Taliban jihadists in Afghanistan are increasingly targeting Islamic scholars, known as ulema, to silence dissent and criticism as the terrorist group continues to capture territory and expand its influence across the country.
“The reason the Taliban resort to such acts is that they want to make sure their legitimacy is not questioned by the sermons of these ulema,” Mohammad Moheq, a prominent Afghan scholar of religion who also serves as an adviser to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, told the New York Times (NYT).
“The only thing that undermines their legitimacy is the ability and power of these ulema if they preach and argue against them,” added Moheq. “Only they can challenge the Taliban’s ideology, not the liberal scholars or others, and the Taliban understand that.”
“The reason these ulema are getting targeted is because they tell the truth — and the truth is that the ongoing fighting is just for power,” noted Mawlawi Khudai Nazar Mohammedi, the chief of the Ulema Council in Taliban stronghold Helmand province, located along the Pakistan border next to Kandahar province, the birthplace of the terrorist group.
In recent years, security conditions have been increasingly deteriorating in Afghanistan, primarily at the hands of the Taliban, which controls more territory now than at any time since the U.S. military removed it from power in 2001.
The Taliban’s new leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, is a religious scholar himself. He is considered more of an ideologue than his predecessor.
Akhundzada has ordered the Taliban to closely watch and dissect sermons more than ever, NYT has learned.
According to the Times, there is “a rapidly growing list of Islamic religious scholars who have become casualties of the Afghan war.”
The scholars have long been targets, of one kind or another, in Afghanistan. Their words carry weight across many parts of society, and they are assiduously courted for their support — and frequently killed for their criticism.
Hundreds are believed to have been killed over the past 16 years of war, and not always by the Taliban. But there has been a definite uptick in the targeted killing of scholars — widely known as ulema — as the Taliban have intensified their offensives in the past two years, officials say.
It is impossible to estimate the exact number of Islamic scholars executed by the Taliban over dissenting opinions.
Citing the Mawlawi Obaidullah Faizani, the chief of the Ulema Council in Kandahar, the news outlet reveals that an estimated 300 preachers have been executed in the province since 2004.
That is only a portion of the “enormous” death toll among scholars who preach Islam across the nation.