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What does Iran want in Afghanistan?

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By Maysam Behravesh

Unprecedented negotiations in Qatar between US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban have created cautious optimism for lasting reconciliation. “We made significant progress on vital issues,” Khalilzad wrote on Twitter, adding: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.”

The potential peace pact, according to a Reuters report, stipulates that foreign forces leave Afghanistan within 18 months of the draft deal being signed. It also requires the Taliban to prevent al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) from using Afghan territory to stage attacks against the United States and its allies.

 

The big elephant in the room, however, is how the consequent power void will be filled and what role, in particular, Afghanistan’s neighbours, Iran and Pakistan, will play in the post-withdrawal environment. While Pakistan has generally backed the Afghan Taliban as an ideologically reliable and militarily resilient bulwark against growing Indian influence in its northern neighbourhood, Shia Iran’s relationship with the Sunni militant group is highly complicated. Part of this complication is rooted in their common opposition to the US, which has led Tehran to pursue a costly and unpopular policy of “strategic hedging” in war-torn Afghanistan, that is, supporting the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban at the same time and playing them against each other whenever necessary.

In September 1996, the Taliban fighters seized control of Kabul and established the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which was recognised by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – all Iran’s regional rivals. Around two years later, in August 1998 when the Taliban were fighting Iran-backed Northern Alliance – a military front headed by former Afghan Defence Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud – to extend their control over all Afghan territory, they stormed the Iranian consulate in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and killed 10 diplomats as well as a correspondent from Iran’s state news agency there.

Shocked and outraged by the mass murder of its diplomats, Tehran deployed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Afghanistan, but ultimately stopped short of invading its eastern neighbour. It was later speculated that members of Sipah-e-Sahaba, an anti-Shia militant organisation with close connections to the Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus, played a role in the killings.

Pakistan’s newfound nuclear capability must have been on the minds of Iranian leaders when they decided to refrain from a military intervention against the Islamabad-backed Taliban forces in Afghanistan. After three years of strategic self-restraint and patience, however, Iran grasped the opportunity presented by the September 11 terror attacks and, along with the Northern Alliance, provided the US-led coalition with indispensable military and intelligence assistance to topple the Taliban government in late 2001.

Ever since, Tehran’s evolving relationship with the Taliban has been marked by an ambivalent combination of restrained support and containment, as Iranian leaders have sought to use the armed group as a strategic instrument to stymie the US war effort in Afghanistan and make sure that the American military presence in Iran’s backyard remains contested and abortive.

In September 2017, Sharif Yaftali, chief of general staff of the Afghan national army, affirmed in an exclusive interview with BBC that Kabul had evidence showing that Iran supplied weapons and equipment to the Taliban in western Afghanistan. The revelation followed similar remarks by provincial authorities in the region. In August of the same year, Mohammed Arif Shah Jehan, then governor of Farah province adjacent to Iran, told The New York Times that “the strongest Taliban” in the border areas were “Iranian Taliban”.

Another sign of a possible Tehran-Taliban collaboration emerged in May 2016, when a US drone targeted a lone vehicle on a desert route in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan, killing the driver and his only passenger. While the passenger’s passport listed his name as Wali Mohammad, a Pakistani national, US and Afghan officials confirmed his real identity as Mullah Akhtar Mansour, then-leader of the Taliban. Intriguingly, the obscure passenger was returning from Iran, where his passport indicated he had travelled at least twice during the year.

A key catalyst for the Islamic Republic’s non-aligned yet convergent relationship with the Taliban has been the rise of the more militant, vehemently anti-Shia ISIL in parts of Afghanistan. For Iran, the Taliban is, among other things, the lesser nemesis with the potential to curb the spread of the most aggressive anti-Iranian forces to its east.

As Tehran treats the Taliban as an ancillary lever in its strategic toolkit, the Sunni militant group views neighbouring Iran through a similar lens of expediency.

It is “a seasonal relationship that serves only one purpose and that is to fight the Americans out of Afghanistan. It is, thus, a hate-love relationship”, Harun Najafizada, veteran Afghan journalist and translator into Persian of Zalmay Khalilzad’s book, The Envoy, told me. “Aware of how the Islamic Republic treats fellow Sunnis in Iran, the Taliban does not seem to recognise Shia Iran as a strategic ally”.

With the US-Taliban peace negotiations gaining momentum and the Trump administration searching for a safe way to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, Tehran’s contacts with the armed group have recently increased. Officially confirming these communications, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani stressed the need for “the active participation of regional countries” in the Afghan stabilisation and peace process during a one-day visit to Kabul on December 26 last year. Shamkhani’s assertions, however, did not stir as much controversy as those of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who described a future Afghan state without the Taliban as “impossible” in a January interview with India’s NDTV channel.

