Making friends with the Taliban

Map of Afghanistan and PakistanPopular accounts of present-day Pakistan often present Muslims there as uniformly intractable and intolerant, and Muslim-Christian relationships as uniformly hostile. All is seen through the lens of the Taliban.

This is a distortion. The history of Jesuit involvement in Pakistan suggests a more complex picture, reflecting the diversity among Muslims there.

Jesuit involvement in the region goes back to the 16th century when the Mughal Emperor Akbar invited Jesuits to engage in religious debates. This set the tone for later engagement.

In 1961, a Swiss Jesuit, Fr Robert Butler, came to Lahore where he gathered important books on Islam written in the Islamic languages (Arabic, Persian and Urdu) as well as books and international journals on Islam and Christianity written in various European languages. The library in Lahore became a basis for scholarly contacts between Fr Butler and various Muslim intellectuals throughout the following decades.

After Fr Butler left there was less opportunity for scholarly dialogue with Muslims. A new approach had to be found. It lay in the development of personal relationships, which is the foundation of all dialogue.

The Jesuits opened two schools for the Urdu and Punjabi-speaking people of Lahore. About 40 per cent of the children who attend these schools are from Muslim families. Some of the teachers are also Muslims.

By interacting on a daily basis, Christians and Muslims, whether they are teachers or students, are learning how to respect and care for one another. The everyday contact that students enjoyed as Christian and Muslim playing and studying together, and the respectful interaction of their Christian and Muslim teachers forms a good basis for subsequent relationships. The history of Islam in Pakistan supports this open and tolerant attitude.

The Muslims of Pakistan today are by nature moderate and respectful of varieties in religious interpretation and practice because they have adopted the form of Islam that the holy men and women (Sufis) had preached to them many centuries ago.

These wandering Sufis had taught them the spiritual depth of the Islamic faith and had provided them with a living example of the beauty and simplicity of their faith. Consequently, the great majority of contemporary Muslims in Pakistan reject the interpretation of Islam that the Taliban are trying to impose upon them.

One can only understand the rise of the Taliban, however, if one remembers the history of their beginnings as a wave of opposition against foreign invaders from Russia several decades ago. Today, the Taliban are reacting to the lawlessness and corruption that has prevailed in Afghanistan ever since the defeat of the Russians.

They are resorting to their own extreme interpretation of Islam in the hope of restoring the rule of law in Afghanistan as well as in the northern areas of Pakistan.

The Taliban are receiving continued support from some sectors of society in Afghanistan and even from some individuals in Pakistan because these people are losing confidence in the ability of the civil government to create a safe and secure environment for them based on the implementation of the law.

With nowhere to turn except to the Taliban for help, more and more people are turning their attention to Shari'ah law, in the hope that its harsh punishments will deter the lawbreakers and stem corruption in society.

The efforts of foreign powers to subdue or even to exterminate the Taliban by sending more troops into Afghanistan are only encouraging more young volunteers across the border in Pakistan to take up arms and to join the struggle of their besieged brothers in Afghanistan. Military intervention from outside the country is alienating the local people from the efforts of these foreign troops to bring peace and security to their society.

Military action in Afghanistan and in the northern areas of Pakistan should be replaced by political dialogue between the various parties in the dispute.

In the present context, there is no question of religious dialogue with the Taliban about different interpretations of Islam. The extreme form of Islam we are witnessing in Afghanistan and in Pakistan is a response to political and social realities. A political dialogue will make a difference to the present conflict provided it takes account of the social and political context in which the Taliban are gaining popularity and growing in strength.

All forms of dialogue between Muslims and Christians, including theological exchange, depend on the trust and friendship established by regular meetings and conversations between Christians and Muslims. More trust could develop between Christians and Muslims in Pakistan in these difficult times if they could find ways of moving out of the relative isolation of their schools and housing estates to build more relationships of trust and friendship.

Both Christians and Muslims in Pakistan need to move beyond the assumptions and stereotypes that continue to dominate the thinking of many people on both sides of the religious divide. If Christians, for instance, were more informed about the variety of ways that their Muslim brothers and sisters understood Islam, they would be less inclined to make sweeping statements about the Muslims living all around them.

Similarly, if Muslims in Pakistan could appreciate that Western nations act more frequently out of national and political interests, rather than out of Christian convictions, they would be less inclined to condemn their Christian co-citizens, who have no knowledge of the political maneuvers of Western (so-called Christian) governments. Forums of communication in Pakistan would provide an opportunity to correct misunderstandings of this kind.

Christians and Muslims, who tend to live in separate enclaves and compounds, need to take an initiative by attending each other's feasts and functions. Without a basis of trust and friendship, there will be little scope for deepening communication through exchanges of a more intellectual or spiritual kind.

Society in Pakistan will benefit from courageous citizens who are willing to overcome apathy and fear without waiting for the initiative to come from the other side.

Herman RoborghHerman Roborgh SJ lived in Pakistan for eight years before going to India where he completed a PhD in Islamic Studies at Aligarh Muslim University. He currently resides in Australia.

