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Afghanistan

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Afghanistan

    Throughout its history, Afghanistan has endured political upheaval and deep social division. Islam serves as one of the few unifying elements in Afghan society. It has flourished since the late 600s as a mainly tolerant force in the region, but political turmoil has complicated the role of Islam. Government takeovers, foreign invasions, and civil war created conditions in which Islamic extremism gained strength in the late twentieth century. Afghan leaders subjected the population to harsh religious law and provided asylum to suspected international terrorists. In response to the September 11 , 2001 , attacks on the World Trade Center, the United States launched a military campaign to defeat terrorist forces in Afghanistan. In December 2001 , it helped to establish a new Afghan government. This government pledged to rebuild Afghan society and restore human rights to the country.

    About 99 percent of the Afghan population is Muslim; between 75 and 85 percent are Sunni Muslims, while the rest are Shi'i. Despite their common Islamic heritage, Afghans belong to a variety of ethnic groups that have dominated different regions of the country. The largest group, the Pashtuns, represents about half the population. Other major ethnic groups include the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. Political power in Afghanistan has traditionally belonged to local tribal rulers rather than religious leaders.

    Early Conflicts.

    Located on the site of major trade routes in Central Asia, Afghanistan is a landlocked country of some 251,825 square miles. It lies east of Pakistan and west of Iran, bordering China on the northeast, and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan on the north. Its rugged mountains, part of the Himalayan chain, are often impassable in winter and have made it difficult for outside armies to conquer and unify the region. Part of the Persian Empire in ancient times, Afghanistan was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 300s B.C.E., and a series of Hellenistic and Central Asian rulers governed the region. Muslim Arab armies reached the region by 642 C.E. , taking over the western areas of Herat and Seistan and bringing Islam to the region. During the 800s, Islam spread to the eastern and northern parts of the region.

    By the late 900s, Sultan Mahmud had transformed the city of Ghazni, in northeastern Afghanistan, into one of the most important Islamic capitals in the world. In 1219 , however, the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan overran Afghanistan. Tolerant of local religions and customs, the Mongol rulers accepted Islam but governed by military might rather than Islamic principles. After the decline of the Mongol Empire around the mid-1300s, the region reverted to tribal rule, which continued until Afghanistan united under Nadir Shah Afshar and his successor, Ahmad Shah Durrani , in the early 1700s.

    Conflicts over succession as well as military and political pressures from Britain and Russia weakened the Durrani empire. Eager to control Afghanistan in order to protect its empire in India, Britain fought two Anglo-Afghan wars ( 1839 – 1842 and 1878 – 1880 ), but ultimately failed to gain control of the country. After its second defeat in Afghanistan, Britain helped to bring Amir Abd al-Rahman Khan, a descendant of the Durrani dynasty, to power. The Iron Amir, as he was known, became the first Afghan ruler to centralize political power in the name of Islam. He forcibly converted the only remaining non-Muslims in the country and declared himself the ruler of an Islamic state. Islam provided a base for his power and he declared that “whether just or despotic, the king must be obeyed, provided his commands do not violate the shari'ah.” The Iron Amir used harsh measures against his opponents, instilling fear throughout the country and weakening the power of religious leaders. A strong central state ran contrary to Afghan tradition, and it faced opposition from many Afghans, who continued to depend on village-based structures of authority.

    Emphasizing Islamic Values.

    New political ideas began to take root in Afghanistan in the early 1900s. King Amanullah introduced the country's first constitution in 1923 and supported the creation of a national philosophy based on ideals shared by all citizens. Conservative spiritual leaders, however, sparked an armed rebellion against him, and drove him into exile in 1929 . His successor, Muhammad Nadir Shah , abandoned many of Amanullah's reforms. Muhammad Shah's policies emphasized Islamic values, but unlike the Iron Amir, he did not invoke Islam as the source of his authority. Instead, he affirmed his power through a new political constitution. Muhammad Shah established a Jam'iyatul Ulama, or Supervisory Council of Muslim Scholars, and ordered the country's first printing of the Qur'an. He also strengthened the power of the mullahs and reinstated shari'ah courts to hear all legal cases.

    Marxism and Soviet Invasion.

