War & Peace

Ashura Attacks (3): A new type of violence in Afghanistan


One of the last taboos of violence in Afghanistan was broken by yesterday’s suicide attacks on the Ashura commemoration in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif. Historically, sectarian tensions or conflicts have occasionally been seen in Afghanistan, but they have usually been stirred up and leveraged by politics or war. Sectarian hatred has never enjoyed public recognition within the mainstream Afghan population. Tuesday’s attacks were different because there was no possible political justification for them and that, argues AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini, is even more frightening.

In Afghanistan, a Muslim country with a sizeable Shi’a minority, the instances of sectarian violence have represented more the exception than the rule. The most notable examples have been state-driven episodes such as the anti-Shi’a jihad proclaimed by Abdur-Rahman as part of his attempt to reduce the Hazara resistance in the war of 1891-93, and the Taleban mass-killings of Hazaras in Mazar-e Sharif in 1998. In the latter case, although Tajik and Uzbek civilians were also killed, the Taleban mainly targeted Shi’a Hazaras – as collective punishment for them having risen up and driven out the Taleban in 1997. Hazaras paid the highest toll notwithstanding the fact that the previous year, the thousands of Taleban prisoners of war had been executed at the hands of the Uzbek warlord General Abdul Malik Pahlawan. Sectarianism need not being always logical. The 1998 killings were marked by virulent anti-Shi’a statements by the new ruler of Mazar, as Human Rights Watch reported – here quoted in the UN mapping report of 2005 (available here):

… immediately after the Taliban took control of the city, the new Taliban governor, Mullah Manan Niazi, delivered speeches at mosques throughout the city, threatening violence against Hazaras in retaliation for the killing of the Taliban prisoners in 1997, warning them that they should convert to the Hanafi Sunni sect or leave the city, or face the consequences, and threatening punishment for anyone who tried to protect Hazaras. In another speech he reportedly said, ‘Hazaras are not Muslim, they are Shi’a. They are kuffar [infidels]. The Hazaras killed our force here, and now we have to kill Hazaras.’ As Human Rights Watch noted, ‘These speeches, given by the most senior Taliban official in Mazar at the time, clearly indicate that the killings and other attacks on Hazaras were not the act actions of renegade Taliban forces but had the sanction of the Taliban authorities.’ 

However, incidents of sectarian violence are even rarer during normal times, but they have occasionally occurred. In some cases, they have been the work of psychopaths, possibly with the connivance of other, more subtle, maniacs. In the 1950s, for example, a professional wrestler called Latif Gul went on a rampage of killings in Kabul. He was a Sunni, and he targeted Shi’as. In an atrocious serial-killer records worth of the annals of criminal history, he murdered at least 40 Hazaras, mainly labourers who had arrived in the city in search of a job. He was strengthened in his convictions by some mullahs to whom he confessed his crimes and who reassured him that he was performing a religious duty and indeed would be forgiven his sins.* When this was discovered, it became a big scandal and met public and institutional condemnation. It is only with the general disorder engendered by the civil war of 1992-96 that instances of sectarian targeting become more frequent and came to be considered almost ‘normal’, in the widespread ‘craziness’ of the conflicting parties.

More frequently, incidents have originated in the political competition among social groups that has often affected the Afghan institutions, from a very early stage. After the establishment of Kabul as the capital of Afghanistan in 1776, there were occasional tensions between the Sunni and Shi’a inhabitants of the city, which then consisted mainly of Qizilbash. These were limited in numbers, but influential inside Afghan institutions at the time, having long been connected to the Afghan kings by furnishing a body of elite troops and occasionally even administrators. This gave rise to popular resentment against what was perceived as an unduly favoured position enoyed by a religious minority.

A major crisis happened in June 1803, resulting in a siege of  the Qizilbash neighbourhoods of Chindawal and Murad Khana (also the site of yesterday’s attack). It had an explicit political undertone. The mobs of Sunni Kabulis (joined by people from Logar and the Shomali) had been stirred to action by the preaching of the mir wa’ez (the chief preacher) of Pul-e Kheshti mosque, who was then in close alliance with Sher Muhammad Khan, a member of the Bamizai family of the Popalzai (actually the nephew of Shah Wali Khan, the celebrated wazir of Ahmad Shah Durrani). This family had previously provided wazirs to the Afghan monarchs and Sher Muhammad’s ultimate purpose seems to have been to stoke violence and then exploit it to engineer the removal of the Barakzai wazir, Fateh Khan, and obtain the position for himself, or even to cause a popular uprising against the king, Shah Mahmud (1801-03; 1809-18), and replace him with Shah Shuja (1803-09; 1839-42). After four days, wazir Fateh Khan’s resolute crackdown dispersed the rioters.**

