“We’re Burning in the Fire Set By Others”: International Islamic Scholars Seek a Solution for Afghanistan



I’m in Istanbul for a rather unusual event — the Third International Conference for Islamic Cooperation for a Peaceful Future of Afghanistan — a meeting of dozens of top Islamic leaders and scholars and Grand Muftis, including Deoband Ulema from India and a variety of Islamic scholars from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as some leading civil society representatives. (There was a fascinating variety of headgear — flat brown Afghan wool caps with their three-dimensional brims, elaborately folded striped silk turbans, a broad white turban with a bejeweled cap, skullcaps, fez-like hats, black pillboxes, tall fur hats, and a Saudi white cloth headdress.) The meeting was conducted in Farsi, Arabic, Urdu, English, Pashtu and Dari, sometimes by the same speaker and driving the simultaneous translators insane.

This is the third such meeting, the others held in Istanbul and Kabul. Apparently these meetings have been an enormous success. The meeting ends in a resolution signed by all the scholars – whose names are recognized and highly respected — and widely circulated in Afghanistan. So even a rural uneducated mullah will be able to use the document to legitimate a stand against terrorist activity and against violence to women and others. There was also a big dose of self-criticism, both of Afghanistan and of international Islamic leaders for not uniting to help countries like Afghanistan and for not using their influence by stepping in and speaking up against people committing criminal acts under the name of Islam and thereby, as one speaker put it, “staining the white robe of our religion” and giving it a bad name.

The idea is for Afghans to figure out a road map to peace for Afghanistan. A major question addressed is why Afghans kill other Afghans and what the religious leaders can do about it. An interesting conversation had to do with the legitimacy of suicide bombers in the House of War (Dar al-Harb), in this case Afghanistan. Some suicide bombers claim that they are required to fight a jihad because they are in Dar al-Harb. The scholars took this claim apart and most rejected it completely, arguing that the term had nothing to do with war or violence but was a term that simply referred to an area that was administered by non-Muslims. Living in Dar al-Harb gave no one the right to do violence. (It would be absurd to require Muslims living in Europe to fight jihad against their non-Muslim neighbors.) If someone took your land, then you can take up a rock and fight, but otherwise you have no right to harm others. Another scholar suggested that since the world was so intertwined these days with migration, contact, meetings, organizations and treaties tying Muslims together across the globe, one couldn’t say that anywhere really was Dar al-Harb, that indeed the whole world was Dar al-Islam, that is the House of Islam, where Muslims can live as Muslims. Or one could use a third term, House of Conciliation (Dar al-Sulh?), that is, lands ruled by non-Muslims in which Muslims are able to live and practice freely. As to violence of any kind against defenseless people, it is against Islam, regardless of where it occurs. In the final resolution, the scholars said that violence against defenseless people was haram (forbidden) and a crime, and if such actions were carried out in the name of Islam, that was against Islam.

Half a dozen Afghan women also were present and demanded that violence against women be considered as a special category in addition to war and suicide bombings. There was a panel on women’s issues that, at the women’s request, included only one woman, the moderator, and five male Islamic scholars. The women wanted these high authorities to make statements about women’s rights that would have some impact, while their own words wouldn’t carry as much weight. The women were tough and smart. The moderator kept a tolerant smile on her face while herding and reining in the heavyweight Islamic scholars, who were clearly used to having the floor as long as they wanted.

The women – the moderator and women from the audience — also put other issues on the table that affect women and children. One female speaker (we were asked to keep participant names off the record) pointed out that only 14% of women are literate, 60% of women die in childbirth, two million women are widowed mothers who must go out to work but are then assaulted and killed. [The Lancet reports 2008 maternal mortality rates of 1575 per 100,000 live births, with an uncertainty range of 594–3396. Infant mortality rates are 129 per 1000. I cannot verify the moderator’s figures; they may have been mistranslated.] There is a lack of security: schools and clinics are closed, nurses and midwives are too afraid to go to houses to help deliver babies. There were graphic discussions by both female participants (most of them NGO activists and a judge) and some male religious scholars of the dire situation of women in Afghanistan. Rapes had increased, one male scholar pointed out. “We need to stop it.” The average life expectancy for women, another scholar said, was 42, for men 45. Women, he said, were tortured and killed. Such behavior was roundly condemned as ignorant and anti-Islamic. Another: “A women isn’t just a machine to produce children; she has many more rights.” He recited a verse from the Quran to back that up.

These were not liberal scholars for the most part, but ones who knew their religion and Islamic history and could make a case for these issues on a religious basis, making their arguments all the more powerful for shaping popular opinion. The scholars said that such treatment of women occurs in Afghanistan and elsewhere because people confuse local custom and tradition with Islamic requirements. It’s up to the religious scholars to make it clear – as they did here – that violence against women is un-Islamic and that, indeed, women were given rights by the Quran that local custom has taken away.