    Throughout the rest of the twentieth century, the forces of modernization and conservative Islam often clashed. In the 1950s and 1960s, Marxist and other left-wing parties emerged in the capital city of Kabul. At the same time, students at Kabul University formed the Muslim Youth Movement, an organization dedicated to radical change through the establishment of an Islamic government. In 1978 a coup led by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan brought a communist government to power. This regime met with strong resistance from most Afghans, and in 1979 , the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support the endangered government. To defend their country and Islam, the mullahs launched a popular uprising against the Soviets. Afghans who had fled into exile in Pakistan, as well as thousands of young Muslims from other parts of the Islamic world, rushed to Afghanistan to support the uprising.

    The resistance fighters, known as mujahidin, received military and financial support from the United States and other countries eager to undermine the Soviet Union. In 1989 , after a decade of struggle, the mujahidin drove out the Soviet army and took control of most of Afghanistan. The communists, however, still clung to power in Kabul, and the mujahidin continued to fight them.

    Finally, in April 1992 , the mujahidin defeated the Marxist government and declared Afghanistan an Islamic state. For the first time in Afghan history, religious figures held government power. Yet civil war had devastated the country, and officials found it difficult to rebuild its infrastructure—the public works, such as roads and hospitals, that enable society to function. Huge areas of the countryside contained land mines, posing dangers to refugees and to farmers planting crops. Many men had died in the fighting, leaving wives and children without support, and food shortages plagued the country. Despite these difficulties, Western powers withdrew most of their economic aid, leaving Afghanistan to cope with these challenges on its own.

    Rise of the Taliban.

    In the face of such troubles, the mujahidin failed to create a new Islamic political system, resorting instead to old patterns of tribal-based power that brought them wealth and influence. Bribery, theft, murder, rape, and drug trafficking became common, and private armies competed for power and riches. The mujahidin lost the people's trust when it failed to establish law and order.

    Frustrated by these circumstances, a group of religious students led by Mullah Muhammad Omar decided to take control. They called themselves the Taliban, a word meaning “students” in Persian. The Taliban seized power in the region around Kandahar in 1994 and soon controlled most of the country. At first, many Afghans welcomed them because they ended crime and gave citizens a feeling of safety. The Taliban, however, imposed a harsh, puritanical version of Islam that most Afghans found oppressive. They forbade women to hold jobs, attend school, or leave their homes without a male relative. When in public, women had to cover themselves with a long garment called a burqa. The Taliban ordered strict punishments for crimes. They amputated a hand and a foot for theft and stoned to death accused adulterers at public executions at the sports stadium in Kabul.

    The Taliban had strong ties to non-Afghan fighters who had come to Afghanistan to join the mujahidin against the Soviets. Many of these men stayed in Afghanistan after defeating the communists or returned later to continue the fight for radical Islam. Among them was a Saudi Arabian businessman, Osama bin Laden, who used Afghanistan's remote terrain as a base to train members of his terrorist network al-Qaeda.

    On September 11 , 2001 , members of al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., killing about 3,000 people. A month later, the United States bombed Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and began giving military support to anti-Taliban groups such as the Northern Alliance. The Taliban regime fell on November 17, 2001, and Hamid Karzai became the country's new head of state. The following June, Afghanistan called for a loya jirga, or traditional council of tribal leaders. This conference led to the creation of a new government and a vote confirming Karzai as head of state.

    Post-Taliban Reconstruction.

    After years of civil war, conflict between Taliban and anti-Taliban forces, and American bombing—which alone resulted in an estimated 3,500 civilian deaths—Afghanistan lay in economic and physical ruin. Hamid Karzai pledged to rebuild the country through peaceful means and took steps to resolve ethnic rivalries, empower women, and unify the region while respecting Islamic traditions and values. However, competing groups continued to threaten Afghanistan's stability. In September 2002 , a car bomb intended to assassinate Karzai exploded in Kabul, killing 26 people. The United States and other countries pledged economic support to Afghanistan, but other international events, especially the war with Iraq in 2003 , deflected attention away from Afghanistan. See also Bin Laden, Osama; Loya Jirga; Mujahidin; Qaeda, al-; Taliban.

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