Nonetheless, some Afghans believe that Kabul generally pursues a “very cautious” policy towards Tehran. “The government is usually silent about Iran’s actions because they need its financial and political backing,” Faisal Karimi, a professor of journalism at Herat University and director of the Afghanistan Institute for Research and Media Studies, said. “They are trying to create a balance in Afghanistan’s foreign policy and think keeping Iran satisfied would serve Afghan interests”.

It is the quest for a similar strategic equilibrium that inclines the Islamic Republic to favour a heterogeneous, if not divided, government in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. Iranian leaders seem to believe that such a pragmatic balance would maximise their control over Iran’s eastern neighbour, preventing it from turning into an anti-Shia stronghold on the one hand and a US political-military bastion on the other.


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Opinion

Muslims want KPs Back

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By Deepika Bhan

There is a growing wish in Kashmir for Kashmiri Pandits to return. I am a Kashmiri Pandit, and let me tell you why I believe so.

Early this week, I, and a group of over 200 devotees, were slowly winding our way up the Hari Parbat hill in Srinagar, to pray at the ancient temple of the Mother Goddess, Sharika Devi. The lush green forest of the hill and the cool breeze ensured we did not lose our breath. Suddenly, a car came to a halt in front of us and a man in his fifties jumped out. His expression was one of amazement and I could sense his happiness. He said he couldn’t believe his eyes, seeing so many Kashmiri Pandits on that road. We watched in silence as he raised his hands in prayer, saying he wished all of us could live together, just the way we used to before the onslaught of terrorism in the Valley.

 

As we moved up to the top, faces showed up from the neat rows of houses on either side of the road. Some waived at us, some stood in wonderment, a joyous old woman wanted us to have tea with her and another wanted to give us water. It was quite an amazing scene. Most of us were in tears, we could not believe this response in the downtown area of the city, which is said to a hub of the separatist movement.

Being victims of terrorism, Kashmiri Pandits have been living as refugees in various parts of the country for the past 30 years. Around five lakh families were forced to flee their homes in Kashmir during 1989-1990, when terrorism first struck the Valley. Thirty years later, the scene seems to be changing. A majority of Kashmiri Muslims want the Kashmiri Pandits to return.

This year, Mata KheerBhawani temple mela witnessed the largest congregation of Kashmiri Pandits. All the top political leaders of the Valley made a bee line to the temple in their effort to reach out to the community — former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, state Congress chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir, J&K Peoples Movement leader Shah Faesal, and many other local Muslim leaders. Even the maverick MLA Engineer Rashid, who often raises pro-separatist slogans, joined the prayers with Kashmiri Pandits in the temple. This time, his tone was different and he asked the community to return.

The political leaders may have had their motives or agenda, but the mela was also thronged by many young Kashmiri Muslim boys and girls. Some of them had volunteered to help in the mela, some were curious to see the religious function of the community about which they had only heard from their parents, never seen.

Farah Urusha, Nusrat, Zahid, Sahid, Irshad and Zubeer are students from the Central university of Kashmir. I met the group while I was doing Parikrama of the temple. My conversation with them revealed this: “We have come to see you people. We want to see this part of Kashmiri culture about which we have heard a lot.”

The students admitted that they were unaware of the circumstances that forced the community to flee their homes. They were shocked to hear some horrifying stories of murder, kidnapping and brutal gang rapes committed against some members of the minority community in 1990.

At the end of our conversation, they just had this to say: “You all come back to your homeland and our youngsters will find ways to get you back.” The group of students was categorical about one thing — that Kashmiriyat can survive only when its minority community, the Kashmiri Pandits, return to their roots. They vowed that they will sensitise their peers about the community’s feelings.

June 12 saw a transporters’ strike in the Valley. There were no taxis available and I thought it would be impossible to reach the main Srinagar city. To my surprise, a 22-year-old samaritan, a total stranger, offered to help us. Shakeel drove us in his own car and I requested him to take us to one of the revered mosques in the Valley, Maqdoom Sahib. Having come from the Mata KheerBhawani temple, we had chandan and sindoor pasted on our foreheads.

As we climbed up the stairs of the mosque, we could notice a lot of eyes staring at us. Some smiled and some gave a wondering look. The Imam of the mosque met us. He gave us prasad and some holy water to drink. He assured us that the Valley was safe for all of us and we should come back. We left the mosque in a state of contentment.

