The Role of Islam in Shaping the Future of Afghanistan

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In the aftermath of the attacks against the United States on September 11 and the resulting conflict in Afghanistan, Western analysts and the media have referred extensively to Islamic notions such as shura, fatwa, shari’a, madrasa, and jihad in their reports on the region. Little information has been made available, however, on the meaning of these concepts and their actual political significance in Central Asia, more particularly in Afghanistan. As many analysts seek to distinguish the religion of Islam from the ideology behind the terror attacks, essential Islamic aspects of Afghan society and politics have been cast aside and remain misunderstood, limiting our understanding of the origins of political Islam in the region and our ability to relate to these key aspects of contemporary Afghan society. Afghanistan is considered one of the “most Islamic” countries in the world if one appreciates the extent to which Islam underpins many of the customs and tribal codes that condition numerous aspects of political and social life in the country. Islam, therefore, has a profound influence on the identity and social structure of the rural Afghans who compose an overwhelming majority of the population. With the exodus of the intellectual elite over the past 20 years and the demise of the more secular education that was previously available to most urban communities, Islamic education at madrasa, or religious schools, and local mosques have become the primary sources of education within the country and in most refugee camps.