Starting in the time of the Prophet, one Islamic scholar said, women had played important roles in society, in governance and peacemaking. Women were Islamic scholars. The Indonesians pointed out that they had many schools that trained women in a number of fields, including theology, and that the women had their own Islamic council. They offered to take Afghan female students, take care of them and train them, leading to a burst of grateful applause. One Afghan woman said that the problem is that women’s rights have become associated with the West, so people think it’s part of the anti-Western struggle to undermine them and they’ve forgotten that women have rights in Islam. The scholars agreed that women have the right to be safe from violence, to work outside the home, to get an education, and to develop their human resources. (At which point an Afghan woman from the audience pointed out that these were fine words, but given that the Taliban were burning down the schools, did he have more concrete suggestions?)

Someone suggested that the lack of order in society and the corruption led to poverty and violence, especially if the security services and courts couldn’t be relied on. He mentioned human trafficking of Central Asian women and children through Afghanistan to Europe. Lack of order also can be seen, he said, in the unregulated explosion of media, fifty television stations and hundreds of radio stations,some with problematic content (he didn’t elaborate).

There was also an inconclusive discussion about who has the right to issue a fatwa, a formal religious decision. Can individuals issue a fatwa or should it come only from a recognized institution? A member of the audience pointed out that sometimes institutions failed to act when they should, in which case he would issue his own fatwa. “A fatwa,” someone else pointed out, “isn’t God’s orders. We scholars can make mistakes… We are human beings, even the Prophet. We aren’t Christians; we don’t have ‘holy ones’” in the position of a god. A fatwa is an opinion issued in a specific time and place; thus it’s essentially political.

There was little discussion of the West, except to mention that Afghanistan has long been the ground on which rivalries between other countries has been played out (US-NATO, Russia, Pakistan, India, etc.) Also, NATO drone strikes that killed civilians were incorporated in the proposition that killing the defenseless is a crime. The conversation was really about the future Afghanistan, a country they hoped would be an abode of peace, not violence.

The meetings are part of a non-governmental initiative created by Afghans for Afghans. Partners of the program include Kabul University, Al-Azhar University, Minhaj-ul-Quran International, the Nahdlatul Ulama of Indonesia,Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Deoband University, and George Mason University — the organizer, Professor Neamatollah Nojumi, is based there; and some logistical assistance from Boston University’s American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, which is how I came to attend. Here is an article about the meeting by Andrew Finkel in The New York Times.

6 Responses to ““We’re Burning in the Fire Set By Others”: International Islamic Scholars Seek a Solution for Afghanistan”

  1. Just a couple of comments on data that would probably need to be crossed checked and corrected:
    – “60% of women die in childbirth”

    doesn’t the figure of 60% maternal mortality strike you?
    just by searching on google I got this, and it’s probably not the most recent:

    “The research puts maternal mortality rates below 500 deaths per 100,000 live births. A UN study in 2005 found 1,800 women dying per 100,000 live births.”

    Maternal mortality is without any doubt a major issue in Afghanistan but that figure is just too high.

  2. Your point is well taken. That is what I thought the female activist speaker said. BUT it may have been mistranslated by the simultaneous translator, or she may have been speaking about a particular part of the country or about just rural areas. It’s also possible that she has access to information that the UN report does not. The context of that comment was that in fear of violence women cannot leave the house to seek medical help when pregnant and midwives cannot reach them when they give birth at home. Unfortunately, I was unable to check the numbers with her since I wrote this from my notes after the meeting ended. Thanks for the data and the thoughtful response.

  3. Just to let you know that I was in S Arabia in 2011 and 2012- what I saw(both times) was that small girls and women from Afghanistan selling Scents(Atar) in the Garden of The Masjid e Quba…just asking myself – who brought them in SA and what they are doing there – is there a child/women traficking going on from Afghanistan…hope these top Islamic leaders, scholars and Grand Muftis find a solution very fast…

  4. Dear Jenny,
    yes, of course there must have been a problem with the translation or something of this kind between what this person said and what you wrote down. Just some kind of human error, which is very normal.
    But the figure is just plain wrong (the one about literacy is correct of course), anyone who knows a bit about development issues will tell you that. Blaming the UN for not having access to the right information is also plain wrong. The organisation may not have done what it should have in Afghanistan but it would not be able to publish figures that are so off.

  5. Eln, that figure looked suspicious to me too. Going by what I have seen happen (and verified) for Turkey, it just takes one — well meaning or not — weak link for outright false info to get spread. These things don’t get corrected because nobody truly local is involved. That is, many of those involved are not there, those who are there don’t speak the language and the kind of local who deals with international actors tends to fawn to or manipulate them. Accuracy of info suffers and sometimes bizarre metrics that require a measure innumeracy to swallow gain currency. It can only be worse for places like Afghanistan, due suspicion is always advisable.

  6. […] assembly was the third of a kind, and a altogether bid has started to make a difference, according Ataur Rahman Salim, executive of […]

Discussion Area - Leave a Comment