We also came to know that Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Omar Farooq had issued a statement on the same day, calling for the return of the minority community to Kashmir. An hour later, as we reached our destination in the city, we heard TV channels blazing the news of the terror attack in south Kashmir, in which five CRPF jawans were martyred and two terrorists killed. The channels had experts and leaders sitting across and fighting a kind of pitched battle, creating a din that gave a very frightening picture of Kashmir.

Shakeel just smiled as he noisily sipped the tea with us. He said, “Switch the TV off and you will find peace. Kashmir is not burning and no one likes violence here. But things can change if all of you return.”

He did not have any answer to the question as to how would our return change things in Kashmir.

I don’t have the answer to this either. But one thing is for sure; today the sentiment is growing all across the Valley that Kashmiri Pandits should come back.

(Courtesy: tiranganews.in)

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Establishment of Quranic State by the Prophet

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By Mansoor Alam

As we know, after the migration, the Prophet (PBUH) and his small band of companions were helpless refugees in Medina. But the Quraysh did not leave them alone even there. They kept on attacking them with the largest army they could muster. These refugees were weak; and the local converts to Islam were also not that powerful either. The Prophet (PBUH) and companions were living among them as helpless refugees facing covert machinations inside Medina as well as overt external threats from Quraysh. Under this hostile and challenging situation, creating a Quranic State in Medina by the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions was no less than a miracle as acknowledged even by non-Muslim scholars (e.g., Lamartine – Histoire de la Turquie, Paris 1854, Vol. II, pp. 276-77).

History shows that Arabs did not have any concept of state or government. They led a tribal life. Under these conditions creating a state based on Quran’s system of collective consultation principle (42:38) where every human was respected (17:70), was not just unique in Arabia but even in the entire world at that time – where although states and governments were there but they were all autocratic and dictatorial. Even now, when social, economic, and political conditions have advanced much further, there is no state or government like the one the Prophet (PBUH) established in Medina. Even in this day and age nations are not able to grasp: what was the kind of government that the Prophet (PBUH) established in Medina where there was no ruler per se – whether an individual or group or a parliament. Allah was the sole ruler of that government but He is completely invisible and does not come in front. So, how He could rule? He rules through His Book, the Quran. The Quran is His constitution and He rules through His laws contained in His Book revealed to humankind. He does not allow any human or group of humans to interfere in His rule of law (6:57; 12:40). Allah did not allow even the Prophets to rule over people (3:79). Every human is equal before Allah’s laws. Even the Prophet (PBUH) did not have authority to rule over people (88:22). He also obeyed Allah’s orders (that he enforced in Medina) as everyone else (6:163; 39:12).

 

But the Prophet (PBUH) was feeling some emptiness in his heart and was looking towards the heavens and praying to Allah about fulfilling his certain inner wish. What was the wish that was making the Prophet (PBUH) silently pray to Allah again and again? Well, the Prophet (PBUH) was in Medina but the Kaaba was in Mecca under the custody of Quraysh. Although Kaaba as such is a small cube shape structure built very modestly, but it is the dominant symbol of Islam. It stands as a powerful symbol for the Universal Charter of the Quranic system of life. Moreover, Allah has called it “My House (2:125).” In modern terminology as the Central Capital of the Quranic government, it represents its ideal, its mission, and its vision.

The Quran says about Kaaba:

Lo! the first Sanctuary appointed for mankind was that at Becca, a blessed place, a guidance to the peoples (3:96)

The first House ever selected for the entire humankind was in Makkah. It was from this place that humanity was destined to get the guideline and the fundamental Law which would ensure stability and nourishment for all. Ibrahim (PBUH) and Ismail (PBUH) built this small cubical house. Its extraordinary importance can be judged by the fact that Allah the Almighty, the Creator of the entire Universe, calls it as “My House” (2:125). So, how could Prophet (PBUH) feel okay if this Allah’s House was under the control of the enemies of Islam, the Quraysh? Whatever thing Allah calls His own belongs to the entire humanity. Therefore, Kaaba – being Allah’s House belongs to humanity as whole.

The Quran wants to build universal brotherhood of entire humankind based solely on humanity. This can only be done by breaking down all barriers – no matter what the basis and justification of those barriers are – that separate human beings from human beings. This universal brotherhood of humankind must have a symbol to represent it, and that symbol is Kaaba. This is the position of Kaaba in the world in the eyes of the Quran, i.e., in the eyes of Islam. Its importance in today’s terminology is that when we say Washington then this does not mean a city but it means the political center of the country’s ideological underpinnings. So, Kaaba stands for the ideology of the system representing the universal brotherhood of humankind. That is why Muslims are required to make Kaaba as the center of focus of their life:

Turn your face towards Kaaba wherever you may be, and make it the focus of your life in harmony with the universal values and principles that it stands for.

