Since September 11, I have given over 120 public lectures on Islam to help our local community understand the second largest religion in the world. While I prefer to share the stories of the billions of everyday Muslims who care for their families and communities every day, motivated by their true love for the Creator, the audience’s questions tend to understandably focus on the tiny minority of Islamic extremists whose murderous ways light up our televisions at night. When we see images of Taliban capture Afghanistan or ISIS targeting civilians, it’s easy to get swayed by the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with modern Islam itself.
Let us remember, however, that the resurgence of Islamic extremism has more to do with political and sociological forces than with spiritual ones. After studying the rise of religious extremism, I have come to the conclusion that extremism occurs more often in response to perceptions of abandonment, disrespect and abuse in places of instability than a sudden rediscovery of piety. The reality is that the infamous rulers of Islamic lands are harnessing the power of resentment in a population, masking their rhetoric in godly sounding language that distorts Islam and demands a mandate from God to mend their shattered world. The most recent events in Afghanistan reveal this trend and should provide a warning for the future.
The three main Islamic extremist groups in Afghanistan have different origins, but all come from times in Afghan history when chaos and injustice reigned.
Al-Qaeda’s roots It was in the 1980s when the foreign fighters known as the Mujahedin who had gathered to expel the occupying Soviet Union began to experience significant successes due in large part to training, weapons and support. American financial. However, when the Soviets began their withdrawal, American support for Afghanistan also waned, as it was no longer a central Cold War front. As American support subsided, a wealthy Saudi fighter, Osama bin Laden, turned his anger on America, spreading a message that America never really cared about Afghanistan but only wanted to exploit innocent Muslims so Americans don’t have to die fighting the Soviets. During a retreat to a place they called “The Base” or Al-Qaeda in Arabic, they hatched a plan to punish America both for abandoning Afghanistan and for exploiting the Muslim world in the goal of becoming the world’s only superpower. The result was the September 11 attacks and dozens of other attacks on American interests around the world.
The The roots of the Taliban are in the mid-1990s, when Afghanistan predictably fell into civil war after the Soviet-backed government collapsed in 1992. The Pakistani government saw an opportunity to stabilize its neighboring country by supporting a faction in the civil war, which shared tribal affinities with the northern Pakistanis. After field-testing various names, “taliban”, meaning simply “students”, was chosen as the name for the new movement that could restore peace, fight corruption and bring Afghanistan back to traditional values.
After years of tribal warfare, countless atrocities on all sides, and a long history of political instability, many Afghans hailed the prospect of stability under the Taliban – only to regret it later when such promises were made. accompanied by brutal and backward social restrictions employed by the Taliban retain power. To bolster domestic support, the Taliban government blamed the lack of financial support from the international community on their failed state.
After being ousted by America in 2002 following the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban reappeared as the most viable alternative to the corrupt US-backed Afghan government and the new force of foreign occupation, the US military. The Taliban’s plan was to outlive America and bring anti-imperialist sentiment back to power. No longer just students from the Pakistani border region, the Taliban have become an umbrella organization to carry on the long tradition of forcing foreign occupiers out of Afghanistan. Now they are in desperate need of international support if they are to succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan, but as Al Qaeda focuses on America, the Taliban’s interests lie only within borders. from Afghanistan.
A third group, ISIS, was born in the mid-2000s when an al-Qaeda splinter group in Iraq and Syria began to question the effectiveness of the group’s master plan. Their aim was also to counter US imperialism in Iraq, but unlike Al Qaeda, they also targeted moderate Muslims, who they said allowed imperialism and hindered the creation of a united Islamic state. . Their initial success was due to instability, corruption and chaos in the Middle East after the United States began to withdraw its troops from Iraq. Likewise, ISIS’s affiliate in Afghanistan, ISIS-k, devotes as much energy to attacking the Taliban and al-Qaeda as it does to attacking interests aligned with the Americans.
Each of these groups – Al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS-K – were born out of political instability and chaos in their countries of origin. The failed and broken states from which these groups came were not only the product of US imperialism, but the effects of a long history of political corruption and treacherous tribal alliances. Nonetheless, the dominant rhetoric in Afghanistan will blame America for its shattered state and the conditions that lead to religious extremism – widespread perceptions of abandonment, disrespect and mistreatment mixed with political and social instability – will go probably fester.
The Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K will all use traditional religious language to defend their cause and try to convince the population to their side. They will frame their promises in competing divine mandates, each opposing in different ways the narrative America has been carrying for nearly two decades. In doing so, they abuse their Islamic religion to achieve their political goals. In their quest for power, the actions of these groups defile the good deeds and humble piety of countless Muslims around the world who know the God of Peace from which Islam takes its name.
The pattern is predictable and sad, but it also means that despite our recent military withdrawal, we may never be able to fully leave Afghanistan. But in this uncertain phase of our involvement in Afghanistan, I hope everyday Americans will come to see that the alarming and murderous voices on the news do not represent the beautiful genuine ideals inherent in the religion they claim. We must remember that the religion of Islam and Islamic extremism are not synonymous. Let us not let the impiety of some define the character of the whole. I hope we can at least learn this lesson from nearly two decades in Afghanistan.
Contributing columnist Stephen Lloyd-Moffett is a professor of religious studies at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.