Contesting Jihad within Islam: The Servants of God

Posted: June 11, 2009 in Uncategorized
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Advocates for increased focus on strategic communications want the U.S. to support voices within Islam that contest al-Qaida’s religious justification of political violence. Opining about peace passages in the Koran is insufficient, however; the version of Islam pushed by the Taliban and al-Qaida is place- and nationality-specific, and their propaganda is buttressed by continued U.S. missteps in the region.  The U.S. should support the spread of an alternative, similarly specific ideology that contests terrorist groups’ grip on the Islamic tradition and then match that support with tangible changes in our strategy and tactics. Luckily, the Pashtun tradition contains just such an ideology, proposed and implemented in the early 20th century by Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Servants of God.

The Taliban Sent You a Message on Facebook

In military circles, the phrase “strategic communications” is all the rage. As I wrote earlier, U.S. policymakers tend to view poor perceptions of the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan as illustrations in deficiencies of our propaganda apparatus:

[I]n the communications battle, the militants appear to hold the edge. The gap has grown especially wide in the Afghan war zone, analysts say. Using FM transmitters, the Internet, and threatening notes known as “night letters” (TIME), Taliban operating from the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan have proven effective at either cowing citizens or winning them over to their message of jihad. U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke told journalists in March 2009 that “the information issue–sometimes called psychological operations or strategic communication” has become a “major, major gap to be filled” before U.S.-led forces can regain the upper hand. As part of its new strategy for the Afghan war, the White House has called for an overhaul of “strategic communications” in Afghanistan “to improve the image of the United States and its allies” and “to counter the propaganda that is key to the enemy’s terror campaign.” But U.S. officials have acknowledged an institutional weakness in coordinating strategic communications across agencies, as well as broader disagreements on definitions and tactics. “A coordinated effort must be made to improve the joint planning and implementation of strategic communications,” says the Pentagon’s 2008 National Defense Strategy (PDF).

Here’s a description of the Taliban propaganda any such strategic communications effort would have to counter (from the International Crisis Group):

Using the full range of media, it is successfully tapping into strains of Afghan nationalism and exploiting policy failures by the Kabul government and its international backers. …[S]ources of alienation exploited in Taliban propaganda [include] arbitrary detentions and …civilian casualties from aerial bombing…The vast majority of the material is in Pashtu.

Taliban and al-Qaida propaganda gets its power from its combination of appeals to Muslim identity appeals and the “long tradition of Pashtun nationalism, pride and resistance and exploiting suspicions about the motives of the foreign forces.” The following poem circulated by the Taliban provides a good example:

I will never accept a life where I must bow to others/
I will never back the illegitimate for any money …
I will not swear on Washington as my Qiblah
[direction to Mecca], nor will I bow to Bush …
I will not kiss the hand of Laura Bush, nor will I
bow to Rice … My beliefs and my Pashtun pride
teach me this/If I am chopped into pieces, I will
not beg to others

Civilian deaths are also a key driver of Taliban and al-Qaida propaganda, which further buttresses the nationalism/Islam nexus.

Civilian deaths resonate enormously in communities, particularly given terrible memories of Soviet bombing campaigns. Reports of alleged abuses or overreaction by international forces are regularly found in Taliban magazines and online publications. These are usually exaggerated, but incidents such as the April 2007 deaths, when marines shot civilians in Nangarhar following a suicide attack on their unit, are repeatedly cited, and the lack of public accountability is a subject of local outrage. Noting the media interest in civilian casualties, the Taliban has aggressively pushed the issue, attempting to depict an indiscriminate occupation force:

[O]ur oppressed nation is still under the brutal occupation of aggressors, and their homes and harvest come under the crusader army’s bombardment everyday and every minute. They kill children, old people and women and violate Islamic sanctities and national customs.

The Problem with Drones

The civilian casualties and Pashtun nationalism are inextricably tied thanks in large part to the United States’ undeclared war in Pakistan using aerial drones. General Atomics MQ-1 Predators and their angrier cousins, MQ-9 Reapers, are the new favorite weapon for the sections of the U.S. military tasked with killing “high-value targets” in the U.S.’s undeclared war in Pakistan. These unmanned robotic aerial drones are flown via remote by “pilots” on the other side of the planet (apparently from Creech AFB), possibly guided by transmitter chips planted near targets by spotters on the ground. Drones are quickly becoming notorious for being used to kill lots of people in general and only a few terrorists. By one estimate, U.S. joystick jockeys have used drones to kill 780 civilians and about 50 alleged terrorists.  While calling for a moratorium on their use, counterinsurgency proselytizer David Kilcullen decried the senselessness of continuing to use these weapons if our goal is to decrease terrorism:

Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.

