aligned to Pakistan were the good Taliban and those opposed to its policies and intervention in Afghanistan are bad Taliban.

The western media took the categorisation step forward and even American politicians like Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton used the phrase to divide the Taliban into two different categories.

While delving into the psyche of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban let’s be clear that the Taliban is not a monolithic organisation, it has various factions and tribal and clannish rivalries. In the background of the traditional Afghan society we have to understand that the smallest functioning unit is the village and the local village headman or the local Imam holds sway over the vast multitude of uneducated Afghans, thus the message which they get from the local leader is the final order for them, added to their loyalty to the local militia or the Taliban unit.  In addition, the local commanders wield a lot of clout and power. Moreover, when the uneducated rural folks are handed the latest automatic weapons, they become another power unit of their own, with no link to the tag with which they were attached.

More recently, before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the chief of the US Central Command General Kenneth F. McKenzie called the Taliban “very pragmatic and very business like”. This sounded more like ‘good’ Taliban, as they were eager to gain legitimacy before the US withdrawal and were putting out their best behaviour.

This shift is happening in the Taliban ranks too, and as per the rules set by the west and Pakistan, the factions who align with them will be the ‘good’ Taliban. And those who are still committed to the old or stubborn Taliban are termed as ‘bad’ Taliban.

The Deobandi Taliban

But perhaps the most damaging sobriquet attached to Taliban is describing them as Deobandi. It shows that the people who describe them so have no clue about the great Indian seminary of Darul Uloom, Deoband and the role, which it played in tempering the Muslims sentiments on secular lines in addition to its immense contributions to the freedom struggle of India.

Barbara Daly Metcalf, an expert on the history of South Asia, especially the colonial period and the history of the Muslim population of India and Pakistan, in her book Islamic Revival in British India, Deoband 1860-1900 (February 2002) describes Deoband at the turn of the millennium emerging into public consciousness because of the association of the leadership of the Afghan Taliban regime with the Deobandi Ulema of Pakistan. 

She is of the view that many of the Taliban, whose very name described them as madrasa ‘students’, had studied in Deobandi seminaries in the Pakistan frontier provinces when, from the 1980s on, millions of Afghans had settled as refugees in that area. And based on this fact collectively calling all Taliban as Deobandi Taliban and casting aspersions on the Indian Deoband seminary is complete ignorance of Islam in the sub-continent.

The surge in the number of madrasas coincided with the influx of some three million Afghan refugees, for whose boys these madrasas provided the only available education. One school in particular, the Madrasa Haqqaniya, in Akora Khatak near Peshawar, trained many of the top Taliban leaders. These sometime students were shaped by many of the amended Deobandi reformist causes, all of which were further encouraged with Wahabi interpretation by Arab volunteers in Afghanistan.

These causes included rigorous concern with fulfilling rituals related to daily prayers and reciting the Holy Quran; opposition to custom laden ceremonies such as weddings and pilgrimage to shrines, along with practices associated with the Barelvi and Shi’a minority; and a focus on seclusion of women as a central symbol of a morally ordered society.

Theirs was, according to political analyst Ahmed Rashid, ‘an extreme form of Deobandism’, which was being preached by Pakistani Islamic parties in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. 

None of the Deobandi movements has a theoretical stance in relation to political life. They either expediently embrace the political culture of their time and place, or withdraw from politics completely. As happened in India after independence in 1947, when the leaders of Darul Uloom withdrew from the political scene completely and confined them to Deoband.

Barbara further asserts that the Deobandi madrasas on the Pakistani frontier closed periodically to allow their students to support Taliban efforts.  But the historical pattern launched by the Deobandi Ulema, had treated political life on a primarily secular basis, typically, de facto if not de jure, identifying religion with the private sphere, and in that sphere fostering Islamic teachings and interpretations that have proven widely influential.

