10/02/2014 01:51 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

A New Muslim Identity for Afghans?

Protecting Islam was his first pledge when Ashraf Ghani took leadership in Kabul Monday. Given that Afghanistan has had an uninterrupted history of jihad for four decades, one would be right to assume that protecting Islam is hardly a neglected matter in this deeply religious yet profoundly corrupted society. After all, while the new Islamic government was taking charge, the Taliban continued with their own version of violent Islam, killing four in a suicide attack. Still, there was no end to public displays of piety, as prayers in Arabic marked the beginning and the end of the ceremony's speeches. The pitiful state of Islam in Afghanistan was embodied in the spiritual leader Mujadedi's blessing of the new government when the frail Sufi master offered a heartfelt plea to god to have mercy on this long suffering Muslim nation. After all, yesterday was not the first time that Afghan leaders had sworn by the Quran to work for peace and unity. Only in the past, such swearing by the Quran had resulted in another vicious war.

Still, it would be misguided to assume that under Ghani's leadership religion is to stay the same. In his speech, Ghani made a point that the true heirs of jihad were the country's widows and orphans. In doing so, he challenged the claim to authority of many Afghan politicians whose sole justification for legitimacy is their jihadi history. In doing so, Ghani reinterpreted the idea of jihad, presenting it in a radically new light, an outlook that was summed up when he said it was time for Afghans to turn to jihad-e akbar, the greater jihad of internal, spiritual struggle.

It is too early to assess the impact of this new vision of Islam but at a theoretical level, it is clear that Ghani has ushered in a new era of compassionate Islam, one that focuses on the vulnerable, widows and orphans, the country's neglected young men who make up the majority of war deaths. It would be interesting if Afghanistan, which made jihad globally famous as an anarchic military threat against local states and international forces, becomes the country that marks the end to this trend.

Ghani, who has a solid command of Afghan history, is aware of the prominent role religious leaders have historically played in backing, if not inciting, anti-state rebellions. In theory at least, he has plans to co-opt religious institutions into the fabric of the state. For example, mosques are to become part of local administrations, acting as census and education centers. As government employees paid regular wages, such financial stability is hoped to reduce incentive for religious scholars to support anti-state activities. If conducted successfully, women will especially feel the impact of such reforms. If Islam grants women the right to inheritance, the current chaos of unregistered deaths means Afghan widows are often left without documented evidence of their widowhood, having no legal ground to claim inheritance.

In this example, we see an attempt at using Islam as a practical tool for women's empowerment. That Ghani is sincere about this commitment to women's rights became evident in his public display of affection for his wife. Thanking her was the only time in the speech when he became emotional. Many Afghans on social media joked that Ghani was in love. The point they missed was that with this audacity, Ghani led by example. After all, how can a leader expect ordinary Afghan men to respect women's rights when he himself opts for the safer option of hiding her from the public? The fact that Ghani's wife is a Lebanese Christian reminds us of a time in Afghan history when the masculinity of a Muslim Afghan male was not measured against blind traditionalism. In fact, quite a few Afghan men of Ghani's generation met their wives while studying abroad on scholarships. Today, Afghan students abroad often keep marriages to non-Afghan women a secret from their families. They are made to feel ashamed of their tolerance. This, too, is the legacy of the 1980s jihad when the socially oppressive village Islam that was the Islam of jihad started to be forced on the country from the 1990s onwards.

In Afghan history, the Islam of the state has normally been more progressive than the Islam of the rural majority. In this manner, the last two decades represented an anomaly rather than the norm. With Ghani, a survivor of this otherwise forgotten generation of progressive Muslim Afghan men, there is a chance for a return to this other Afghan tradition where the state leads the people towards an enlightened Islam rather than kowtowing to the oppressive traditional Islam of the illiterate majority. At home, this reform means cultivating a new mindset of progressive, democratic Islamic identity. But given Afghanistan's geographic location, the success of the plan also requires cooperation by neighboring and regional Muslim states. Once again, the future of Afghanistan is connected to both, its own internal struggles and its predicament of geography as destiny.