It is important to note that when we hear the statement “Washington says this,” then it does not mean a city but the system of life that it stands for. In the same way when we say that our Qibla is Kaaba then it means that our locus of life revolves around the system of life the Quran proclaims as Deen, whose perceptible symbol is the Kaaba.

Deen is a collective system of life that covers socioeconomic, political, and all aspects of individual as well as collective life. Fourteen hundred years ago, the Quran gave a collective system of life based on clear concepts and ideology of life of universal welfare of humankind, and a visible symbol (Kaaba or Qibla) to represent this ideology of life; and asked its adherents to remain focused towards the mission and goal represented by Kaaba no matter where they were on earth. The Quran asked its adherents to establish a nation-state and its governance based on this universal ideology represented by Kaaba as its physical symbol.

This was the position of Kaaba in Deen. But when Deen turned into Madhab then Kaaba became a symbol of religious rituals. For example, before every prayer every Muslim makes an intention to pray by saying: “my face is facing towards Kaaba.” This has become now the goal of Kaaba – just as a ritual to recite that our face is towards it during prayer. Muslims are very particular and meticulous to make sure that the mosques face exactly toward Kaaba. Muslims in millions of Mosques throughout the world physically face towards Kaaba but their hearts and souls are not united in the obedience to the Laws of Allah for which Kaaba stands for as a symbol. Rituals and words remain but their meaning and essence have disappeared. There are hundreds of Muslim nations and governments in the world. Each one has its own rules and laws for governance. Some of them are even fighting and killing each other. But when they stand for prayer they all face Kaaba!

This is what has remained as far as Kaaba is concerned to Muslims – wherever they are in the world they face towards Kaaba while praying whereas they were supposed to govern their collective life in unison (wherever they may be in the world) by the ideology, the mission, and the goals for which the Kaaba stands for. Allama Iqbal gives a beautiful metaphor to explain this: birds travel hundreds of miles in the sky from their nests without any signposts and signals but wherever they are they always keep in their mind their nesting place and return to it in the evening.

This was what the Muslims were supposed to do. We can understand from this why our Prophet (PBUH) was looking towards the heavens yearning to have Kaaba under the control of the divine system and to be its physical symbol. He had established a state and the divine system in Medina. He was in full control of the Islamic government there. Muslims were obeying Allah through His Book, the Quran. But the Kaaba, the physical symbol of the divine system was under the control of Quraysh.

All those who have Iman on the Quran and Iman in Allah, for them Kaaba must be the locus of their life wherever they are in the world. They must remain focused on the mission of life represented by Kaaba. Now, we can understand the importance of Kaaba in the eyes of the Prophet (PBUH) and why he used to look towards the heavens yearning to have Kaaba under the control of the divine system to represent the Center of ideology of the newly established state of Medina. And Allah promised to Prophet (PBUH) that it will happen. And it did happen.

Hajj became mandatory for Muslims in the ninth year of Hijra. The Mushrikeen Arabs used to consider Kaaba as their religious center and used to perform Hajj. Ibrahim (PBUH) had settled his son Ismael (PBUH) here, and the Quraysh around the Kaaba and in the Hijaz were his descendants. Kaaba was built by Ibrahim (PBUH) and Ismael (PBUH) and it was the center of Arab life even before Islam. They had great respect for Kaaba; and the Quraysh being its custodian were highly revered in the Arab society. Arabs used to perform Hajj and Umrah and used to host special fair for a month during Hajj season. But their Hajj was not what the Quran has prescribed – to renew one’s commitment and faith to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of Islam, i.e., to sacrifice in order to improve the human condition of the world.

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The proud Islamic civilization

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By Mustafa Akyol

Should Americans, as part of their school curriculum, learn Arabic numerals?

CivicScience, a Pittsburgh-based research firm, put that question to some 3,200 Americans recently in a poll seemingly about mathematics, but the outcome was a measure of students’ attitudes toward the Arab world. Some 56 percent of the respondents said, “No.” Fifteen percent had no opinion.

 

Those results, which quickly inspired more than 24,000 tweets, might have been sharply different had the pollsters explained what “Arabic numerals” are.

There are 10 of them: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.

