By Martin Parsons
On Tuesday afternoon it was announced that former President of Afghanistan Borhanuddin Rabbani had been assassinated by members of the Taliban.
It is tempting for western observers to regard Rabbani as something of a moderate when compared to the Taliban, yet the reality is that Rabbani was one the key founders of radical Islamism in Afghanistan. Although his methods differed from those of the Taliban and extreme radical groups such as Gulbadin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, the sort of the radical islamist society he aimed at was not vastly different from their’s.
The difference between Rabbani’s version of Islamism and that of the Taliban is a little like the distinction that used to exist between revolutionary Communists and other hard left Socialists who were prepared to use the ballot box as a means to achieving the end of a Socialist state. Both had a broadly similar vision of the sort of society that they wished to create, but went about it in different ways. It is in this respect that Rabbani’s career should act as warning bell not to become overly optimistic that moves towards democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world will necessarily be accompanied by liberalisation. As I observed early in the Arab spring, over the last 30 years the trend has been for Islamic countries to become more Islamicised, rather than more liberal.
Rabbani’s career is also instructive in that it throws considerable light on how Afghanistan descended into warring factions of increasingly corrupt and brutal mujahiddin groups that the Taliban were able to seize power from, claiming at the time that they were sizing power to clean up society.
Rabbani, who is reputed to have been born around 1940 in Badakhshan in north eastern Afghanistan, had a wider appeal than most Afghan Islamists because he combined radical Islamism with both the classical Islamic education of traditional Islam – he studied at a government madrassa (traditional Islamic theological school) before going to study in Ankarra and then at Egypt’s al Azhar University, and Sufism – the mystical devotional form of Islam – he wrote his thesis on the mystical poet Jami of Herat whose poetry is revered throughout Afghanistan. However, he also translated into Persian In the shade of the Qur’an – the radical Islamist text of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb who along with Mawdudi and Hasan al Banna was the founder of modern political Islamism.
Islamism in Afghanistan emerged in the late 1950s from a group of university professors who after studying at government sponsored madrassas in Afghanistan had gone on to al Azhar University in Cairo, the centre of Islamic scholarship in the Sunni world. This group which became known as Jam’iyyat-i-Islami (the Islamic Society) began to translate into Persian the works of foreign Islamists such as Qutb and Mawdudi, the former being undertaken by Rabbani.
The ‘professors’ as they became popularly known influenced a generation of students in Kabul to become Islamists. The student youth movement that emerged, Sazman-i-Jawanan-Musulman (the Organisation of Muslim Youth) became much more open about demonstrating their Islamist beliefs , particularly in the face of Communism whose influence was also spreading rapidly among students in Kabul. When the Afghan Communist Party was founded in 1965 Islamist students openly distributed a leaflet called ‘the Tract of Holy War’, with violent fights between the Islamist and Maoist students in Kabul erupting during the following years.
The movement spread mainly among students in the western style education system – the university, polytechnic and secondary schools, although also included those from the madrassas. Those who were inspired to join included the future leaders of the radical Islamist mujahidin factions such as Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was a student at the polytechnic and Gulbadin Hekmatyar later leader of the notorious Hezb-i-Islami group, who was then a student in the engineering faculty of Kabul University. During the 1960s and 70s the student movement was the most visible expression of the Islamism in Afghanistan, yet at a more secret level the professors, including Rabbani functioned behind it. The movement was led by a shura (council), which in 1972 Rabbani became the Amir (president) of, with Sayyaf – later to become a notorious mujahhadin warlord – as secretary until he was replaced in 1975 by Hekmatyar, who was to become even more notorious.
While the students undertook sometimes violent demonstrations on the streets, above them the professors provided the ideological inspiration for the movement. Rabbani was central to this, editing a journal promoting the implementation of sharia (Islamic law) which was published by the faculty of Theology at Kabul University where Rabbani now taught.
