The Façade of the Afghan Jihad

In celebrating the Taliban’s victory, Western Islamists have fallen for fables, lies and prejudices decades in the making

The Façade of the Afghan Jihad
A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul on Aug. 18, 2021 / Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images

The Taliban were always going to savor their victory in Afghanistan after two decades of war, but it’s strange to see members of the Muslim diaspora in the West celebrating the triumph with equal relish, often unaware of the complexities and miseries that lie beneath its surface. On social media, in friendly conversations after Friday prayers and in debates at the dinner table there has been talk among a vocal minority that this was a victory for us all. Some people have good reason to feel a sense of vindication, and there is no doubt that a lot of pent-up emotion was released by the fall of Kabul this summer.

Many people within the West’s Muslim communities experienced the indignities of the 9/11 wars in their everyday lives, whether they were singled out by airport security before taking a flight or insulted at a job interview because of the length of their beard or their use of a niqab. From the perspective of these victims of Islamophobia, perhaps the Taliban’s triumph was payback against a merciless aggressor who had made them feel like second-class citizens in their own countries. Remember, the 9/11 memorial doesn’t recount the violence meted out to Muslim Americans in the aftermath of the attacks. Nor does it commemorate the hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed after the U.S.-led invasions. The fall of Kabul, then, was a moment of history and a moment of catharsis; an act of justice for all the Guantanamo detainees who had been dressed in orange jumpsuits and made to cower before clean-shaven soldiers. A similar feeling of emotional release was expressed by the protagonist in the 2007 novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” by Mohsin Hamid. The character Changez is a Pakistani financial consultant working in the U.S. when the Twin Towers are hit and is surprised to find himself feeling pleased “that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.” The fall of Kabul was a historical moment, but, just as important, it was an emotional one too.

Others in the diaspora, however, have viewed the Taliban’s victory through the framework of religiously sanctioned violence, “jihad,” without fully understanding Afghanistan’s complexities. For them, the Taliban had defeated a coalition of non-Muslim armies occupying an Islamic country. The Afghan insurgents were mujahedeen, “holy warriors,” who had a right — indeed a duty — to fight the invaders. To this small but influential number of Muslims in Europe and the U.S., Afghanistan is not really a country, but a mythical canvas onto which they can paint their own hopes and dreams — a country where the opinions and experiences of local people have no relevance. These ideologues had no qualms with Afghan civilians paying the ultimate price if it furthered the cause of Islam. In truth, their Afghanistan is the land of jihad and nothing else.

In taking satisfaction from the Taliban’s victory, these diaspora jihadists have fallen into the same trap as the Western journalists they criticize for using Orientalist cliches and tropes. They, too, have projected their own prejudices and ideas onto Afghanistan — a country of myriad cultures and complex history. In doing so, they have transformed it into a land of the imagination, a mythological place of heroes and villains. This is not a new phenomenon. It is no coincidence that in June 2010 Mohammed Emwazi, a future executioner for the Islamic State group, was stopped at London Heathrow airport trying to board a plane to Kuwait while carrying a book on Afghan guerrilla warfare. Photographs of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the November 2015 Islamic State attacks in Paris, show that he liked to wear a pakol hat, as if he was trying to carry out his own little Afghan jihad. But Emwazi and Abaaoud did not create this myth, and they share only some of the blame for its continued existence.

The romanticizing of Afghanistan’s wars can be traced back to the early 1980s and the Soviet occupation, when opportunistic scholars and fighters began to propagate the lie that the ill-equipped and underfunded mujahedeen were defeating an atheist superpower through faith alone. Much of the groundwork for this myth was laid by the Palestinian ideologue Abdullah Azzam, whose books from that time found a small but dedicated number of readers in the wider Muslim world. One of the books, the “Signs of the Merciful,” recounted miracles Afghan mujahedeen claimed to have witnessed while fighting under the command of Jalaluddin Haqqani — a man who would later join the Taliban’s war against U.S. occupation. The stories of the bodies of dead Afghan martyrs smelling like perfume and flocks of birds swooping down to protect the mujahedeen from enemy aircraft helped glamorize an otherwise brutal, bloody conflict full of factional infighting and intrigue.

Azzam was not alone in portraying the Afghan mujahedeen in simple black-and-white terms. The myths of the Soviet war also crossed over into Western popular culture. The Hollywood film “Rambo III” depicted a Vietnam veteran played by Sylvester Stallone fighting alongside Afghan guerrillas against the Soviets. Released while the real conflict was still going on and dedicated to “the gallant people of Afghanistan,” it made more than $189 million at the box office worldwide. Then there was an Islamic hymn, or nasheed, written by the British singer Cat Stevens. After releasing a succession of hit singles in the 1960s and 1970s, Stevens had converted to Islam, changing his name to Yusuf Islam, and found himself profoundly affected by the war against the Soviets. In tribute to the mujahedeen’s struggle, he wrote the nasheed, “Afghanistan: Land of Islam,” versions of which can still be found on YouTube. The lyrics exemplify what Afghanistan had come to symbolize in the imaginations of the Muslim diaspora.

All the people are dying, they’re willing to give
Every drop of their blood for the freedom to live
All the people are dying to get back their land
And the home of their fathers who died for Islam

Afghanistan, the land of Islam
Afghanistan, the land of Islam
Afghani Laa ilaaha illallaah
Muhammadur Rasulullaah
‘Alaihi salaamullah

There’s five million homeless, over one million dead
How can the world go to sleep with injustice up there
All the orphans are crying, it’s loud and it’s clear
For the ones who have heart, for ones who can hear

Stevens had no experience of combat on Afghanistan’s front lines and had not seen how the mujahedeen leaders constantly argued and fought among themselves. But it did not matter. He promoted a version of the war that, like all good myths, contained just enough of the truth to be believable. In March 1986, Al-Jihad magazine, an Arabic-language publication popular with foreign fighters among the mujahedeen, published an interview with him. “Before I came to Pakistan I had no idea of the depth of Islamic dedication that the Afghan Muslims have. … In fact it is the guiding force and motif for their resistance,” Stevens was quoted as saying.

When Afghanistan’s communist regime collapsed and Kabul fell to the mujahedeen in 1992, the exploits of the victors were further mythologized across the Muslim world. The myths were particularly potent in the Middle East. To some Arabs, the Afghan mujahedeen were examples of who they could be as men and what they could achieve for Islam after a succession of catastrophic military defeats. Until then there was a feeling of political emasculation in the Arab world, not just because of America’s involvement in the Gulf War at the start of the decade but also because of the legacy of colonialism. From the carving-up of the Levant by the British and the French to the Italian invasion of Libya, they had seen their lands divided and conquered. The creation of Israel in 1948 and the defeats of the Arab armies in 1967 and 1973 only added to a pervading sense of humiliation that was passed down from father to son. Their sense of longing and loss is captured perfectly in a fictional story by the Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani, a member of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. His allegory “Men in the Sun” was written long before the Soviet war in Afghanistan, yet it still managed to articulate the kind of despair that lay behind the myth of the Arabs’ role in the jihad. The main character in the story, Abu Khaizuran, is a Palestinian veteran of the 1948 war who works as a truck driver. Rendered impotent by his wounds, he agrees to smuggle three fellow Palestinians into Kuwait, where they can build new lives for themselves. But when he reaches the border with the men hidden in the back of the truck and their destination tantalizingly within reach, he is delayed at a checkpoint. As the guards tease Abu Khaizuran about his sex life, his three passengers suffocate to death while he tries to hype up his nonexistent virility.

The Afghan jihad, then, was the first time that some Arabs felt their pride had been restored. Osama bin Laden and Azzam were bit players in the conflict, but the myths around their exploits were a balm to the wounded masculinity of a new generation of fighters. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the fantastical stories that emerged from the 1987 battle of Jaji, in eastern Afghanistan. For bin Laden, it was the moment the Arab volunteer jihadists proved their worth by fighting Soviet Spetsznaz, or special forces, at close quarters. In reality, it was the Afghan mujahedeen who did most of the fighting. As Sayed Rahman Wahidyar, a Hezb-e Islami commander who knew bin Laden, recalled in a recent Channel 4 documentary I worked on, “We [Afghans] won the battle of Jaji.”

As the war against the Soviets came to an end, there was a sense in some diaspora communities that the Afghan Arabs were like the Spartans who had repelled the Persians in 480 B.C. That feeling of pride was understandable. The Soviet occupation had been brutal, with entire villages wiped out and millions of Afghans turned into refugees. After the mujahedeen overcame seemingly impossible odds to enter Kabul victorious in 1992, devout young Arabs increasingly began to travel to Afghanistan. Many, no doubt, wanted to emulate their new heroes, whom they had read about in dispatches by Jamal Khashoggi and other journalists supportive of the mujahedeen’s cause. Often, they were already well on their way to becoming hardened militants and fled their old lives back home having suffered under oppressive regimes. Once in Afghanistan, they opted to fight alongside the most extreme mujahedeen party, Hezb-e-Islami, in the country’s unfolding civil war. As they did so, they took the opportunity to train for new conflicts and insurgencies, marking a radical departure from the traditional understanding of what the term “jihad” meant. While the concept had always been open to a certain amount of scholarly interpretation, until this point, generations of Muslims had been able to agree on its core tenets: to defend one’s home and hearth, to defend the faithful, the weak and the oppressed, and to testify to God’s oneness through self-sacrifice if necessary. Toppling the regimes of Islamic countries and fighting other Muslims had never come into the equation — that prerogative belonged to the sphere of sultans and emirs.

But some of these new arrivals in Afghanistan harbored exactly those radical ambitions, and when they found their own governments would not let them return home once their training was over, they sought refuge in the West. Many soon began to manufacture an aura for themselves within diaspora communities across Europe bedazzled by the Afghan jihad. They wore Afghan clothes or adopted the moniker “al-Afghani” as a sign of self-appointed status. One of them was Abu Hamza al-Masri, an imam at Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, who claimed to have been seriously wounded in combat during the jihad against the Soviets. Partially blind and with a metal hook in place of his severed right hand, he appeared to embody the qualities of dedication and sacrifice that all good mujahedeen were meant to display. But the truth was darkly comic: He had received his wounds clumsily mishandling explosives well away from any combat. It didn’t matter to his naive, impressionable followers. Books like “Nine Lives,” by the MI6 spy Aimen Dean, show how central the myth of Afghanistan was to propagandists and demagogues who peddled jihadism among the young.

In Europe, Britain was the center of the problem. In cities and towns like London, Birmingham, Luton and Bradford there were significant South Asian Muslim communities with historic ties to Afghanistan and the subcontinent. When the Taliban emerged from the civil war that engulfed the country in the mid-1990s, many people offered the new movement their tacit approval. The Taliban were Deobandi Muslims, a sub-school of the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, and there were a number of Deobandi seminaries and mosques in the U.K. Some of them were later exposed in the British press as encouraging support for the Taliban — stories that were more than just the usual tabloid sensationalism. I remember meeting young Deobandi Muslims during the late 1990s and early 2000s who referred to the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar as “amir ul-mumineen,” prince of the believers. In contrast, they called the Northern Alliance Leader Ahmad Shah Massoud a “fasiq,” or sinner, and a “khain,” or traitor. Fundraising for the Taliban was openly carried out in Britain, including at my alma mater, Queen Mary University of London. Before 9/11 it was not illegal or even stigmatized.

For the British Muslim diaspora in those days, the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan marked a confluence of events that defined the era. The uproar over Salman Rushdie’s 1988 book, “The Satanic Verses,” galvanized communities and made the U.K.’s Muslims more assertive. They felt that Rushdie — an Indian-born British novelist — had blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad and needed to be held accountable. Their frustration was compounded by the fact that the British government could not punish him under U.K. law, which protected his right to free speech. For some British Muslims this only reinforced their suspicion that the West was against Islam — a feeling that was inflamed by the slaughter of Muslim civilians during the Bosnian civil war. Shahid Butt, a Briton jailed on terrorism charges in Yemen from 1999 to 2003, told me how he first became interested in the idea of armed jihad after watching atrocity videos from Bosnia. Until then he hadn’t even realized that indigenous, blond-haired Muslims lived in the heart of Europe. Awakenings like his occurred at the same time as Russia was emerging from the chaos of the USSR’s collapse. In 1994 the new Russian state invaded the breakaway republic of Chechnya, leading to Muslim veterans from the Afghan campaigns volunteering for another jihad. They included Emir Khattab, a Saudi who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan as a teenager. By the turn of the millennium, news from Bosnia, Chechnya, Algeria and Kashmir was trickling into the diaspora through websites like the now-defunct azzam.com and poorly policed internet forums. Crucially, at a time when most homes in the U.K. still did not have access to the internet, jihadist propaganda was also widely available from pop-up street stalls across Britain. Cassettes, VHS videos, books and pamphlets featuring bizarre conspiracy theories and antisemitic tropes were openly sold by extremist groups who benefited from the same free speech laws that protected Rushdie. It was in this environment that the misinformation and speculation so common on the internet today first began to grow.

The fables of Azzam and the perceived humility of bin Laden seemed tailor-made for the machismo and naive idealism of disenfranchised Muslim immigrants in desperate search of heroes. Spurred on by the Afghan myth, these aspiring jihadists led the world inexorably toward 9/11. Even in the late 1990s, long before the rise of the Islamic State group, Afghanistan began to be referred to in some diaspora communities as Khorasan, the land that would usher in the rule of the Mahdi, an apocalyptic, messiah-like figure who would pave the way for Jesus’ return. Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader, played his own part in developing the myth. A simple but devout individual who had a small role as a fighter in the war against the Soviets, in 1996 he appeared before a crowd in Kandahar and shrouded himself in a cloak reputed to belong to the Prophet Muhammad, turning himself into the leader of all Muslims, not just Afghans. The borders of Khorasan did not historically include “Pashtunistan,” the Taliban’s heartlands, but that did not matter to Mullah Omar or his supporters here in the West. What mattered was the symbolism.

The proliferation of false narratives and fake news is not exclusive to the 21st century. In jihadist circles it has been going on for decades. Even in the 1990s, the spirit of the times was such that everyone seemed to be peddling myths, conspiracy theories and pseudo-intellectual solutions to deep-rooted political problems. In 1992, the Islamic Society of North America student conference cited the example of Afghanistan to encourage Muslims to prepare for war in Palestine. In claiming that the Afghans had beaten the Soviets with simple weapons alone, the conference ignored the enormous help the U.S. and its partners had given to the mujahedeen. Without the military supplies of the CIA, the mujahedeen may never have defeated the Soviets, but this inconvenient fact was already being forgotten. Even Hamza Yusuf, an American convert to Islam who is now one of the West’s most prominent scholars, pushed dime-store conspiracy theories about the New World Order and the anti-Christ, or Dajjal, that were similar to the propaganda of some of the jihadist exiles in south London. Although Yusuf was never a subscriber to their violent methodology and spoke with far more eloquence, he still operated within that same realm of half-truths. The allure of Afghanistan was so great in those days that some of Yusuf’s followers told me he had secretly fought in the anti-Soviet jihad but chose not to publicize the experience to retain its purity. It was total nonsense, of course, and I doubt he was even aware of it, but his followers willed it to be true as if jihad was the only way for a Muslim man to prove his masculinity.

In this atmosphere of jihadist jingoism, even the most atrocious acts were glorified. When a Russian soldier was beheaded on film in Chechnya or al Qaeda suicide bombers killed more than 200 people in attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, some in the diaspora regarded the bloodshed as a potshot against anti-Islamic imperialism. Malcolm X once described the assassination of John F. Kennedy as “the chickens coming home to roost” and terrorist attacks against American targets were regarded as much the same to those Muslims who had embraced the Afghanistan myth. When bin Laden announced his “Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders” it was not seen as the rant of a megalomaniac with no legitimate religious authority but as a fatwa by an Islamic revolutionary. Of course, there were occasionally crises of conscience. When Chechen rebels laid siege to a school in Beslan in 2004, jihadist sympathizers in the diaspora debated among themselves about the ethics of holding school children hostage. But time and again, the more ideologically inclined always found ways to justify any heinous deed.

It was inevitable, then, that the violence would eventually find its way to the West. While the scale and nature of 9/11 was unprecedented, the attacks were not a total shock to anyone who had been paying attention. After all, if the mujahedeen were fighting the infidels abroad, why not hurt them at home? It made tactical sense. This view only gained more credence with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Many Islamists in the diaspora argued that Muslim minorities living in the West weren’t citizens of their adopted countries but had been living under the terms of an Islamic covenant or contract of security. After the invasions, that covenant was deemed null and void. Instead, their allegiance lay with the pan-Islamic community known as the “Ummah.” Infused with these Salafi-jihadist ideas, extremists like the 7/7 bombers and the Madrid attackers took the logical next step, rescinding their covenant in the most horrific ways imaginable and opening the floodgates to future attacks.

With all of these narrative threads, it is no wonder that members of the West’s Muslim diaspora ignored so many inconvenient facts when Kabul fell to the Taliban in August. They highlighted historical links between the CIA and Afghanistan’s deputy president and former intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh but ignored the close relationship between the CIA and the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s. Some of those who benefited most from that relationship, like Jalaluddin Haqqani, later sided with the Taliban. Similarly, these Muslims condemned the gross human rights violations of Saleh’s intelligence service but sidestepped the Taliban’s use of drug trafficking and child suicide bombers — creating an updated version of the same old Afghan myth.

It is too simplistic to describe those fleeing the Taliban’s government as traitors or collaborators, as some critics on social media have done, just as it is unfair to describe all those who opposed Ashraf Ghani’s government as terrorists. In truth, the motives of Afghans on both sides of this latest war may well have been more pragmatic. The 11th-century Spanish knight, El-Cid Campeador, was lionized by Christians as a resolute enemy of the Moors, yet in reality he fought for whoever served his interests. So it was in modern-day Afghanistan, where chai walas and laborers worked for the Americans so they could feed their families and local journalists fled the Taliban’s takeover not because they loved the U.S. occupation but because they wanted a better life for themselves and their children in the West. These Afghans deserve our compassion just as much as Afghans killed by NATO forces.

In some ways, the anti-Soviet jihad had nothing to do with the bloodshed and extremism it spawned. The struggle against the Soviets and the civil war that followed was brutal and complex, and it cost the lives of more than a million Afghans. Out of the chaos and confusion a mythical country was born, created to fill a void within the Muslim diaspora. This fantasyland still exists in the hearts and minds of some people in the West today. Afghans, meanwhile, continue to pay a heavy price for the illusion.

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