Kilcullen goes on to note that the drone campaign is focused on “areas of northwestern Pakistan where ethnic Pashtuns predominate.” Thus, the drone war is a critical piece of our message machine (no pun intended) and the information conflict between the U.S. and our opponents in the region. Massive collateral civilian deaths caused by a tactic focused on Pashtunistan enlists Pashtun nationalism against us and buttresses the message frame of al-Qaida and the Taliban. They have the effect of focusing two disparate planks of our opponents’ framing into a single, deadly message. Quite simply, if we want to contest the Taliban’s propaganda, the drone strikes in Pakistan must cease immediately.

Considering all of this, messages like the one delivered so eloquently by President Obama in Cairo that point to a diversity of voices within Islam regarding violence are insufficient to counter a Taliban message that includes a shrewd appeal to Pashtun nationalism, which, because of our policy choices, is now tightly linked to the Taliban’s messaging regarding civilian casualties. If the government of the United States is serious about undertaking an effort to contest al-Qaida’s and the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam for the purpose of drying up the sea of Pashtuns willing to play host to their networks, we need an alternative vision of Islam tied closely to the Pashtun national identity.

Luckily, such a vision exists: the interpretation of the Koran that came to prominence in the early 20th century in the North-West Frontier Provence offered by Abdul Ghaffar Khan. [The remainder of the uncited quotes in this piece are from the previous link.]

Pashtuns, Violence and Nonviolence

Much of the resistance to the proposal I’m about to spell out rests on perceptions of Pashtun culture as heavily infected by violence, a  perception that tends to lead people to dismiss options that don’t either include a) arming them to do violence or b) using violence against their communities. And like many stereotypes, the perception of Pashtun culture as violent contains some truth. Not only have they consistently shown ferocious intolerance to foreign interference, but

…they…developed a code of honor, Pashtunwali, for handling disputes over property, women, and personal injury that often resulted in blood feuds within and between their own clans. This code often required them to repay insult with injury; acts of revenge were an honorable duty and frequently inherited from generation to generation, causing many to die young.

Describing the Pashtuns’ liberal use of violence in war and other conflicts, William Crooke wrote in 1896:

The true Pathan [Pashtun] is perhaps the most barbaric of all the races with which we are brought into contact…cruel, bloodthirsty and vindictive in the highest degree’.

The British used this characterization of Pashtuns as justification for heavy doses of violence and repression, sending “more than 100 punitive military expeditions…there during their colonial rule.”

The British strategy was periodically to send expeditions into Pashtun villages to beat, jail, or kill Pashtuns, sometimes by the thousands, because their fierce resistance prevented the British from completely controlling the region. As early as 1842, a 4,500 member British Army was completely exterminated, save one sole survivor who was allowed to return home to tell the story. The Pashtuns engaged in recurrent guerilla warfare against the British for more than 80 years.

This intimacy with violence, however, is not the whole story for the Pashtuns, and it’s important that we not fall into using William Crooke’s caricature to portray this population as monolithically, barbarically violent. Unfortunately, our national tolerance of shockingly high civilian death rates for the drone strikes indicates that to some extent that we have adopted an ability to exclude Pashtuns from our moral universe, and that we use that exclusion to justify severely inappropriate, violent tactics against them, just as the colonial British did. The story of Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars, the ‘Servants of God,’ shows that Pashtuns motivated by intense national pride, coupled with religious devotion, have articulated and forcefully acted upon an interpretation of Islam directly counter to that offered by the Taliban and al-Qaida. In my view, Ghaffar Khan’s interpretation offers the only viable option if the U.S. is looking for an effective message to combat a Taliban propaganda campaign uniting religion and Pashtun nationalism.

