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Indonesian sympathy for a 'changed' Taliban: more harm than good

Indonesia at Melbourne - September 2, 2021

Yuji Mizuno and Fachri Aidulsyah – Since its shocking takeover of Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul last month, the Taliban, now the de facto Afghan government, has repeatedly vowed to deliver "inclusive" governance.

The international community has greeted this pledge with deep suspicion. But in Indonesia, some political leaders and Islamic elites have seemed to take this promise seriously. Even discounting the small number of extremists who celebrated the Taliban's victory as a win against the west in the "clash of civilizations", there were plenty of mainstream figures expressing rather hopeful views on the future of the Taliban's state-building project.

Undoubtedly the most prominent voice of sympathy for the Taliban was Jusuf Kalla. The former vice president has had a history of dialogue with the group's leadership, including mediating several rounds of peace talks between the Taliban and the now-deposed Ashraf Ghani administration.

Kalla's diplomacy with the Taliban culminated in an informal visit by a Taliban delegation to Jakarta in 2019. The delegation, led by senior Taliban figure Abdul Ghani Baradar, visited the offices of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI).

Since the Taliban's return to power, Kalla has been busy appearing in the media trying to reassure the public that this time, the Taliban is different. This seems to be a natural progression from his earlier position, which viewed the militant organisation as a legitimate partner in dialogue.

Claims about the Taliban's "moderation" are nothing new, and have also been expressed by Kalla's associates. One example is Muhammad Zaitun Rasmin, the deputy secretary general of MUI and the leader of Salafi organisation Wahdah Islamiyah, who joined Kalla in meeting the Taliban in 2019.

Rasmin lauded the Taliban leaders, noting that they were impressed with the Indonesian system's channeling of Islamic political aspirations through formal politics. His statement suggested the Taliban had the capacity and willingness to change its governing style, by learning from the "successful" case of Indonesia. Kalla reiterated this view of the Taliban's enthusiasm to learn from Indonesia in recent interviews.

It is one thing for an extremist leader to sympathise with the Taliban. But it is quite another when this praise is coming from the former vice president.

Since the Taliban's rise to power, Kalla's views about giving the Taliban a chance have become common among prominent politicians and leaders from an array of Islamic political parties and organisations. This includes Hidayat Nur Wahid of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), Sudarnoto Abdul Hakim of MUI, Mahfuz Sidik of the Gelora Party started by former PKS figures Anis Matta and Fahri Hamzah, and many more.

While NU leader Said Aqil Siradj maintains the view that the Taliban poses threat to Indonesian society, some other senior NU figures are much more tolerant of the group. The deputy secretary general of NU, Abdul Mun'im DZ, is one of these. Mun'im has published on the Afghan conflict and attended the 2019 meeting with the Taliban in Jakarta. Mun'im believes the Taliban has changed, and he claims NU played a "huge" role in its moderation.

According to Mun'im, NU has held discussions with the Taliban over several years. These were motivated by its ambitions to spread wasatiyyah Islam (centrist Islam) – the principle underpinning Islam Nusantara (Islam of the Archipelago) – across the world to counter the rise of puritanical interpretations of Islam. Mun'im even stated the NU helped establish an "NU Afghanistan". Apparently inspired by the values of NU, this organisation has expanded into 22 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. More than 7,000 Afghan ulama and many more students participate in its activities. NU Afghanistan is in constant dialogue with the Taliban grassroots, Mun'im claims.

Another sympathetic NU leader is Abdul Manan Ghani. Ghani has urged the Indonesian public not to feel threatened by the Taliban. He stressed that the Taliban follows the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence and acknowledges the authority of ulama, unlike puritanical "Wahhabi" movements. In this respect, Ghani said, the Taliban is inherently different from Salafi-jihadist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Even though Afghanistan has its own history of pluralism stipulated under the Hanafi Islamic creed, as some studies have shown, it is important to remember that the Taliban is not a regular Islamic movement. Many reports from the ground have already indicated grim prospects for governance under the Taliban. There is deep suspicion among international observers about the Taliban's pledges to respect human rights, including the rights of women and girls, and ethnic and religious minorities. Overseas Afghans have been among the staunchest voices in condemning the Taliban. Some of the more than 7,000 Afghan refugees living in Indonesia have also participated in protests.

In this context, the views expressed by the former vice president and many other prominent Islamic figures in Indonesia are, at best, out of tune with the concerns of the international community. At worst, such views could have negative consequences. Indeed, some of these adverse impacts are already being felt, with Islamist and extremist groups in Indonesia already using sanguine assessments of the new Taliban as legitimisation for its methods. These groups are coopting this rhetoric to regain dwindling public support for the Islamist cause.

For example, Muhammad Yusran Hadi, the Aceh head of the Indonesian Council for Young Islamic Scholars and Intellectuals (MIUMI) – one of the groups involved in organising the protests against former Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama in 2016 and 2017 – also asserted that the Taliban had "become better than before". Hadi went on to denounce any suspicion of the Taliban as a "sin". He stated that liberals and secularists fear people in Indonesia will follow the Taliban's lead, and revive strong Islamic leadership akin to the Caliphate of the past.

Islamist vigilante circles are desperately looking for new glue to bind the conservative Muslim community together, especially in the absence of "anchor" figure Rizieq Shihab, who was recently sentenced to four years in prison for spreading false information in relation to the results of a Covid-19 test. The victory of the Taliban has the potential to provide a much-needed boost to conservative Muslim solidarity in the short term.

With the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT) already on high alert regarding the potential for Taliban euphoria to embolden radical and extremist groups in Indonesia, it is hard not to worry about what damage the backing of the Taliban by mainstream figures like the former vice president and senior NU officials is doing.

There is nothing wrong with attempts at dialogue. But considering the fluidity of the situation on the ground, and how premature it is for any kind of concrete evaluation of the Taliban's governance, optimism at this moment is doing more harm than good.

Source: https://indonesiaatmelbourne.unimelb.edu.au/indonesian-sympathy-for-a-changed-taliban-more-harm-than-good