What would happen if the Taliban's spiritual fathers denounced terrorism? That,
in effect, is what has taken place in Deoband, the northern Indian hometown of
the austere form of Sunni Islam followed by the Taliban.
In May, Darul Uloom Deoband Madrasah, located north of New Dehli, issued an unprecedented fatwa, or religious decree, against terrorism. Earlier this month, 4,000 senior Indian ulema and muftis -- Muslim clerics with the authority to interpret Islamic law -- backed the fatwa in a mass gathering in the city of Hyderabad.
Now, the Deobandi political leader in India has told RFE/RL that the next step is to gather Muslim leaders from across South Asia, including the Taliban, to discuss endorsing the antiterror decree.
It looks set to be a hot debate.
"The killing of innocents or atrocities against them is terrorism," Maulana Mahmood Madani, general-secretary of Jamiat Ulama-i Hind (JUH), the conservative political party founded by Darul Uloom Deoband, told RFE/RL in explaining the May 31 fatwa. "That is how terrorism is defined."
The fatwa was issued in a strictly Indian context. In recent years, amid a series of terrorist attacks, India's 150 million-strong Muslim community has come under strong criticism from majority Hindus. Stigmatized as terrorists, Indian Muslims have been seeking to take a strong stand to dissociate themselves from violence -- and the fatwa is the latest, if perhaps the most vocal, contribution to that effort.
But given Deobandi influence on Muslims across the subcontinent, the fatwa is seen as having a potentially significant regional impact.
Darul Uloom Deoband was formed about 150 years ago as a spiritual resistance movement to British rule. Over the years, its austere form of Sunni Islam, which harkens back to the early days of the faith, spread across northern India and what is now Pakistan. Thousands of madrasahs propagating its teachings cropped up across the region, including along the Afghan-Pakistan border. It is here that many Taliban, including leader Mullah Omar, received their schooling.
With their teachers now coming out against terrorism, will the Taliban in Pakistan or Afghanistan follow suit? Madani is unsure. But he wants senior clerics from the eight member states of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to come together to debate whether to endorse the Deobandi decree.
"I don't know what [the Taliban and clerics who support them] will say," Madani said. "But my intention is that this issue must be debated. I am trying to bring together the ulema and muftis from all SAARC countries in India. Then I will request them to endorse this decree."
The Deobandi efforts come at a critical stage of the Afghan conflict, which has spilled over into the bordering tribal regions of Pakistan with militants also striking targets in and around Islamabad. In October, Saudi King Abdullah hosted allies of the Taliban and Afghan government for a religious dinner in Mecca. That meeting fueled talk that Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants a peace deal with the Taliban -- provided they accept the Afghan constitution and renounce ties to Al-Qaeda.
On November 16, Karzai offered to provide safe passage to Omar and other Taliban leaders to take part in any peace talks. Taliban sources said they were considering a response.
Late last month, Pakistani and Afghan politicians and tribal leaders met for two days of talks in Islamabad. Their so-called "mini jirga" reiterated the desire of both countries to combat extremism and terrorism, and extended an olive branch to militants willing to lay down their arms.
The jirga process, which is continuing, is a positive development, according to Maulana Syedul Aarifeen, who heads a major Deobandi Madrasah in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's restive Northwest Frontier Province.
In the 1980s, Aarifeen's late father -- Maulana Rahat Gul -- was instrumental in bringing together ulema to issue a fatwa declaring the fight against Afghanistan's Soviet occupiers as jihad. But Araifeen now wants an end to nearly three decades of war in the region. He tells RFE/RL the jirga between Pakistan and Afghanistan is the best forum to bring an end to the Taliban insurgencies in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"This jirga should be held among Muslims," Aarifeen said, "because Allah and his Prophet [Muhammad] said that when two Muslims have differences among themselves, you should seek rapprochement among them though consultation. And this process is called jirga in Pashto [language]. Now we see that there are differences among Muslims, who were united before. Now, the jirga is a good forum for us to unite again."
Alongside the jirga process, the Deobandi effort amounts to a parallel track on the theological front.
Francesco Zannini, an Italian author and expert on South Asian Islam, says the Deobandi fatwa appears aimed at condemning Al-Qaeda-style tactics -- atrocities against civilians -- while clearly leaving intact the Koranic concept of jihad, which among other things legitimizes defending Muslims against aggression.
"I believe it's a big step forward in the sense that the Deobands are now promoting in some way a movement that goes against what Al-Qaeda is doing. This is a positive point," said Zannini, a professor at Rome's Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies. "But, at the same time, I would say that it does not attack classic fundamentalism but rather only condemns its most extremist aspects. In my opinion, the Taliban could very well end up backing it."
The Deobandi fatwa comes amid other recent developments in Muslim countries that have condemned terrorism and embraced tolerance.
Saudi King Abdullah has led ongoing efforts to promote interreligious peace and tolerance, including a United Nations meeting last week in New York. Earlier this month, Catholic leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI and representatives of Islam's major schools of thought, signed a statement after three days of talks at the Vatican pledging to combat violence waged in the name of religion.
Zannini, who took part in the Vatican talks, says it all adds up to a trend: "I believe at this point we find ourselves faced with what is, essentially, the great Islamic middle class that has grown tired of this confrontation. As a result, it has begun to do something about it."
Perhaps the most dramatic shift within radical Islam came last May, when Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, the Egyptian ideological father of Al-Qaeda, published a major condemnation of the tactics used by Osama bin Laden's terror network.
"We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do," al-Fadl wrote.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.
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