But as attacks soared in the summer and fall, killing scores of civilians every week – including at least 40 Muslim devotees at a mosque in late October –public revulsion has turned into unprecedented condemnation.
For the first time in late January, Muslim scholars and clerics from around the world will come to Kabul specifically to condemn suicide bombings as un-Islamic. The conference will be the first to focus on suicide bombing, and its framers hope the result will reverberate beyond Afghanistan.
"Many times, scholars in Pakistan and Afghanistan have made statements but had no influence," says Mufti Shamsur Rahman Firotan, a religious scholar in Kabul. "This one will have influence, and will give the idea to the people that suicide attacks are forbidden. The message is for all: in Iraq, in Pakistan, all these [militant jihadist] groups."
Senior United Nations officials have challenged religious officials to speak more loudly against attacks carried out in the name of Islam, while Afghan religious scholars have long decried suicide attacks, with little response by the ultra-conservative Taliban. An official gathering this summer resolved that suicide attacks "have no legitimate foundation in Islam."
It had little effect at the time. But those declarations have now been further bolstered. Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority in the birthplace of Islam and respected by the Taliban, explicitly condemned suicide bombing.
Yet since Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheikh issued such a high-profile public statement in late October, Taliban suicide attacks have continued, some with multiple bombers. But Afghan religious scholars say momentum is building against them.
One reason is because Mr. Abdulaziz “does have influence on the Taliban," says Mr. Firotan, who is a member of Afghanistan's Ulema Council of Islamic scholars, which has long campaigned against civilian deaths.
"The Taliban think we are their enemies, so they don't respect our declarations," says Mr. Firotan. "But Mufti Aziz is respected by them, and all around the Islamic world…. It has influence."
The newsletter of Afghanistan’s religious scholars, called Al-Islam, publicized the Grand Mufti’s high-profile pronouncement against suicide bombing.
Invoking the Muslim prophet Mohammed, Abdulaziz noted that killing innocents has been forbidden for 14 centuries. He said justifying suicide attacks in the name of religion was a "misuse" of Islam.
"Attacks, suicide attacks, and killing of the innocent have no place in Islam, and whoever conducts these are not just deprived of Paradise, but they will go to hell," Abdulaziz said according to Al-Islam. "There is jihad in Islam, but it is very different from killing of the innocent and suicide attacks [which does] not benefit the people and humanity."
The Taliban claims it has not "officially" received Abdulaziz's fatwa (or religious decree), says Firotan, but only heard about it.
'This is not the way'
The Quran makes clear that self-defense is acceptable, says Firotan, providing "there is no other way to live, but that is not the situation now."
For those who want to fight US forces, says Firotan, there are methods. "But this is not the way – to go to mosques, banks, bazaars, or shops. There, are 100 percent, some Taliban who are [also] against these actions."
As the Taliban has waged its insurgency in recent years, it has also increasingly targeted civilians, along with US and NATO military forces, Afghan security, and the government. By early summer, the toll caught the attention of the UN Special Representative Jan Kubis, who lamented in a speech that every morning started with “very sad news” of civilian deaths.
Addressing an Islamic cooperation conference in June, he said the previous “typical” week had 200 civilian casualties, with 57 dead. The week before registered 244 casualties, with 90 killed. One day saw three suicide bombings; another single day left 107 casualties.
Such a soaring toll was "unacceptable," Kubis said. "We keep hearing reports of suicide bombings, intimidation, targeted killings, assassination of elders, religious leaders, teachers, and scholars, burning of schools – all done in the name of Islam."
Yet Kubis noted that different interpretations are also heard, based on the Quran, that show such acts to be un-Islamic. The result has been confusion and questions in the minds of many Afghans.
"They are not anymore sure what is the truth, what is right, what is wrong, what is Islamic, what is non-Islamic," said Kubis. He challenged the religious scholars to magnify their voices: "You have a major role, a major responsibility to help."
That message has been transmitted many times by many religious scholars and officials, over many years. But it has yet to break through to those who favor such attacks, as “religious” as their ideology is meant to be.
Easier said, than done
Even the writ of Taliban chiefs is limited, as shown by the example of fugitive leader Mullah Omar. In 1998 he condemned the use of anti-personnel landmines as "un-Islamic" and "anti-human."
Despite that, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) notes that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) placed by Taliban operatives are "by far the biggest killer of civilians" in Afghanistan. In the first nine months of this year, they caused 340 deaths – a nearly 30 percent increase from the same period the previous year.
Likewise, suicide attacks remain a pernicious killer, despite the volume of religious scholarship against it.
"Practically every family has suffered some form of attack by these suicide bombings or IEDs, and they don't look at it very kindly," says Massoumeh Torfeh, the director of strategic communications for UNAMA in Kabul.
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban ambassador to the UN who is now a member of the High Peace Council, tasked by the government of President Hamid Karzai with talking to the Taliban, says the opinions of religious figures can have an impact.
"Afghanistan is a religious country, and absolutely the majority are listening to their religious scholars," says Mr. Mujahid. About the Taliban, he says: "They are human beings, and also they have their religious scholars."
Mujahid quotes the Quran, saying: "You have to fight against those who are fighting against you. But do not cross the limit."
That limit is beyond "proportional reaction," says Mujahid: "It means that when someone is fighting against you with their fists, you should not use a Kalashnikov."
The Taliban see themselves as "being attacked, that war is being waged against [them]," adds Mujahid. The High Peace Council is "trying our best to convince them that war is not to the benefit of any party [and to] settle everything by negotiations, not by fighting."