Growing out of the madrasa enhancement initiative that ICRD has underway in Pakistan for the previous seven years, ICRD’s President Dr. Douglas Johnston had an opportunity in 2007 to meet with 57 Afghan Taliban commanders, religious leaders, and tribal leaders in the mountains of Pakistan. This opening arose out of an earlier workshop for Ahle-Hadith (Wahhabi) madrasa leaders in which a senior-level Taliban commander participated. Having lost two of his sons in the fighting, he was despondent and expressed the view that he and his colleagues simply didn’t know what America wants. This ultimately led to an invitation for Dr. Johnston to meet with the Taliban’s senior leadership in the mountains of Pakistan to address that question. He did this a couple of months later, and through the new contacts that resulted, ICRD was able to play a pivotal role a few months later in securing the release of 21 Korean missionaries being held hostage by the Taliban.
ICRD’s involvement in the hostage crisis, in turn, led to an invitation from the Government of Afghanistan’s Secretary for Religious Affairs to convene a conference of religious and political leaders from all 34 provinces of the country in order to secure their support and cooperation in providing urgently needed development assistance and in promoting reconciliation and human rights. This initiative had strategic implications because religious leaders are the lifeline of the Taliban, and the Taliban was actively engaged in sabotaging development assistance.
A chief obstacle to be overcome in achieving the desired results was the negative attitude that many of Afghanistan’s religious leaders feel toward their government. This was addressed through a series of regional workshops that brought smaller groups of political and religious leaders together in collaboration with the Afghan Ministry of Hajj and Islamic Affairs and the Kabul-based Islamic Studies Development Center. These workshops, in turn, were to set the stage for a major Islamic Summit on Peacemaking in Afghanistan, the goals of which were to:
- Discuss the issues of conflict relating to reconstruction/development,
- Examine the role that Afghanistan’s religious leaders can play in the reconstruction/development process through collaboration with political leaders,
- Explore areas for cooperation between the religious and political leadership in supporting reconciliation among different groups, and
- Form working groups that will meet periodically to surface and discuss the relevant political, economic, security, social, and religious issues pertaining to reconstruction.
The regional workshops facilitated the kind of outreach and discussions that will be required to engage political and religious leaders who normally have little, if any, contact with one another. As a result, they began working together cooperatively in identifying key challenges and steps that can be taken to create peaceful communities and to develop conflict prevention and resolution skills from an Islamic perspective.
Three such regional conferences were held before the funding dried up, involving more than 200 Afghan religious and political leaders, including representation from such key governmental entities as the Ministry of Hajj and Islamic Affairs, the legislature, the judiciary, and the National Commission for Peace in Afghanistan (Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Program). Professor Sigbatullah Mojaddedi, Chairman of the Senate of Afghanistan, who was appointed by President Hamid Karzai to be Chairman of the National Commission for Peace and who had been working to bring combatants into a process of country-wide reconciliation, was a prominent participant in this process.
The principal topics discussed over the course of the regional conferences ranged from the obstacles to peace and reconciliation, to the role of the religious leaders and the ways in which they have been sidelined in the current political structure, to the ways that tribal elders’ participation can be enhanced in the nation-rebuilding process, to approaches for creating more constructive relationships between religious and political leaders. The workshops overcame significant obstacles in bringing the two “poles” of Afghan society together face-to-face and in providing an opportunity for them to engage in substantive discussions on issues critical to Afghanistan’s future.
Indicative of the conferences’ success was the fact that all of the participants, both political and religious, agreed that this is “exactly what Afghanistan needs.” Many Afghan religious leaders feel isolated or completely ignored by the current Afghan government, in contrast to the Taliban, which, when in power, consulted with them frequently. If religious leaders feel respected and listened to by their government, they will be less inclined to undermine it and more inclined to support development assistance initiatives. Thus, it was crucial for these meetings to acknowledge the critical role that religious leaders play in their communities and to show respect for that role. The vision of these religious leaders will be pivotal to Afghanistan’s future.