“I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it…When you go back to your villages, tell your brethren that there is an army of God, and its weapon is patience. Ask your brethren to join the army of God. Endure all hardships. If you exercise patience, victory will be yours.” –Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Servants of God

Born in 1890 in the North-West Frontier Province, Abdul Ghaffar Khan felt called by God early in life to the education and social uplift of his people. He established the region’s first non-British school in 1910 against the will of the British and the local mullahs and gained notoriety as a committed, principled reformer. He began to organize to push for social reforms and self-government by 1926, which earned him British intimidation, incarceration and inhumane treatment. Convinced that violence kept the Pashtuns from bettering themselves, in 1929 he formed the Khudai Khidmatgars (the ‘Servants of God’).

The Servants were a nonviolent action group that drilled for discipline like soldiers. They had “an officer corps, organized members in platoons, and taught recruits basic army discipline that was not associated with the use of arms.” The Servants recruited women as well as men. They enforced strict adherence to nonviolence, both toward the British and toward other Pashtuns. Members were required to sign the following pledge:

  1. I put forth my name in honesty and truthfulness to become a true Servant of God.
  2. I will sacrifice my wealth, life and comfort for the liberty of my nation and people.
  3. I will never be a party to factions, hatred, or jealousies with my people; and will side with the oppressed against the oppressor.
  4. I will not become a member of any other rival organization, nor will I stand in an army.
  5. I will faithfully obey all legitimate orders of all my officers all the time.
  6. I will live in accordance with the principles of non-violence [adam tashaddud].
  7. I will serve all God’s creatures alike; and my object shall be the attainment of the freedom of my country and my religion.
  8. I will always see to it that I do what is right and good.
  9. I will never desire any reward whatever for my service.
  10. All my effort shall be to please God, and not for any show or gain.

A Pashtun could not take such an oath lightly because one’s word could not be broken without losing one’s integrity. An oath committed a person to honor it with his or her life.

Anyone who violated this pledge was dismissed immediately.

This nonviolent philosophy might seem surprising to those of us used to thinking of the Pashtuns from William Crooke’s perspective. We might be tempted to dismiss it as “fringe.” But by the 1930s, the Servants’ numbers exceeded 100,000. They were involved in hundreds of actions against the British. Nor was their nonviolence superficial:

In 1931, London ordered its police and military to crush the Servants of God. All leaders…were arrested again. Troops went to the villages where the Servants were strong, rounded up people, and despoiled the villages. There were repeated instances of mass firings on unarmed groups, with scores, and in some cases, hundreds of casualties. The British frequently arrested and flogged members of the Servants of God…hearded them into icy streams in winter, forced them at gunpoint to remove their clothes in public, confiscated property, burned fields before time of harvest, poured oil on wheat in storage for the resident’s winter food supply, and sacked whole villages.

Despite severe repression, the Servants of God won major concessions for self-determination from the British government and played a pivotal role in the Indian independence movement (India at the time included Pakistan). Where did this come from? How could this have happened?

The key to the Servants effectiveness lay in their fusion of Pashtun nationalism with a powerful interpretation of Islam.

Ghaffar Khan taught that nonviolence was the ‘weapon of the Prophet’. He emphasized that sabr, which is often inadequately translated as patience or endurance, is counseled repeatedly in the chapters of the Qur’an that were revealed during the early years of the Prophet’s teaching in Mecca. At that time Mohammed had no political or military power, faced ridicule, and encountered harsh persecution. Only after he and his followers fled to Medina and acquired more political power did God’s revealations endorse war in defense of the faith. Ghaffar Khan noted, with historical accuracy, that the early stance taken by Mohammed and his relatively few followers was to hold firmly to truth without retreating or retaliating violently, the literal meaning of satyagraha…They took this stance in submission to God, the literal meaning of ‘Islam’. Ghaffar Khan extended the meaning of sabr to the renunciation of all violent retaliation. This became a key element in his religious faith and political practice.

This interpretation of Islam–radical, militant, and political–gave the Servants an enormous reserve of courage and determination. During the incident described above when the British fired on the unarmed crowd, they chanted ‘God is Great!’ and held copies of the Koran in their hands as they died for their principles. The fact that their nonviolence was linked to their religion made it an article of faith: no evidence exists of a Servant of God killing an opponent, despite provocation.

