The South Asia Channel

Why aren’t we encouraging more religious tolerance in Afghanistan?

Religion matters in Afghanistan in significant ways. However, U.S. policy over the past decade has paid it insufficient attention, costing the United States in its effort to build a stable country that does not foster violent extremism. I diagnosed the problem in my last posting, providing a coup d’œil of sorts about the tactical and ...


Religion matters in Afghanistan in significant ways. However, U.S. policy over the past decade has paid it insufficient attention, costing the United States in its effort to build a stable country that does not foster violent extremism. I diagnosed the problem in my last posting, providing a coup d’œil of sorts about the tactical and strategic advantages of thoughtfully engaging Afghanistan’s religious terrain. Now I am returning to offer specifics on how to advance religious tolerance and freedom in Afghanistan in a way that doesn’t create a backlash. Much depends on fostering a legitimate government that respects, rather than represses, fundamental rights and provides the civic space needed for peaceful debate on issues of religion and state.

Granted, the legitimizing role of religion has been sought after in the Afghan nation-building enterprise.  Military counterinsurgency and stability operations doctrine places much emphasis on fostering a government viewed as legitimate, attempting to pull the "uncommitted middle" away from the irreconcilable insurgents into the government’s orbit through outreach to religious leaders and communities. Yet U.S. doctrine and practice does not contemplate the consequence of pulling religious leaders with a Taliban-like religious viewpoint into the government fold.

A recent example of this error comes from President Hamid Karzai’s endorsement of a so-called code of conduct issued by the Ulema Council, an influential body of clerics sponsored by the Afghan government, which permitted spousal abuse and promoted gender segregation. Yet Karzai has the legitimacy equation backwards. While it is doubtful the Afghan populace viewed him differently after his statement, the Ulema Council emerged with greater perceived influence as an entity that impacts political power. This is seriously problematic. The Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre highlighted two years ago how the result of such accommodation "has been both to sustain the former jihadi leaders’ influence and contribute to the marginalization of more moderate Islamic forces." 

The key is to change the equation, so political leaders see the benefit of legitimizing voices supporting religious tolerance and rights, instead of trading them for ephemeral political gains. 

To advance this idea, the United States needs to foster and build an indigenous movement of religious leaders and public figures who can shape the environment in a positive way through their deeds and interpretations of Islamic law and practice. For those courageous enough to step forward, speaking out can be life-threatening. The murders of Salman Taseer and my friend Shahbaz Bhatti in neighboring Pakistan speak to this danger, as they resolutely criticized Pakistan’s deeply flawed blasphemy law, but did not enjoy wide support and were vehemently opposed by the clerical class.    

How can we avoid this? Iraq offers a surprising example of how the U.S. government engaged the religious dynamic constructively. 

From 2006 to 2007, the Command Chaplain of Multinational Force-Iraq, Col. Michael Hoyt, together with Anglican clergyman Cannon Andrew White, began to engage Sunni and Shia religious leaders about the sectarian violence ripping the country apart. Over a year of tireless and dangerous work, Chaplain Hoyt and Cannon White found voices willing to denounce the violence. Far from being one chaplain’s good initiative, the process had political backing from both General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, as well as enjoying the support of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and his National Security Advisor.

The outcome was the issuance of a remarkable document that denounced violence, which included the two major Islamic sects, as well as religious minority leaders who were also being victimized. The document was issued the day after the second bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, an attack that was followed by none of the widespread killing unleashed after the first Samarra bombing. In addition, observers credit this initiative with creating the conditions under which Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani urged calm and Shiite militant leader Moqtada al-Sadr chose not to incite his fighters.

Chaplain Hoyt’s effort made a difference, sowing the seeds of tolerance by finding key leaders to embrace the effort, and a similar approach could work in Afghanistan. What follows are specific suggestions for how the U.S. government could increase its efforts to foster religious tolerance and freedom, creating the civic space needed to undercut extremists and to empower many voices that can legitimize this approach.

Prioritize: Decide that creating civic space through the promotion of religious tolerance and freedom will be a priority and act accordingly. For those skeptical about the ability of the United States to move the needle on sensitive issues woven into societal and religious mores, look no further than the progress made on women’s rights. The Taliban were terrible persecutors of women, denying them education and forcing them under a burqa, and tradition-bound Afghan society was thought to be beyond moving on sensitive social issues. While much work remains, the international community’s emphasis on women’s rights has already benefited millions of Afghans. 

