Center for Strategic Communication

Addressing the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo yesterday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai renewed his government’s push for prominent Islamic scholars to issue a fatwa condemning suicide attacks. The Afghan government has been trying to organize an Ulema conference in Kabul to that end, but the effort has foundered in the face of Taliban threats and apparent Pakistani apathy.

In his Cairo address, Karzai urged Islamic scholars to follow in the footsteps of leading Saudi cleric Sheikh Saleh al-Fawzan, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Ulema Council, who recently said that Islam prohibits suicide and that suicide attacks are devilish acts, Pajhwok News reported. Karzai called for scholars to issue a unanimous fatwa condemning suicide attacks as haram (forbidden) and illegitimate, and he further appealed to OIC member nations to join together in combating the root causes of terrorism and extremism.

In November 2012, Pakistan had agreed to the proposal for such a conference put forward by the Afghan High Peace Council, and plans were made to hold the event in Kabul in late January. Then on Dec. 27 the Taliban issued a statement criticizing the proposed conference as an American ploy, and urged Islamic scholars to support the Taliban, “their spiritual offspring,” by boycotting the “fraudulent” event. On Jan. 9, Taliban emir Mullah Omar issued a four-page statement condemning the conference and warning that any scholar who attended would not only lose credibility but would be “answerable to God.” [See Threat Matrix reports, Taliban spurn Islamic scholars’ conference on suicide bombings, and Mullah Omar warns against attending conference on suicide attacks.]

Reports in the Pakistani press suggested that scheduling problems were emerging, that Afghan organizers were seeking the support of prominent Saudi clerics, and that overtures were being made to powerful Pakistani figures to encourage attendance at the conference. The Nation reported that Kabul and Islamabad had asked Saudi Arabia to “send a high profile Ulema delegation to participate in the conference,” and that such efforts, even if delayed, were necessary to achieving reconciliation in Afghanistan.

But by late January, the planned conference had failed to materialize, and Pakistan’s Express Tribune reported that the Afghan government’s planned Ulema conference had been postponed to sometime in February, and that the agenda and date were still to be determined. The Afghan ambassador to Islamabad explained that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan was prepared for the conference. [See Threat Matrix report, Conference on suicide bombings postponed after Taliban condemnation.]

According to an in-depth report by the Afghan Analysts’ Network, the delays and setbacks in getting the conference off the drawing board are due to conflicts between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the participants as well as the agenda, and to clear opposition by the Taliban. The AAN report states: “A relevant Afghan official privy to the affair who did not want to be named told AAN … that, ‘the Pakistani government has in private told the main religious groups not to help the process.'” The AAN also said that the Taliban held their own meeting inside Afghanistan about the proposed conference, after which they issued a declaration saying anyone who attended the conference would be considered an “enemy of Islam.”

Two powerful Pakistani clerics with close ties to the Taliban have rebuffed overtures to participate in the conference, the AAN report also notes. It quotes Islamabad-based journalist Tahir Khan, who said: “‘Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman and Maulana Sami-ul Haq did not give a positive [response] when they were contacted by Afghan diplomats in Islamabad.’ Haq’s response implied that the Afghan Taliban should be invited to participate in any regional Ulema conference. “If you invite scholars from the whole world but do not accommodate the Afghan Ulema’s opinion, then the conference will not produce any result,” Haq told the Express Tribune.

The responses of Haq and Rehman are not surprising. Haq is considered to be “the father of the Taliban,” and his Darul Uloom Haqqania madrassa has trained hundreds of jihadists, including Mullah Omar. Rehman is a known apologist for the Taliban and other Pakistani terror groups.

A Feb. 3 report by The News of Pakistan on the behind-the-scenes wrangling over the proposed conference indicates how seriously the Taliban are taking the whole matter. According to the News, there has been “fresh communication between Mulla Mohammad Omar and some prominent religious parties of Pakistan followed by meetings, during the last week, between the representatives of Afghan Taliban and senior office-bearers of Pakistan’s JI, JUI- F, JUI- S and Pakistan Ulema Council.”

These recent meetings have led the Pakistani religious parties to insist that the Afghan Taliban be included in the Ulema conference, the News reports. The Pakistani parties are also suspicious that the proposed peace conference is intended to favor or endorse the Karzai government without the participation of the Afghan Taliban, in which case the event would be “just counterproductive.” Continuing ambiguity about the actual agenda of the as-yet-unscheduled conference has added to the intrigue, with some calling it a ‘peace conference’ and others a conference for the express purpose of condemning suicide attacks.

Karzai’s plea at the OIC gathering yesterday suggests that the Afghan government may be relinquishing its goal of having an Ulema conference in Kabul this spring on the topic of suicide attacks and that Afghanistan is instead seeking support on the issue from other Muslim nations.

The Taliban have every reason to resist, by means both direct and indirect, any attempt to curtail the use of suicide attacks, which constitute one of the most powerful weapons in their arsenal. As data compiled by the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal show, the number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan rose from one in 2001 (the bombing that killed Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud on Sept. 9, 2001, two days before 9/11) to 736 by Sept. 5, 2011 (the date of the SAIR report), with a total of 3,755 fatalities. And the increased use of suicide attacks by the Taliban’s close ally, al Qaeda, and its affiliates in jihadist theaters worldwide is raising the pressure for both sides on this issue.