The group also rooted its action in the Pashtun identity. Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a Pashtun. An oath sworn by recruits included a promise to “treat every Pathan [Pashtun] as my brother and friend.” Ghaffar Khan used tradtional Pashtun distaste for foreign occupation to motivate the group to civil disobedience. Yet the Servants’ ethnic identity was not hostile to other groups: their goals included Hindu-Muslim unity, and when ethnic violence threatened Hindus and Sikhs in Peshawar during partition, about 10,000 Servants arrived to protect them without using violence.

This tradition, which unites a radical interpretation of Islam with Pashtun national identity, is just as “Pashtun” as the Taliban movement, if not more. No ideological alternative to al-Qaida and the Taliban has ever motivated a more disciplined, effective and resilient movement than the Khudai Khidmatgars. If the United States is serious about engaging in a “battle of ideas” in the Muslim world in a way that directly impacts the spread of the Taliban in Pashtun areas, we have no better alternative than the interpretation of Pashtun nationality and Muslim identity than that offered by Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

There is, of course, a catch.  Several, in fact.

First, any legitimate attempt to utilize this ideology will require drastic changes in U.S. strategies and tactics in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Foremost, the drone war in Pakistan must be halted immediately for the reasons described above. More generally, the U.S. must abandon its current military-focused strategy and rapidly shift toward training locals in nonviolent resistance for the purpose of halting Taliban encroachment. A strategy for defeating the Taliban with a primary–or even a significant–focus on military force will neutralize immediately and completely our ability to credibly support Ghaffar Khan’s alternative ideology in the Pashtun regions.

Second, the U.S., and especially the U.S. military, will have to resist any urges to charge off and attempt to communicate directly to Pashtuns about Ghaffar Khan’s interpretation. Not only have the drone strikes and other military actions hurt our credibility to spread this kind of message, but we’d risk Americanizing a critical figure in Pashtun history, tarring Ghaffar Khan’s credibility rather than improving our own. Instead, we should support credible Pashtuns who subscribe to this interpretatation and apply it in their lives. Obviously, this is a tall order–these Pashtuns must be located, and we’d have to prove ourselves to be trustworthy partners.

This leads to the third catch: To properly resource a strategy to support Pashtuns adhering to the “Servants of God” philosophy, Congress must slash a significant slice of federal budget resources out of the Defense Department to free up funds for State-Department-led activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While nonviolent engagement is a form of fighting, the U.S. military’s mandate to use violent means in pursuit of U.S. policies makes it an inappropriate home for this effort.

A Final Note: Women’s Rights

Throughout the debate on the way forward in Afghanistan, defenders of military-first strategies in the region have repeatedly raised the topic of women’s rights. Everyone knows the Taliban pushes a vicious brand of patriarchy–demanding women fill only traditional roles, summarily beating women who violate any number of draconian restrictions on their clothing or self-expression, and rigidly enforcing illiteracy and a lack of education through violence, including acid thrown in faces and night letters threatening teachers and students. These are facts. Proponents of force-first strategies point to these outrages and queue up well-intentioned American chivalry: “Are you going to abandon these women to that?” However, this canard ignores the pernicious nature of the Kabul regime with respect to women’s rights. In fact, some women’s rights groups in Afghanistan have taken to calling the Kabul regime “The Rule of the Rapists,” pointing out that where once women were beaten for showing an inch of flesh in public, now they can expect to be raped. While the relatively few, fitful steps forward for women under the current strategy are improvements to be celebrated, on the whole, pushing counterinsurgency for the purpose of propping up the Kabul government can hardly be called a “women friendly” approach.

By contrast, the ideology expounded by Abdul Ghaffar Khan empowered women:

Because of Ghaffar Khan’s religious concern about the welfare of women in society, he urged them to come out from behind the veil and to become active in the movement for social reform and political independence…’God makes no distinction between men and women’. He said that as soon as the motherland was liberated, women should obtain equal rights. ‘In the Holy Koran’, he told women, ‘ you have an equal share with men. You are today oppressed because we men have ignored the commands of God and the Prophet. Today we are followers of custom and we oppress you’…He believed that if the women of the subcontinent became engaged in change, no power on earth could oppress India.

Those concerned about the situation for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan should do everything in their power to promote the resurgence of the ideology promoted by Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Servants of God.


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