I can’t have been the only one flummoxed to hear that the radical jihadist Sunni Muslim Taliban, bent on the imposition of its brand of sharia law, was under attack from the radical jihadist Sunni Muslim local squad of Isis, known as Isis Khorasan Province. It was hard to avoid memories of the film Life of Brian, where the People’s Front of Judaea are at permanent odds with the Judaean People’s Front.
As I understand it, both groups arose out of the mujaheddin coalition that stood against the USSR after the 1980 invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban emerged in 1994 as the dominant force and ruled the country from 1996. Its worldview was and is very much centred on Afghanistan. It welcomed Al-Qaeda and profited from the drug trade accordingly, in a mixture of ideology and nationalistic pragmatism.
By contrast, Islamic State (or Daesh) was formed in 1999 as an extremist movement seeking a global Islamic Caliphate. Its Iraq and Syria branch, known as Isis, became a major force during the Syrian civil war, but it also has branches in Nigeria and Mozambique. Isis-K is the Afghan, Pakistani and Uzbek outfit. It recruited a lot of its members from former Taliban fighters, and opposes the Taliban’s policy on the opium poppy trade and its nationalist character. The Taliban is more conciliatory towards the US because it needs access to frozen assets and overseas aid; Isis-K has independent funding from the Middle East and has no such inhibitions.
In his novel Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene says, ‘A believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference; a doubter doubts only with himself.’ Understanding the difference between Isis-K and the Taliban must be like a non-Christian trying to understand the difference between Protestant and Catholic, or Free Will Baptists and Primitive Baptist Universalists. We can be terrified of these Afghan extremists; we can be compassionate towards those caught up in the present melee; what we have to confess is the ways we too turn our faith into self-assertion, and our convictions into pretexts for domination.
Revd Dr Sam Wells