by Kevin Barrett (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 9, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1443)
On August 16, my former University of Wisconsin-Madison colleague Jeremy Suri published an article in Foreign Policy under the provocative headline: “Why Afghanistan’s Tribes Beat the United States: Tightly bound kinship networks aren’t vestiges of the past. They’re a modern—and effective—form of political oganization.” Suri cites Sumit Guha’s Tribe and State in Asia Through Twenty-Five Centuries, arguing that Guha’s thesis of “a ‘resurgence of tribes’ in Asia and other continents” is the key to understanding why the Taliban defeated the United States.
Suri’s analysis, as is often the case, is a half-step ahead of the academic international affairs establishment. The consensus view in political science holds that the so-called modern secular state has supplanted religion and kinship networks as the only viable model of governance.
Suri approvingly writes that “Guha is critical of how academics, journalists, and policymakers generally talk about tribes. They are described in static terms, almost inevitably freighted with assumptions about cultural inferiority. If states are rational and innovative, tribes are depicted as static and tradition-bound. Americans of all political stripes cannot shake the belief they know better than the tribal inhabitants of Afghanistan they spent 20 years trying to organize as a modern military and state bureaucracy.”
Suri is right about the importance and effectiveness of tribal organization in Afghanistan. He is even more apropos in his critique of the arrogant ethnocentrism of Americans and Westerners in general, who imagine that their own political model, which appears to be in an advanced stage of decadence and quite possibly on the brink of collapse, is the only imaginable one.
But though Suri correctly stresses the strong points of governance (and resistance) through kinship networks, he does not seem to fully appreciate the role of Islam in forging unity between tribes and peoples. Afghanistan defeated the United States during its twenty-year defensive war not only due to its vibrant tribal traditions, but more importantly thanks to the message of Islam, which inspired widespread intertribal cooperation in resistance to the unjust, mendacious war of aggression and occupation waged by a tyrannical non-Muslim empire. Islam’s ability to bring disparate tribes and peoples together in resistance to aggression and oppression has been on display since the Covenant of Madinah, never more so than in Afghanistan’s 20-year resistance war.
The Covenant of Madinah, Islam’s first political document, was drafted specifically to end the fractiousness and violence of tribal disputes in general, and the bloody feud between the Aws and Khazraj in particular. The genius of the Covenant of Madinah was that it created an agreed-upon, fully-legitimate means of mediation of tribal disagreements: appeal to a religious authority consisting of the most capable and spiritually-advanced arbiter, in this case, the Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh). That model not only succeeded in preserving (with the help of Allah swt) the Madinan community of muhajirun (immigrants) and ansar (helpers), it also catalyzed the process of a great coming-together of tribal peoples across the heartland of the world, the supercontinent consisting of Eurasia and Africa, under the banner of Islam. And just as the Covenant of Madinah specifically addressed and allowed for religious diversity, bringing together Jews, Muslims, and others in a larger political structure, so too did later Islamic polities embrace multi-tribal, multi-confessional communities.
The Qur’an speaks of “the covenant of the prophets”:
“And (remember) when Allah made the covenant of the Prophets: ‘By that which I have given you of a Book and Wisdom, should a messenger then come to you confirming that which is with you, you shall surely have faith in him and you shall help him.’ He said, ‘Do you agree and take on My burden on these conditions?’ They said ‘We agree.’ He said ‘Bear witness, for I am with you among those who bear witness.’” (3:81) This verse and others speak of a covenant—in this case a sacred agreement between human beings and Allah (swt)—binding together the followers of the prophets in general, and the followers of the final prophet in particular. The implication is that Muslims, meaning those who submit to God in accordance with His final prophetic revelation, are bound together in a relationship that began with helping the Prophet (pbuh) during his lifetime and continues thereafter under the banner of the revealed scriptures and prophetic tradition.
So just as the Covenant of Madinah superseded but did not abolish the tribal and religious identities and affiliations of its adherents, subsequent efforts to govern in the Islamic tradition have done likewise. They have been effective to the extent that members of different tribes, and adherents of different interpretations of religion, had confidence in the justice of the religiously-legitimized mechanisms of arbitration. Religious rulers and arbiters at different levels who had a reputation for fairness, and who could be counted on to show no special favor for their own interests or those of their kinsmen or co-religionists, have succeeded in maintaining a kind of sacred legitimacy. There are countless histories, and even more folkloric tales, about Muslim caliphs and sultans and emirs, not to mention faqihs and qadis and awliya’, who followed in the footsteps of Muhammad (pbuh) (whose nickname al-Amin meaning “the faithful and trustworthy one”) and rose above ego, self-interest, familial favor, and tribal affiliation, to render consistently fair and just rulings. This sacred ethical dimension of arbitration is the heart of Islamic governance at all levels.
The Taliban will need to embrace this Madinan model if they are to have any hope of success. Afghanistan’s diversity of tribes and religious schools of thought, together with its tradition of local self-governance and resistance to outsiders, has long made it a very difficult land to unify from within or without. During the 1990s the Taliban erred by trying to impose Pashtun hegemony and a Deobandi interpretation of Islam on the entire country, eliciting a backlash that helped the American war of aggression. But during their 20 years of resistance against US occupation, the Taliban learned to work with other groups, offering parallel courts of Islamic justice that were far more reliable and trusted than those of the quisling puppet government, even in non-Pashtun areas. Since the August liberation of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s call to diversity and inclusivity has been clear and consistent, though not always backed by deeds, especially at the local level.
Today, the interim government features 30 Pashtuns, two Tajiks, one Uzbek, and no Hazaras. Its mission is to bring Afghanistan together into an Islamic Emirate headed by Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Amir al-Mu’mineen. Challenged by Daesh false-flag terror and other destabilization efforts, the new Emir and the shariah court system he heads will need to continue building the Taliban’s reputation for transcending the ethnocentric partisanship of the 1990s in favor of a genuinely Islamic alternative focused on impartial fairness and justice.