To engage the Taliban, the US needs an honest debate on Sharia law
What was more stunning — the overnight collapse of the Kabul regime or the apparent magnanimity of the Taliban after their victory? The recent events in Afghanistan have raised several questions: Is the Taliban offer of general amnesty to all who worked against them sincere? Can promises to enter into good-faith negotiations toward an inclusive government be trusted? Are commitments to women’s rights meaningful when they are circumscribed by the Sharia?
With these looming questions, President Joe Biden needs to think fast. The option to go back in militarily is, at this point, unthinkable. Isolating the Taliban would only cede further ground to regional players like China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. Antagonizing the Taliban by fomenting dissent risks, once again, a descent into the very chaos that has brought us to this point.
The best option — which arguably should have been pursued from the beginning in 1996, if not in 2001 — is to work with the international community to constructively engage the Taliban in what the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame calls strategic peace-building: establishing sustained relationships across all levels of society to build trust, the primary ingredient for good-faith negotiations leading to enduring peace. Strategic peace-building requires radical empathy, the ability to momentarily glimpse the world as seen by another, to inhabit more than one thought-world at the same time.
We don’t make peace with people we agree with. Peace is achieved by finding a bridge that reconciles adversaries through moral imagination.
Afghanistan has been at war for four decades. The war began in the 1980s with Islam as an ally against the “godless” Soviets. We need to reestablish that alliance if we have any hope for lasting peace. If the Taliban wish to live by the code of the Sharia — as many Muslims do — strategic peace-building can proceed with that as a point of departure. But the Sharia is not monolithic; it is internally diverse. Scholars across geographies and schools of thought have disagreed on their interpretations of Muslim scripture since the dawn of Islam.
If the Biden administration is looking for options, here is one that can change the world: Join the international community in a major diplomatic initiative to engage the Taliban with a team of experts versed in the complex technicalities of Islamic theology and law — scholars who can draw on the sacred history of Islam and harness its internal debates to advocate for an Afghan society that upholds the dignity of all. The Sharia has that capacity. “You are the best community raised up for humankind,” proclaims the Quran. To deny this is to deny the core beliefs of all Muslims.
The team can be assembled from different parts of the Muslim world, consist of practicing Muslims, including scholars from the United States. Most importantly, it should include credible scholars from Afghanistan who can go toe-to-toe with the Taliban on their own terms, advancing positions that are more in line with internationally recognized norms. At the same time, they must be cognizant of the lived realities and cultures of the people of Afghanistan, culture itself being a normative source in the Sharia according to the legal maxim al-‘adah al-muhakkamah (“custom has the weight of law”).
Open and transparent strategic peace building dialogues would invite the Taliban to rethink their tradition. It might expose their ignorance, and, at the very least, compel them to confront the question of why so many people wish to flee the so-called “best community raised up for humankind.” One does not expect to find agreement on all issues. One merely hopes that the very process of sincere engagement will be transformative — for both sides. For Americans, it will disrupt the simplistic good guy/bad guy narrative parroted by politicians and pundits alike. Are we ready to confront the consequences of our imperial adventures in open court?
The Taliban are orphans of the Cold War, the last resort in a society given to warlords, bandits and the great games of dueling superpowers. They began as a student movement to bring peace to their land after all else had failed, until Al-Qaeda tragically intervened on 9/11. After 20 years of American might and $2 trillion dollars of its treasure was expended to defeat them, their fervent resistance has returned them to power.
Biden’s decision on how to respond will be more consequential than his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. The fate of America’s soul and Afghan peace are entangled in the path that he chooses.
Mahan Mirza is executive director of the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @mirzamahan