Afghanistan’s thirty years of war have seen the gradual and heavy politicisation of religion. A number of new and distinct types of political movements – which can be characterised broadly as “fundamentalists”, “Islamists” and “neo-fundamentalists” – has emerged to challenge traditional expressions of Islam. This has transformed the religious landscape in Afghanistan, which is as a result more variegated than ever before.
The different attitudes of these new currents to questions of religious authority, political process, and the Afghan statebuilding project need to be carefully distinguished. More generally, the appearance of such movements highlights the way that the role of religion, though often overlooked, is central to the attempt since the regime-change of late 2001 to build a viable Afghan state. The impact of the new actors (including the Taliban itself) is reflected in the way that President Hamid Karzai – struggling to balance the modernised secularists supporting the statebuilding project and the religious fundamentalists opposing it – has allowed several ex-jihadi Islamist factions into the government.
The result of this accommodation has been both to sustain the former jihadi leaders’ influence and contribute to the marginalisation of more moderate Islamic forces. At the same time, many religious leaders believe they could contribute positively to the statebuilding agenda by generating support among Afghan people. This complex situation makes an understanding of Afghanistan’s diverse religious landscape and the various positions vis-à-vis the state all the more essential in the context of efforts to develop strategies for peace and reconciliation.