A small but vocal leftist political party has challenged the consensus about the ‘good jehad’, pointing to human rights violations of some of its leaders, and earned the ire of them. After initial calls for an immediate ban, the authorities have suspended the party’s activities, pending an investigation. How they will handle this case will show how far Afghanistan has come down on the path of the rule of law, and whether it is ready to accept that there are political forces that do not want to settle with a state that includes human rights abusers in key roles, argues Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst at AAN.
On 30 April, some 150 sympathisers of Hezb-e Hambastagi-ye Afghanistan (the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan)(1) marched from Kabul’s Cinema Pamir down Jade-ye Maiwand. In a reaction to the official celebrations of 8 Saur (28 April), usually referred to as ‘Mujahedin Day’ – in commemoration of the day when the mujahedin entered Kabul after the downfall of the Najibullah government in 1992 –, the protesters carried banners calling this date, and that of 7 Saur (27 April), ‘black days in Afghanistan’s history’. (27 April is the anniversary of the 1978 Saur revolution, or coup d’état, that brought a leftist government into power that later called the Soviet Union to intervene.) The protesters carried crossed-out portraits of communist, mujahedin and Taleban leaders, demanding that they be brought to justice, and condemned what they called Afghanistan’s ‘warlord culture’.(2) In order to show what they meant, they also had pictures of Ratko Mladic with them, the Bosnian Serb general who is currently facing the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Reportedly, the protesters burnt some of the portraits. There were no reports of further disturbances or of arrests.
The website of the party, one of the 47 currently registered political parties in the country, features a DVD with the recorded 30 April protest. Its headline reads: ‘The demonstrations of the Solidarity Party in Kabul have disturbed the good sleep of the war criminals’.
Well, indeed. While this was not the first time that Hezb-e Hambastegifollowers took to the streets – earlier they held protests against the US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement and permanent US bases in Afghanistan (on 6 February this year)(3), civilian casualties caused by NATO forces and executions of Afghan citizens in Iran, declared their support for the ‘green’ Iranian opposition and its arrested activists in 2010 and participated in the protests against the controversial Shia family law in 2009 – this time they definitely hit a nerve.
Members of the Afghan Senate, in its following plenary session on 1 May, called the demonstration an ‘insult to the jehad’ and a ‘plot against the mujahedin’, demanded a ‘trial of the demonstration’s participants’ and asked the government to ban the Solidarity Party. (According to one of the party leaders, Tehran’s Embassy already had demanded the same after the Iran-related protests in 2010.) Finally, the Senate decided to summon the party’s leaders before its complaints commission.
According to Hafez Rasekh, member of the directing board of Hezb-e Hambastegi, representatives of the party went to the Senate on 2 June and clarified that the party respected the jehad and its values and had been involved in it along with other Afghans(4) while it strongly condemned those who use the slogan of jehad in order to protect their personal interest, and further demanded to put on trial those who have demolished Kabul city in the name of jehad. He told AAN that the commission accepted this and agreed and did not make any statement that it supported the suspension of the party. (Amendment 7 June: A representative of the Senate contacted by AAN said that the house considered the burning of the portraits of some jehadi leaders as ‘insult to the jehad’.)
Meanwhile, on 26 May, however, the Senate’s committee for legislative and judicial affairs sent an official letter to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Attorney General (AG) urging a suspension of the party’s registration. The AG’s office opened an investigation and suspended the party. The party, meanwhile, has called supporters abroad for a solidarity campaign.
The issue behind the Solidarity Party case is who defines what is ‘Islamic’ in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and what is not. (According to the constitution, programmes and charters of political party cannot be ‘contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam’, and the political parties law says parties should not ‘pursue objectives that are opposed to the principles of the holy religion Islam’). But in Islam, there is no clearly defined institution that determines what is Islamic and what is not; there neither is an ‘Islamic pope’ nor, strictly speaking, an institutionalised Islamic clergy. Nevertheless, the Ulema (Islamic scholars of higher learning) often play that role. In Afghanistan, a group of former mujahedin leaders-cum-ulema who now go under the label of ‘Jehadi leaders’ have assumed this power.