British historian and academic specialising on the history of South Asia and Islam, Francis Robinson, in an essay on the first edition of Barbara’s book, described the Deobandi movement as ‘the most constructive and most important Islamic movement of the [nineteenth) century.’ 

He further says that aside from Deoband’s enduring influence, it exemplifies a patter-represented in general terms in a range of Islamic movements outside South Asia as well-of cultural renewal on the one hand and political adaptability on the other.

We also need to be aware of the fact that the Pakistani madrassas, which were described as Deobandi, essentially followed the curriculum prescribed by the Indian Darul Uloom. Further some of the founders of these madrassas might have studied at the Darul Uloom, but they had no umbilical link with their alma mater, and just based on the fact that they followed a particular syllabus they were described as Deobandi, though in fact the psyche and practice of their leaders were completely different from the teachings of the Deobandi. Thus, it would be a misnomer to call the Taliban as ‘Deobandi’ Taliban.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on issues related to Muslims, education, geopolitics and interfaith)

Darul Uloom

How Taliban’s Roots Go Back To A Small Town In Uttar Pradesh

In a recent interview with USA’s National Public Radio (NPR), Maulana Syed Arshad Madani, the 80-year-old principal of the Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, said if the Indian government asked him to, he was willing to go to Afghanistan to urge the Taliban, which has taken over the governance of that country, to be “peaceful and just”. But just what is the connection between an octogenarian head of a seminary in a small U.P. town and the Taliban?

Lots, if history has to be considered. Deoband is where the Taliban’s ideology originates. This little town, a little less than 170 kilometres north of New Delhi is where more than 150 years ago the seminary that Madani heads today was founded by Muslim scholars. India was then under British rule–the British monarchy had just taken control of India from the East India Company–and the previous regime of Mughal rulers had been defeated. The seminary’s mission was to educate Indian Muslims about the core principles of Islam and how that would help resist the British.

This was at the core of movement known as Deobandi Islam. Later, during the freedom movement in India many followers of Deobandi principles coalesced with the freedom struggle in India. Much later, after Independence, followers of the original seminary in Deoband set up what might be called branches in other parts of South Asia, including what is today the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It is at those locations where those adhering to the Taliban were educated. In fact, the late Mullah Mohammad Omar, who founded the Taliban, was educated at the Jamia Uloom ul-Islamia, an Islamic university in Karachi that follows the Darul Uloom system of the original Deoband seminary.

Although members of the Taliban consider themselves as Deobandis who believe in Islam in its purest form, the original Deobandis in India do not like to associate themselves with the notoriety that the Taliban has earned for itself. But, in his interview with NPR, Madani drew a parallel with what the Taliban stood for and the original objectives of the Deobandi movement. The way the Deobandis helped in resisting and kicking out the British during India’s freedom struggle was similar to what the Taliban was doing in Afghanistan, he said, in an obvious reference to the Taliban resistance against first the Russians and then, more recently,the Americans.

But while the Taliban is also influenced by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi culture, an ultra-conservative form of Islam, India’s Deobandis have co-existed fairly peacefully within a pluralistic society. At least until now. Since 2014 when a BJP-led right-leaning nationalist regime came to power, India’s Muslims, including Deobandis have been at the receiving end of discrimination and hostility. At the seminary in Deoband, the education programme (it is typically an eight-year course) involves the life and teachings of Prophet Mohammad, the Koran, and the Arabic language. And while Wahhabi fundamentalism is not prevalent in the teachings, there are elements of puristic Islamism that are common to Deobandis and the Wahhabi movement. One of them is the attitude towards women. For instance, the seminary is a male-only preserve; female students are not admitted.

In recent years, the seminary in Deoband has faced opposition, particularly from Hindu nationalist militant organisations, which are of the opinion that it should be shut down. A few weeks ago, the Uttar Pradesh government, which is led by the BJP, said that it would set up a training centre for Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) commandos in Deoband. And a senior state leader from the BJP alluded to the Taliban’s “brutality” as one of the reasons for setting up the ATS.