That fact prompted John Dick, the chief executive of the polling company, to label the finding “the saddest and funniest testament to American bigotry we’ve ever seen in our data.”

Presumably, the Americans who opposed the teaching of Arabic numerals (Republicans in greater proportion than Democrats) lacked the basic knowledge of what they are and also had some aversion to anything described as “Arabic.”

Which is indeed sad and funny — and also a reason to pause and ask a simple question: Why is the world’s most efficient numerical system, also standard in Western civilization, called “Arabic numerals”?

The answer traces to seventh-century India, where the numerical system, which included the revolutionary formulation of zero, was developed. Some two centuries later, it moved to the Muslim world, whose magnificent capital, Baghdad, was then the world’s best city in which to pursue an intellectual career. There, a Persian Muslim scholar named Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi developed a mathematical discipline called al-jabir, which literally means “reunion of broken parts.”

In the early 13th century, an Italian mathematician named Fibonacci, who studied calculation with an Arab master in Muslim North Africa, found the numerals and their decimal system much more practical than the Roman system, and soon popularized them in Europe, where the figures became known as “Arabic numerals.”

Meanwhile, the discipline of al-jabir became “algebra,” and al-Khwarizmi’s name evolved into “algorithm.”

Today, many words in English have Arabic roots; a short list would include admiral, alchemy, alcove, alembic, alkali, almanac, lute, mask, muslin, nadir, sugar, syrup, tariff and zenith. Some scholars think that even the word “check,” which you get from a bank, comes from the Arabic word sakk, which means “written document.” (Its plural, sukuk, is still used in Islamic banking to refer to bonds.)

There is a reason these Western terms have Arabic roots: Between the eighth and 12th centuries, the Muslim world, whose lingua franca was Arabic, was much more creative than Christian Europe, which was then in the late Middle Ages. Muslims were the pioneers in mathematics, geometry, physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, architecture, trade and, most important, philosophy. To be sure, Muslims had inherited these sciences from other cultures, such as the ancient Greeks, Eastern Christians, Jews and Hindus. Still, they advanced those disciplines with their own innovations and transmitted them to Europe.

Why delve so deep into this much-forgotten history? Because there are lessons for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Among the latter are Western conservatives, who are passionate about protecting the legacy of Western civilization, which they often define as exclusively “Judeo-Christian.” Of course, Western civilization does have a great accomplishment worth preserving: the Enlightenment, which gave us freedom of thought, freedom of religion, the abolition of slavery, equality before the law, and democracy.

Those values should not be sacrificed to the postmodern tribalism called “identity politics.” But Western conservatives retreat to tribalism themselves when they deny the wisdom in, and the contributions of, sources that are not Judeo-Christian. The third great Abrahamic religion, Islam, also had a hand in the making of the modern world, and honouring that legacy would help establish a more constructive dialogue with Muslims.

Of course, we Muslims ourselves have a big question to answer: Why was our civilization once so creative, and why have we lost that golden age?

Some Muslims find a simple answer in piety and the lack thereof, thinking that decline came when Muslims turned “sinful.” Others assume that the early majesty can be traced to mighty leaders, whose reincarnations they hope to see again. Some find solace in conspiracy theories that blame enemies outside and “traitors” within.

Here is a more realistic explanation: The early Islamic civilization was creative because it was open-minded. At least some Muslims had the urge to learn from other civilizations. There was some room for free speech, which was extraordinary for its time. That allowed the work of towering Greek philosophers such as Aristotle to be translated and discussed, theologians of different stripes to speak their minds, and scholars to find independent patronage. From the 12th century onward, however, a more uniform and less rational form of Islam was imposed by despotic caliphs and sultans. So Muslim thought turned insular, repetitive and incurious.

By the 17th century, in Muslim India, Ahmad al-Sirhindi, a prominent scholar also known as Imam Rabbani, was marking the dogmatic turn when he condemned all “philosophers” and their “stupid” disciplines. “Among their codified and systemic sciences is geometry that is totally useless,” he wrote. “The sum of three angles in a triangle is two right angles — what benefit does it have?”

Exactly why this tragic closing of the Muslim mind happened, and how it can be overturned, is the biggest question facing Muslims today. We should not lose more time through denials and blame games.

At the same time, however, others should not make the mistake of judging Islamic civilization by looking at its worst products, many of which are now rampant. It is a great civilization that has made significant contributions to humanity, especially the West.

That is why you dial your phone using “Arabic numerals.” And that is just the tip of a big iceberg of ideas and values shared between Islam and the West.

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