This did not happen by accident. It happened because the issue was made a priority and woven throughout U.S. and international engagement.  For instance, the Chicago NATO Summit Declaration on Afghanistan had very strong language on women’s rights.  The emphasis of the international community likely compelled President Karzai to condemn the brutal assassination of a woman for alleged adultery.  A similar commitment could do the same for religious tolerance and freedom, which could further concretize gains for women.

Change the conversation: To push extremist voices out of the civic space, steps must be taken to change the domestic conversation and educate the population about other interpretations of their faith.  The United States should flood Afghanistan with Americans and religious leaders who can speak credibly about issues of religion, society, and law.  The visits of the U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Rashad Hussain, to Afghanistan have been very successful.  He is able to "talk religion" with high-level Afghan Government officials, religious leaders, civil society representatives, and students.  More of these trips are needed, but also with delegations of religious leaders crossing sectarian and/or religious lines. Further, the U.S. government can facilitate trips of religious leaders to the United States or through Islamic democracies.  

Utilize military chaplains:  The United States has at its disposal religious leaders in uniform in the chaplaincy corps.  In 2009, the Pentagon issued Joint Publication 1.05 for religious affairs in joint operations, which gives commanders the option of using chaplains to engage religious leaders in their area of responsibility. The change in doctrine reflects that chaplains understand religion in unique ways and can be deployed in conflicts where religion is a driving factor. Smartly using chaplains in this role worked in Iraq.  Of course Afghanistan is not Iraq, but religion matters in both.  With the chaplaincy corps still in theater, there is an opportunity to deploy them with like-minded partners to build a movement for tolerance and religious rights. 

Bolster and protect: Any effort must privately encourage the Afghan leadership to appoint politically moderate religious leaders, political reformers, and human rights defenders to key positions.  This would be in government ministries, but also in Afghanistan’s court system, Ulema councils, the human rights commissions, and other places of influence.  Once in place, the international community can bolster their progressive work by supporting and funding initiatives.  At the same time, the international community must emphasize that their security is a matter of serious concern and press for the provision of adequate protections. 

Educate. The children of Afghanistan need to understand that "the other" has value, even if they have different religious or political views, thereby countering the narrative that leads to violence.  USAID has a major role in such an effort, in developing primary and secondary education materials and textbooks that incorporate themes of religious tolerance and religious freedom. Curriculum for both secular and religious schools should incorporate international human rights standards and speak of Afghanistan’s pluralistic record in prior times. 

Talk about it:  To demonstrate a deep interest, matters of religious tolerance and freedom should be a prominent part of the bilateral conversation and agenda. Despite no reference in the Strategic Partnership Declaration, these issues can be addressed in communiqués from donor and contact group meetings. As recommended by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where I am policy director, the U.S. government should include a "special working group on religious tolerance in U.S.-Afghan strategic dialogues" and integrate "human rights concerns into the reconciliation process looking toward a post-conflict Afghanistan."   

Train:  Along with efforts of this sort should come a commitment to train U.S. personnel, both civilian and military, on Islamic law and Afghan custom. The Afghan constitution in Article 3 enshrines Islamic law, stating "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam," and Article 130 states that Hanafi Islamic law shall apply when the law is silent. Together, these two provisions bring Islamic religious law into the realm of secular application. The JAG corps, the military’s lawyers, are embracing this reality by including training on Islamic law, but more needs to be done. The U.S. government has no role in theological debates, yet it must be able to understand and engage with the law of the land. 

All these steps, if taken together and vigorously executed, could foster a wider understanding of the benefits of religious tolerance and freedom, which could begin to give reformers the support they need to guide Afghanistan toward a progressive future. Without a course correction, President Karzai will continue the flawed approach of attempting to build legitimacy by pulling neo-Taliban religious actors toward the government and trading human rights for political support. This won’t work and is done at the peril of U.S. interests. And while engaging the religious terrain to promote religious tolerance and freedom is not a silver bullet, to quote Chaplain Hoyt from Iraq, it should be "part of the ammunition belt" that brings stability. 

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed here are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22.

Knox Thames is a former special advisor on religious minorities at the U.S. State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations. Twitter: @KnoxThames

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