In 1973 the king’s cousin Daud, with the assistance of the communists carried out a coup d’etat to become President. The newly installed Communist Minister of the Interior immediately arrested leading Islamists. Rabbani who had been smuggled out of the university by students pragmatically made a desperate attempt to deal with Daud by promising him the support of the Islamist movement if he would ditch the Communists. Daud declined and the Islamist movement split into two factions which eventually became the Jam’iyyat-i-Islami led by Rabbani and the extreme radicals of Hezb-i-Islami led by Hekmatyar.
The split was initially over tactics – the younger radicals led by Hekmatyar wanted an immediate general uprising against the Communist government, while those following Rabbani saw the need to build strong support among the ulema (traditional Afghan clerics), traditional leaders and ordinary Afghans across the country before an uprising could succeed. The initial uprising that happened was, as Rabbani foresaw a disaster, that was followed by brutal state repression, including the imprisonment and eventual execution of hundreds of Islamists without trial. However, it also hardened and embittered the split in the Islamist movement with two separate parties, Rabbani’s Jam’iyyat-i-Islami and Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami emerging between 1976 and 1977.
Hezb-i-Islami became increasingly radicalised and adopted the theological concept of takfir (declaring other Muslims to be heretics and therefore legitimate objects of jihad) which had been developed by the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyya. This enabled them to declare jihad against other groups that opposed them including Jam’iyyat. This intra mujahaddin acrimony developed further in 1979 when Hezb-i-Islami itself split over the degree of extreme radicalism that should be promoted with Hekmatyar wanting an even more radical version than Yunus Khalis who split away to form Hezb-I-Islami (Khalis). Although it should be noted that in practice both groups now appear to be working in at least loose cooperation with the Taliban.
In 1978 the Communists enacted a coup which replaced the Daud republic with a fully Communist government, uprisings against the government in the north east and south together with an appeal for help to the Soviets from the embattled Afghan Communist government gave Soviet Russia the excuse it had long been waiting for and led to the Soviet invasion of December 1979.
Whilst the Islamist movement that Rabbani and others had inspired and nurtured fought the Russians, aided by an ample supply of weapons supplied by western governments, the various factions of it also fought each other.
When in 1992 the mujahhadin ousted the puppet Communist government left behind after the Soviet withdrawal, Rabbani became President with Massoud as his defence minister. However, the country quickly descended into a bloody civil war between the different mujhaddin factions with particular animosity between Rabbani’s Jam’iyyat-i-Islami and Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami. By this stage the good people had largely left the mujahaddin and soldiers of all parties including Rabbani’s carried out atrocities including murders, rapes, enforced prostitution and general robbery and banditry. It was this situation that initially allowed to Taliban to claim that they we seizing power to clean up the situation, before they too were seen to be both even more extreme and at least as brutal as the mujahaddin.
Thus, whilst the ’ Northern Alliance’ of different mujahaddin groups that Rabbani nominally led did with western military assistance defeat the Taliban after 9/11, they were deeply distrusted by a large number of ordinary Afghans. Moreover, it was their corruption and brutal abuse of power that was the seedbed from which the Taliban had been able to rise to power.
I began by saying that it will be tempting for some western observers to regard Rabbani as something of a moderate when compared to the Taliban. There is some truth in that. Yet he was also in many respects one of the founding fathers of radical Islamism in Afghanistan who had a vision of what Afghan society should be like that was not really that dissimilar from that of the Taliban. He just took a slightly more pragmatic approach to achieving it.
Are there lessons to be learnt from the career of Rabbani? Undoubtedly many, there are other threats to peace in but perhaps one of the most pertinent at the moment is that when we look at what has been called the Arab spring. There will be many ‘leaders’ there who to the casual observer may appear to be ‘moderate’ in comparison to others. They may even espouse democracy. However, what we should be concerned about is not so much the road they want to travel, but the destination they want to use it to reach, the sort of society they ultimately want to create. There may be Islamists who for now at least want to use moderate means, but in terms of end destination there is no such thing as a moderate Islamist.