But not everybody accepts this, although not many dare to say it so loudly. Earlier cases show that this easy backfires. In the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga (CLJ), a group of some 100 delegates was called ‘unbelievers’ by the chairman when they submitted a petition supporting the name ‘Republic of Afghanistan’ for their country, without the adjective ‘Islamic’. They were echoing a remark by Gul Agha Sherzai at the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga that there can be no doubt that Afghanistan is an Islamic country, and that therefore adding ‘islamic’ to the official name (then of the country’s interim administration) was unnecessary. Malalai Joya was censored there for interjections similar to the anti-warlord slogans of the Solidarity Party, had to leave the venue and hide from threats against her life. In June 2007 she was expelled from parliament when she repeated similar accusations there. (Amendment 7 June: According to Rasekh, the senators originally had assumed that his party is linked to Malalai Joya. He told them, however, that she is ‘neither the leader nor a member’ of it.) In 2003, the Kabul weekly Aftab had to close and its editors to flee after allegations of blasphemy, after they had accused the warlords of exploiting the name of religion for the sake of their personal power.
This also shows that there is a current in Afghan society that has a secular approach to politics. (It should be needless to say that being secular doesn’t mean being ‘anti-Islamic’ or ‘not a Muslim’ but that’s exactly the argument many Islamists use. As one of my interlocutors said many years ago, for him means that ‘I just do not want to be governed by the mullas’.) The Solidarity Party’s position challenges the Jihadi leaders’ self-legitimisation by arguing, along the lines of Aftab weekly, that they violated Islam when they killed fellow Muslims, members of other mujahedin factions or ordinary civilians during the jehad. No wonder that ‘transitional justice’ was not a favourite subject for the Jehadi leaders and their Afghan and international allies who feared that any way of dealing with this – be it by trials or by a ‘truth commission’ – would ‘rock the boat’, ie challenge the very basis of their power and the stability of the Karzai government that relies on them. So do the accusations of the Solidarity Party.
How this case will be handled by the Afghan authorities will show how much the rule of law in Afghanistan has evolved where, according to President Karzai’s speech at the NATO summit in Chicago, the ‘foundations of a vibrant democracy’ have already been laid.
(1) (amended on 9 June:) The SPA themselves claim that there were 1,500 protesters.
(2) According to a media report, during the week before both anniversaries, members of a hitherto unknown group calling itself the ‘Afghan Freedom-Loving Yout’ (Jawanan-e Azadikhwah) ‘swept through the streets of Kabul […], putting up hundreds of posters and spraying graffiti messages critical of the strongmen, many of whom still wield significant influence on [Afghanistan’s] political affairs. […] Afghan security forces swiftly removed the derogatory placards and signs […] On its Facebook page, the group identifies itself only as an unspecified number of “young, independent journalists”. […] The group says its mission is to “enlighten, raise public awareness, and launch civil action” against the former warlords, whom they describe as “murderous and unjust national traitors and foreign puppets” who have only brought “darkness, bloodshed, and destruction” to the country. […] The group says it will remain underground for the time being and begin mobilizing supporters through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.’ It is not clear, though, whether there is a link between this group and the Solidarity Party.
(3) 8am (Hasht-e Sobh) daily, 7 March 2011, AAN media monitoring.
(4) The Guardian article already quoted above sees the Solidarity Party’s ‘background in the Maoist Afghan political party established in 1968’. This is both correct and not the whole picture. The party is new (founded in 2004) and not a direct descendant of the 1960s’ Maoist movement, Sho’la-ye Jawed, although some of the founders of the party participated there and later fought the Soviets in non-fundamentalist organisations like the ‘Teachers Front’ in Farah (where the party has a strong base today), but also with other, moderate mujahedin organisations. Moreover, the old party leadership has been voted out by young people two years ago. The newcomers had lost patience with the attempts to participate in the post-2001 political process which they perceive as a façade democracy. Instead, they not only oppose human rights violators from all factions but also what they call the ‘NATO occupation’ of Afghanistan and demand the immediate withdrawal of all western troops. They have established contacts with leftist parties in Europe (their posters feature prominently in the party’s office and in Pakistan who share this demand. The new young leaders of the party have no background in Maoist politics but rather reflect the anger of parts of the younger generations who are just tired of the war.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020