The Deobandi Debate Terrorist Tactics in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 21

Muslim clerics following the Deobandi school of Islamic theology (named after the movement’s original seminary in Deoband, India) are now increasingly associated with the Taliban and other allied militant groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though the parent Deobandi seminary in India has distanced itself from the Taliban and their violent activities in both countries, Deobandi-affiliated clergy in Pakistan have squarely refused to follow suit. The parent institution has condemned suicide terrorism in all its forms, opposed attacks on shrines, barber shops and educational institutions and has even characterized the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan as “un-Islamic” (Dawn [Karachi], June 20, 2009).  The Pakistani Deobandis have failed to adopt such an unequivocal anti-terrorism stance so far. Some 150 Deobandi clergy who recently met in Lahore for three days (possibly at the behest of the Pakistani government as some participants suggested) deliberated over the ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The scholars were expected to issue a consensual fatwa (religious ruling) against terrorist suicide attacks, but failed to do so.

Some Deobandi leaders fear their movement will be discredited by its close identification with militancy and terrorism. However, the hardliners attending the conference prevailed and in the final communiqué, diverted the blame for terrorist tactics away from the Deobandi movement:

"Militancy and terrorism continue to haunt this country in spite of wide denunciation of such acts [suicide bombings and subversive activities] by all patriotic people as well as use of organized military force. The situation calls for a dispassionate analysis of the fundamental causes [of this situation]. In our view it is the consequence of the foreign policy that Pervez Musharraf pursued [in the aftermath of 9/11] and the incumbent government continues to follow. We demand that the government separate itself from the war in Afghanistan and stops pursuing pro-American foreign policies and providing logistics support to foreign forces [for military operations in Afghanistan] (Dawn, May 2)."

Nevertheless, those in the Deobandi movement who oppose the growing trend to greater violence did manage to make their voice heard in the final communiqué:

"If the government is following erroneous policies, it does not mean that we set our home afire. We, therefore, confidently and honestly believe that only peaceful struggle is the best strategy that can help enforcement of Islamic Shari’a in Pakistan and secure it from foreign influences. The use of violence is contrary to Islamic teachings and detrimental to our objective of enforcement of Shari’a in the country and efforts to expel Americans from this region. Rather, it is helping the United States deepen its influence in this region."

The Deobandi school has the largest number of religious seminaries in Pakistan and most of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban either studied at these seminaries or hold the same theological and religious world view. Of a total of approximately 20,000 registered seminaries in Pakistan, 12,000 are run by Deobandi scholars while the rival Barelvi sect manages just 6,000 seminaries. Many of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, the late Baitullah Mahsud and Maulana Fazlullah have studied at Deobandi seminaries. All factions of the biggest religious-political party in Pakistan, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), which forms part of the current government, also subscribe to the Deobandi world view and are led by clergy who studied at Deobandi seminaries and run many seminaries themselves. Sectarian movements like the anti-Shi’a Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) and the anti-Ahmadiyya Alami Majlis-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwat (AMKN) are affiliated with the Deobandi school of thought. The international Tablighi Jamaat preaching organization also follows Deobandi beliefs. The Deobandi clergy is the most powerful in Pakistan, partly because it attracts those clerics who oppose the state. The roots of this attraction can be found in the Deobandi domination of militant training camps in Afghanistan and Kashmir (Daily Times [Lahore], June 14, 2009).

The Deobandi clergy have historically shied away from issuing anti-Taliban fatwas and have opposed those fatwas issued by other groups. When in 2005 a group of non-Deobandi clerics produced a collective fatwa that the use of suicide-bombing against fellow-Muslims was not permitted in Islam, severe criticism emerged from the Deobandi clerical community (Daily Times, June 14, 2009). Many non-Deobandi clerics believe that a fatwa would not make a difference to the current state of affairs anyhow because the suicide-bombers would not abide by it, and attacks would continue so long as the root causes are not addressed. Others, especially government functionaries, feel that such a fatwa would go a long way in developing a consensus in the fight against terrorists. They also believe that a fatwa would at least discourage the use of suicide bombings in sectarian battles with the Shi’a and would dissuade many non-militant Deobandis to be less sympathetic to the Taliban.

Such a fatwa has assumed even greater importance in light of the Taliban’s expansion into newer areas of operation like central and southern Punjab, Karachi and Baluchistan, the increasing involvement of Deobandi groups in suicide attacks against the Shi’a and growing evidence of Deobandi mosques providing sanctuaries to the Taliban. The Punjab government has now officially admitted that the Taliban are present in southern Punjab. A recent report filed by Punjab Police discloses that the network of the Taliban is fast expanding in the region and a recruitment drive has been launched in some religious schools. The report adds that Taliban leaders can be found at a number of seminaries in the Punjabi city of Jhang, several of which have launched a drive to recruit youths for training in the tribal areas of Pakistan (The News, May 17). Similarly, copies of forged national identity cards and alien registration cards belonging to activists and sympathizers of the proscribed Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) organization were recently found at a Deobandi mosque in Karachi along with stickers and posters eulogizing jihad, and receipts of donations (Dawn, May11).
The western province of Balochistan has also started to see the influence of Deobandization. Religious schools in Balochi-dominated areas, owned and administered by leaders of the pro-Taliban JUI, have dramatically mushroomed in recent times. Around 95% of religious schools in Balochistan are owned and administered by JUI leaders. This has given birth to more intolerance among the youth who now refuse to coexist with members of rival religious sects. This phenomenon is also being held responsible for a recent suicide bomb that struck Quetta’s Civil Hospital on April 16, killing at least 11 people including two top police officials and a television journalist (Daily Times, April 17).

All of the above examples show the expansion of Taliban activities into hitherto non-militant areas under Deobandi influence. A fatwa by the top Deobandi clerics would be an important step in stemming this tide and reducing suicide attacks both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But though some in the movement favor such a step, more influential members continue to oppose it, citing the continuing importance of such tactics in resisting the international military presence in Afghanistan, and American military operations [i.e. drone attacks] in northwest Pakistan.