A more recent example of sectarian clashes exacerbated, if not fully engineered, to exploit the violence for political gains, are those which erupted in Herat in the first week of February 2006, so far the only other serious incident to affect the Ashura celebrations in the recent history of Afghanistan. Then, the conflict was apparently set alight after banners bearing praises to the second caliph Omar (634-644) were put up and Shi’a mourners tore them down. Shi’as see Omar as blocking the succession to the Caliphate of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abu Talib. The riots in Herat involved clashes between hardliners from both sides and the intervening police, resulting in four dead and as many as 150 injured.

Post-2001, Ashura celebrations in Afghanistan have become massive, and this can cause uneasiness among conservative Sunni circles. This is especially true for a city like Herat, where the influence of neighbouring Shi’a Iran is felt as threatening by many. Moreover, the city’s Shi’a population, after having become relatively smaller over the last decades because of the flux of migrants moving in from the mainly Sunni countryside, has more recently been boosted by the arrival of a growing Hazara community.***

However, the decisive involvement of a prominent Sunni ‘alim, Faruq Husseini, in stirring up Sunnis’ mobilization and the prompt criticism directed by Sunni rioters against the recently appointed Herat governor, Sayed Hussein Anwari, who is a Shi’a from Parwan province, hinted at the real political background of the conflict. Husseini had never hidden his political links to the former ‘Amir’ of Herat, Ismail Khan, and the episode has been seen by some observers as a move by the latter to reassert his power in the province after having been sacked as governor in 2004 and forcefully brought to Kabul as Minister of Water and Energy. The findings of an enquiry commission sent from Kabul to investigate, which then declared the conflict had no political motives, dispelled no doubts, especially because the commission was headed by the same Ismail Khan.

That Afghanistan, on top of all its problems, should be pushed towards a future of sectarian terrorist attacks carried out by militant groups focusing on a confessional agenda, a situation that neighbouring Pakistan has suffered since the 1970s, is a scary prospect. Yet Afghanistan is different from Pakistan. There, Ashura has turned into a bloody time of year due to the ‘tireless efforts’ of ‘specialists’ of sectarian hatred and propaganda, which received support by strong political groups inside and outside the country. Also, Ashura has always been celebrated in a much grander way in the Subcontinent, with both Shi’as and (many) Sunnis taking part in it, often separately, but with degrees of inclusiveness. This has probably helped make it a target for sectarian violence, a sure shot to create rifts and reciprocal radicalization.

In Afghanistan, things are different. Ashura has usually been regarded by Sunnis with respect, but no close involvement, and celebrated by Shi’as with fervour, but in more discrete ways than either Iran or the Indian Subcontinent. This does not imply that Shi’as should scale down their celebrations: it is their constitutional right to do so and nobody argues against it.

So far, notwithstanding its tormented recent past and present, Afghanistan has not developed a consistent class of professionals of sectarian violence ready to spread death and hatred in the occurrence of this type of religious events. Now it seems that somebody is eager to start working in this direction. While the Taleban took the distance from yesterday attack, it has been claimed by the virulently anti-Shi’a Pakistani group, Lashkar-e Jhangvi. If confirmed, this suggests organization by foreign militants – although probably with some Afghan support to execute it. In the context of the augmented influence and presence of Pakistani militant groups in the Afghan conflict, especially in the east and south-east of the country, it would not be unthinkable that they try and expand their sectarian activities in Afghanistan, even by recruiting Afghans among their ranks. Ultimately, however, the possibilities for the success of such an enterprise lie with the Afghan people: on the degree to which some of them are willing to import this type of violence, and on the ability of the mass of the population, Shi’a and Sunni, to cope with it, without allowing their country to sink into a new internecine conflict – one not even motivated by politics, but by an irrational and nihilist hatred.

* Details of the story are in Mousavi’s ‘The Hazaras of Afghanistan: An Historical, Cultural, Economic and Political Study, p. 162-163.

** For more details see Noelle-Karimi, C. ‘State and tribe in nineteenth-century Afghanistan: the reign of Amir Dost Mohammad Khan’, p. 26-28.

*** It is thought that the Shi’as had come to represent less than 30% of the urban population of Herat in the 1990s, but the afflux of Hazara immigrants in the last decade has probably brought it back to almost 40%.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace