From lamenting the Taliban’s failed theocratic experiment in Afghanistan, to celebrating “the rebirth of the Islamic Emirate” 20 years later, leaders and associates of the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) remain enduring admirers of the Taliban’s Islamist regime.
“Brother, can you spare a tear for Taliban?” Kaleem Kawaja, an official of the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, asked fellow Muslims after the 2002 fall of the government in Kabul.
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, IAMC’s National Retreat in Chicago featured local Islamist scholar Yasir Nadeem Al Wajidi, who just weeks earlier publicly rejoiced over the Taliban’s return to power. He called the disastrous occasion “an opportunity to present to the world an Islamic system based on justice and fairness.”
IAMC claims to stand for peace and tolerance, and it regularly organizes campaigns denouncing “Hindu nationalism.” Although the organization’s strategic partnerships with Indian minority groups may fool some Washington insiders, IAMC’s apparent enthusiasm for Taliban rule in Afghanistan betrays its extremist agenda.
Throughout South Asia, the Taliban’s reclaimed dominion over Afghanistan has served as a galvanizing symbol for jihadists and Islamists with separatist and theocratic goals. In India, military leaders worry that Afghanistan could become a base of operations for Islamists launching cross-border raids into Kashmir, where a jihadist insurgency has been waged for decades.
In the U.S., Islamist political advocacy groups support the same anti-India goals, using both legal and illegal methods to influence American lawmakers’ position on Kashmir. IAMC has been a key part of this lobbying network going back to 2003, holding congressional briefings and pushing for the adoption of anti-India resolutions in city governments.
Yet, since its founding, IAMC has associated with some of the Taliban’s most devoted supporters in the U.S. These affiliations continued all the way up until the Taliban’s return to power last month, which also heralded the country’s return to the strict enforcement of Sharia law.
IAMC’s inaugural convention in 2003 featured a lineup of extremist guest speakers, including Asim Ghafoor, a “spokesman” and lawyer representing no fewer than three charities suspected of funding Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The Global Relief Foundation, Al Haramain Foundation, and Care International Inc. were each shuttered post-9/11 after allegedly financing jihadists in Afghanistan.
Prior to his repeated appearances at IAMC conventions, Ghafoor participated in a radio debate where he reminded fellow Muslims that they were in the U.S. “to bring truth and justice and Islamic ways to this country. You should rule by Islam otherwise you’re a Kafir [unbeliever, non-Muslim].”
Other senior IAMC officials have empathized with the Taliban and justified its resistance against American armed forces. Ajit Sahi, IAMC’s current advocacy director, has expressed compassion for jihadists from Hamas to ISIS, whose savage tactics even the brutal Taliban abhor.
“A US citizen has the right to kill trespassers on his land. But the Taliban and ISIS are terrorists when they shoot the invader?” Sahi tweeted in July 2014. “Understand that both the Taliban and ISIS are fighting Westerners who had no business to be in their lands in the first place,” he added in the same thread.
IAMC is deeply entrenched in Indian politics and maintains links with the nation’s most prominent Islamist movement, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH), issuing favorable press releases on its behalf and hosting its leaders at IAMC functions. Given that JIH’s stated goal is no less than “the reconstruction of society and the formation of State” in accordance with Islamic principles, it is unsurprising that its leaders celebrated the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
JIH President Syed Sadatullah Husaini praised the defeat of “colonial and imperialist forces” and called for the establishment of an “Islamic Welfare State.” JIH Vice President Muhammad Salim Engineer, who was invited to an IAMC webinar as recently as November, defended the Taliban on News18 India and referred to America as the “occupier” and “oppressor.”
Incidentally, Kaleem Kawaja, the IAMC member who asked fellow Muslims to “spare a tear for [the] Taliban” on the occasion of its apparent demise, soon after received a humanitarian award from the nonprofit for “selfless service towards the upliftment of Muslims in India.”
The Middle East Forum wrote to Kawaja following the Taliban’s return to power and asked if he sees a bright future for Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
“Many Muslims are hopeful that after the Taliban have had time to settle down, they will be conciliatory towards the Western and non-Muslim countries. I hope they will give guided-democracy a chance to be implemented in Afghanistan,” Kawaja said.
Of course, the Taliban has never suggested that it plans to form anything resembling a democracy in Afghanistan. When reminded of this, Kawaja urged patience, asking for time for the government to “control the extremists in their midst and gradually bring in a humanitarian and tolerant government that they have pledged.”
While Kawaja was advising against “rushing to judgement and pronounc[ing] the Taliban evil,” its transitional government hours earlier ordered all women in Kabul to stay home from work indefinitely. This was after Taliban commanders demanded that tribal elders hand over lists of unmarried women between the ages of 15 and 45 for its soldiers to marry.
While IAMC claims to be “committed to safeguarding India’s pluralist and tolerant ethos,” it seems that empty promises will suffice from a nearby Muslim-majority nation and its totalitarian rulers. Such rank hypocrisy is undeniably common among Islamists, who ignore injustices from Islamic governments, while demanding sanctions over comparably low-level discrimination which they allege exists in non-Muslim democracies.
Policymakers would do well to remember IAMC’s sympathetic views of the Taliban when consulting with the Islamist group on religious freedom in India. An organization that tolerates the subjugation of women and the implementation of harsh criminal punishments under Islamic law is no advocate for religious freedom; rather, IAMC is an enabler of the same persecution it claims to oppose.
(Benjamin Baird is Deputy Director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum)
[Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs, and views expressed by the various authors and forum participants on this website are personal.]