The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has started enforcing Sharia laws based on their own interpretation of the precepts of Islam. Pakistan is among those Muslim countries that have distanced themselves from the Afghan Taliban’s conception and enforcement of Islamic laws. However, the orthodoxy in Taliban ranks poses a more severe challenge to Pakistan compared to the rest of the Muslim world.

It is not only a matter of the Taliban regime’s religious dogma and the ideological hassle it could cause to Pakistani society; the establishment also appears more concerned about Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and other Taliban associates who have challenged its strategic views. The Taliban and affiliated militant groups are testing the perception of Pakistan’s strategic community that the Taliban’s association with madressahs in the country is political capital for the state. The head of the outlawed Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, Noor Wali Mehsud, affirmed in a recent video message that his group was waging a ‘jihad’ that teachers in Pakistani madressahs preached.

The Muslim countries are rightly worried about the Taliban’s view of Islam as it poses more of a political challenge than an ideological one. Muslim societies from Morocco to Indonesia have developed functional compatibility with the modern values of freedom and human rights. Many Muslim countries and groups, including the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, have condemned the Afghan Taliban’s policies of rolling back the rights of women, including the recent ban on higher education for them. However, the Taliban leaders insist that their policies are based on Islamic jurisprudence. Though the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has not abandoned its engagement policy with the Taliban regime, it could rethink its approach if Kabul continues with its ideological campaign.

True, Pakistani religious scholars had partnered with the Taliban in the latter’s conception of the ‘Islamic Emirate’. However, while the Taliban were busy fighting the war against Kabul and foreign troops, prior to taking over, Pakistani ulema had revisited their previously held opinion. That revision came as a wave of religiously motivated violence and hatred undermined the foundation of society, also forcing the establishment to revisit its ideologically oriented strategic thinking.

A declaration by the name of Paigham-i-Pakistan was launched at President House on January 15, 2018, in the presence of national religious and political leaders. The first part of the document comprised a preamble providing a contextual analysis of the ideological and political situation. The second part contained a set of religious decrees, initially signed by 1,829 religious scholars representing all religious schools of thought in the country. The declaration categorically condemned terrorism, sectarian hatred, armed sectarian conflict and the imposition of one’s ideology on others by force.

The religious scholars, who had signed the declaration, also pledged they would work for a society based on democracy, liberty, equality, tolerance, harmony, mutual respect, and justice to achieve a congenial atmosphere for peaceful coexistence. Describing the context of the declaration, Paigham-i-Pakistan claims that “maximum legislation”, according to Islamic teachings and principles, was in place.

Interestingly, a few heads of banned sectarian and militant organisations also signed the declaration, including ulema supporting jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s chief Noor Wali Mehsud’s statement cited earlier refers to Pakistani religious scholars’ pre-Paigham-i-Pakistan fatwas and the general pro-jihad atmosphere that persisted in the madressahs. In the video message, he says that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan jihad was launched in the light of the fatwas given by Pakistani ulema, and “if there is any deficiency, and…omission from us in the implementation of this fatwa, or if we have changed our jihadi direction, then you guide us and argue, [and] we are ready to listen to your arguments”. This is a serious issue for the ulema, as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan “consider[s] your silence in our favour [akin to] fighting side by side with us”.

Interestingly, just before the video message was released, a group of Pakistani ulema, mainly from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, issued another fatwa on the lines of Paigham-i-Pakistan, declaring that no individual or group of people had the right to declare jihad as this was the sole prerogative of the state. Trying to counter such arguments, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has changed the organisation’s structure, converting the militant group into a ‘wilayah’ (government) and announcing the formation of a parallel ‘governance’ system for the tribal districts. The Taliban and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan also argue that the Darul Uloom Deoband, from where they derive their ideological and political strength, had driven out the British from the Indian subcontinent, and the Mujahideen groups had crushed the Soviet Union and forced Nato forces to leave the country.

The religious scholars must respond to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan challenge. The security establishment also needs to review the ideological conception on which its strategic thinking is largely built. That thinking has been in evidence time and again, despite the huge losses suffered by Pakistan at the hands of the terrorists. The same thinking, ie the Taliban will eventually cooperate with Pakistan to defuse the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, was a factor behind the talks with the militant group and it gave the latter a passage to Pakistan. The state institutions have called on the ulema to help many times. It is obvious now that the approach has not worked; but even then, a few in the strategic community harp on the same arguments of historical, ideological, and political linkages with Afghanistan.

As suggested before, Pakistan needs a new Afghan policy based on cooperation and a pragmatic paradigm. The religious scholars can help by coming up with compelling arguments to counter the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan narratives and deconstruct the Taliban’s thoughts about their view of Islam.

It will be a lengthy process. At first, it requires serious scholarship on the part of the Pakistani ulema, as the issue will not be resolved through issuing fatwas and declarations alone. The ulema can learn from the experiences of scholars from across the Muslim world. However, the question is whether or not they are ready to take the task seriously.

This article first appeared in Dawn.