Topic tags: herman roborgh, muslim, christian, pakistan, lahore, inter-religious dialogue, taliban



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Existing comments

Very hopeful essay. A bit of a warning about the Sufi's though.

Martin | 01 May 2009  

Great credit To Eureka Street this week, first
by publishing the article by Ashlea Scicluna, Bringing Hamas in from the Cold and again today by Herman Roborgh SJ, Making friends with the Taliban. Herman points out that 30 years ago the Taliban was doing then as it is
doing now, resisting waves of foreign invaders, namely the Russians.

It is interesting to note that during the second war we resisted the group of nations invading others, now we seem to be in reverse, we are the invaders, in Vietnam,Iraq and Afghanistan. None of the countries mentioned have offered us any threat whatsoever yet we interfere in their affairs.

The Afghanistan people have thousands of years of experience fighting invaders even as far back as Alexander, they do not want foreigners governing their country or telling them how to live and they are prepared to fight and die for the right to be free, just as the Vietnamese did for 30 years following the second world war when they fought waves of foreign invaders, the Japanese, the French, the Americans.

kecin vaughan | 01 May 2009  

Herman Roborgh's piece is well timed, following the anti-Islam comments on 'Say g'day to ease Muslim-Christian tensions'.

People who see all Muslims as militants waging terror on non-Muslim countries drive moderate and even lax Muslims into the arms of the extremists so well represented by the Taliban. As stated by Father Roborgh,

'The extreme form of Islam we are witnessing in Afghanistan and in Pakistan is a response to political and social realities.'

He continues,

'All forms of dialogue between Muslims and Christians, ... depend on the trust and friendship established by regular meetings and conversations between Christians and Muslims.'

In Australia, Muslim schools provide an excellent focus for building relationships with the general society. They fit into the already existing network of Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox church schools and Jewish schools - all part of the Australian religious framework, and all having experienced initial opposition from some of the 'general society'.

The first-generation English-born Muslims among the Pakistan-based supporters of the Taliban were marginalised and isolated by those sections of English society obsessed by resentment and fear of the newcomer.

Resentment and fear of the newcomer is the real threat to Australia, not Islam.

Ian Fraser | 04 May 2009  

I cannot speak with the same personal insights into Pakistan as Herman Roborgh. However, my reading tells me that the move to extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan may be explained by factors in addition to sociological factors such as lawlessness and foreign troops. According to the Guardian Weekly (3/3/09 p.9)there has been a great build up of Saudi-funded Wahhabi (radical) madrasas (schools) in Pakistan.

Pakistan also has its own radical element quite at odds with Sufism. One of the most influential Islamic thinkers of the 20th century in Pakistan was Mawlana Mawdudi (1903-1979). His ideas have been a prominent influence in the formation of the Islamic theocracy in Pakistan today, and include the following statements:
“Merely believing in God as God and in his Law [the Shari’a] as the true law, is not enough. As soon as you believe in these two things, a sacred duty devolves upon you: wherever you are, in which ever country you live, you must strive to change the wrong basis of government, and seize all powers to rule and make laws, from those who do not fear God” (S.A.A Mawdudi, “Let Us Be Muslims”, ed. K Murad, Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1982, p.290 quoted in Crucible – The Christian Journal of Social Ethics July-Sept 2008, p.29)

Rex Graham | 05 May 2009  

Yes, Pakistani Islam and that of Afghanistan have been primarily moderate, diverse, and tolerant. The Catholic-Islamic dialog sponsored by the Vatican is one positive sign of this. This dialog is often the only way for moderate Islam to have a voice.

Of course, by western standards, this dialog will endorse regressive ideas and public policies: no gay marriage (and a feckless or aggressive tolerance for gay persecution), no abortion (and a feckless or aggressive tolerance for the suppression of women), and no women clergy.

But the Taliban, really converts to Saudi Wahhabism (through the madrasah schools), are not open to dialog and discussion.

I agree that US and NATO military efforts will be fruitless. The Taliban are like the Irish of old - they love any fight they cannot win. Which means they will eventually win.

The sensible thing for the US to do would be bribe/buy the Pakistani nuclear weapons and then leave Pakistan and Afghanistan to sort out their own history.

Let the Taliban win. People will eventually tire of their rule (even among their own ranks) and they will be put aside. Just like the old Soviet Union - let them take over here and there and then collapse from within from an inability to manage all that they conquered.

Remember, Bin Laden's original complaint was the presence of heathens (US military) in the Muslim Holy land (the Saudi peninsula). He wanted the westerners to return to the west and leave the Islamic world to itself. Not a bad idea at this point.

Australia has nothing to fear from a fundamentalist Islamic world. It will be protected as a western, vaguely Christian part of a "godless," strong Asia that is not of the Christian, Islamic or Jewish tradition.

North America also has little to fear from a fundamentalist Islam. if it just leaves them alone.

Europe has much to fear from a fundamentalist Islam. But it's up to them to work out their own problems.

John McGrath | 06 May 2009  

I have read the Eureka Street article by Fr. Herman Roborgh SJ in the current issue of Eureka Street and I would like to express my delight with his efforts to bring about inter-faith understanding and to suggest communicating with the Taliban.

When I took my translations of for anthology of Arabic poetry,‘Feathers and the Horizon,’ to Professor Jabra Ibrahim Jabra at Baghdad university in 1989 for his comments before publication, I was immediately aware of how polite he was to those scrubbing the floors at the university. I said to him, ‘Jabra, you are so civilized, what if your definition of a truly civilized person?’ He answered immediately with these words, ‘The one that makes the leap to the other mind – the one who is aware of the other.’ Then he raised his finger and added’ ‘This is particularly important if the ‘other’ is angry.’

This is apparently what Fr Herman Roborgh is doing by writing his article - endeavoring to make the leap to the mind of those who are angry.
This is exactly what is necessary in order to try to understand why there is anger and therefore draw people together and prevent conflict.
Over the years I have been invited to many universities in the Middle East and in India and Pakistan an Malaysia to speak about Australian literature. I am very aware of the growing anger.

However I find the editors' title of Fr Herman’s provocative – Surely it would be wiser to have a title such as ‘Let’s Talk with the Taliban’ or ‘Let’s Communicate with the Taliban.’

Anne Fairbairn | 09 May 2009  

Fr Herman Roborgh has judiciously drawn attention to the refining influence of the Jesuits in Pakistan and in their endeavours to present the discourse with the Taliban as endemically political. Fr Roborgh correctly sees all conversation between the parties as necessarily recognising the Taliban's reaction to foreign invaders & the corrupting forces emanating from this. He is surely correct in declaring that a starting point for any worthy dialogue will recognise this predicament and deal delicately with it.

katherine styles | 11 May 2009  

Let us not kid ourselves. The war in Iraq was lost at Abu Graib prison, just as the war in Afghanistan is being lost by American failure to present even a semblance of Christian morality in the war or in the local prison.Might is not right in moral law. Fr. Herman's attempt at dialogue is very praiseworthy but doomed to failure while the war continues.Prayer is a much more realistic response.The tragedy is that many in Islam regard the invasion of the modern atheistic West as a Christian Crusade.The Taliban are concerned to re-establish the peaceful rule of law.

Alex Reichel | 11 May 2009  

when we hear so many negative stories from that part of the world, it is uplifting to read Herman's article ... that a solid foundation of understanding has been built and the common ground needs to be reclaimed from all those extremists (of all faiths and non-faiths)

gordon biok | 11 May 2009  

So, Alex Reichel, the Taliban want to reestablish the peaceful rule of law. There will no doubt be peace as long as women stay in their homes and don't seek either education or work. There will be peace as long as the men don't play music or shave their beards. Such are the dictates of the "peace" that the law of the Taliban demands. Let's not even mention what will happen to couples who are accused of adultery.

Alex Reichel, what you call peaceful law, I call the tyrannical dictates of heartless religious fanatics.

Patrick James | 13 May 2009  

I wrote about what the Taliban prefer as a rule of law.Perhaps what Patrick James prefers is the non-existent "law" of the atheistic West, eg. wholesale abortion and euthanasia,divorce and no blame adultery, child neglect and sexual abuse, crime and corrupt enforcement,corporate robbery and greed,not to mention water torture of prisoners, drug addiction, epidemic mental illness.

Hell's Bells, I could go on forever with this litany.Where God has ceased to exist, man does not exist either. Nihilism reigns!

Alex Reichel | 14 May 2009  

Dear Alex Reichel, I am as sickened by the ills of the West as you are. If I were putting together a list of them, I don't think that mine would be very different from yours. And I agree much of it is due to the militant secularism / atheism that exists in the West. However, the West is not totally evil. We have rights and freedoms here that citizens in other countries can only dream about.

In your posts you seem to imply that a re-Christianised West would look something like a Talibanised Afghanistan or Pakistan. You seem to suggest that the two are somehow equivalent. If this is the case, I reject it out of hand.

We may be appalled by an adulterous affair and the wanton lack of sexual morality. The Taliban kill people for this. We may lament the lack of religious observance. The Jihadists in Somalia beat people to make them go to Friday prayers. We condemn drunkeness, people in Saudi Arabia are jailed for even possessing alcohol.

The type of society that we Western Christians would broadly have is very different from that of these Islamic fundamentalists.

Patrick James | 15 May 2009  

Thank you Herman. The Jesuits have been prophets in Asia since the days of Ricci in China. Would that more people would leave the couch and meet Muslims on their own turf.

Ray O'Donoghue | 20 July 2009  

hi, i am student of Engineering in Quetta Pakistan i read this and i got new dimension about Taliban, i come a different dimensin on them & learn alot... tahnks keep writing for us.. take care bye

Adnan Arif Jehangir | 08 August 2010  

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