It is now a week since students at the University of Education began protesting over President Karzai’s decision to change its name to the Ustad (Professor) Burhanuddin Rabbani University. On Saturday, they managed to block MPs – and one of AAN’s researchers – from getting into parliament. The students have been cautiously – and rather politely – making their anger felt, while trying to avoid inflaming supporters of the former president, former head of the High Peace Council and leader of the mujahedin party, Jamiat-e Islami, who was killed a year ago by an assassin posing as a peace envoy from the Taleban. As AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark writes, who gets to name whom as hero – or villain – is a clear assertion of power and the students have therefore stepped into a highly contentious area.
After the Taleban were dislodged from power, Kabul, like other towns and cities, saw a peppering of new names for its streets and roundabouts; the Great Massud Road, Martyr (shahid) Abdul Haq Square and Martyr Mazari Square were all named for the fallen leaders of mujahedin factions who came out on the winning side in 2001.
Latterly, supporters of a leader from the other side, Dr Najibullah, have been petitioning to have Ariana Square in the centre of Kabul re-named in his honour. As reported by a correspondent of Ariana News, a Kabul-based agency, the supporters said Dr Najib had been, ‘the last recognized communist president who defended Independence and Integrity of Afghan land and lost his life because of encroachment and external interference.’ (see here and here). Fondly remembered by many Kaulis as a strong leader who presided over a secure, liberal and relatively non-corrupt capital city, other Afghans recall him as the head of the greatly feared PDPA intelligence agency, the KhAD, and his role in the Soviet-supported regime which laid waste to villages and lands associated with the mujahedin. Dr Najib, as he was called for short, and his brother Shahpur Ahmadzai were killed by the Taleban – or their Pakistani allies – in the UN compound where they had found refuge for the previous four years. Their mutilated bodies were hung in Ariana Square – a place where guard towers now watch over the CIA’s Afghan headquarters in the old Ariana Hotel.
While it is highly unlikely that Dr Najib will make it onto the maps of Kabul anytime soon, one of the more recent ‘martyrs’ of Afghanistan’s long war, Ustad Rabbani, has done so. On the first anniversary of his assassination, President Hamed Karzai announced to the nation that Kandahar airport, the road from the Polytechnic to Qargha Lake in Kabul and the University of Education (pohantun-e ta’alim wa tarbia), also in the capital, would all be re-named in his honour. This tribute to the man now referred to in official discourse as the ‘Martyr of Peace’, for his role heading the High Peace Council and dying while trying to foster negotiations with the Taleban, has sparked daily demonstrations by students and the effective closure of the University of Education. On Saturday, some 300 of them also managed to close the parliament.
The Afghan media was dominated by panegyrics to the former president after the first anniversary of his death(1), but slowly, reports of the student protests made their way into the news, first on day one of the protests (22 September) on Tolo TV, then Ariana and Shamshad channels and finally, some heavily sanitised mentions even in the state-owned media. The students are having to pick their way through a political minefield – how to show their outrage without outraging Rabbani-supporters. They hedge their anger around with compliments to Rabbani and try to present their demand to have his name removed from the signboard of their college in principled, ethnically inclusive terms. One of the organisers, who asked not to be named, told AAN that:
If today, this university is named after Ustad Rabbani, the Martyr of Peace, other universities will take the names of other leaders. This is a divisive policy. Why? Because they were mainly jihadi and ethnic leaders, so they may be heroes for their own ethnic group, but not for other groups – for them, a particular person may not be a hero, but a killer. If this college carries Ustad Rabbani’s name, maybe non-Tajiks will not chose to study here and maybe too many Tajiks will want to come here, so it will become a sort of ethnic university and non-Tajiks will be depressed and carry their grudge elsewhere. Of course Ustad Rabbani was a great person and we respect him, but in Afghanistan, there are many people who don’t think like this.
And he reiterated:
We don’t have a [particular] problem with Ustad Rabbani. If the name of any ethnic or party leader had been put on this university, we would have raised our voices. We are against what might happen in the future, not against any individuals.
Another student came closer to more direct criticism, but again in carefully couched terms:
Under Rabbani’s leadership, Kabulis faced serious problems, the civil war, the loss of many people’s lives. I respect Rabbani as a religious scholar, but I’m not happy to see his name on the University of Education.
The demonstrations have been peaceful, polite and determined. On Saturday, the students linking arms blocked both entrances to parliament, telling MPs and others very respectfully that they could not get in. Police not only allowed the demonstration, but when anyone tried to force their way in, politely asked them to go away.
A majority of the protestors are Hazaras and Pashtuns – ie not from Rabbani’s ethnic group – but they have been trying to stress their all-Afghan credentials:
We are a national (melli) group and we are independent and we think it is the responsibility of the university students to show what is wrong in Afghanistan. The name change was done at night… it was only in the morning, we found out, so we were very emotional and upset. The only thing we could do was organise, getting those who were angry to demonstrate peacefully. If we hadn’t, we would have had a lot of violence among the students. And now, we are trying to meet the relevant authorities.
Representatives of the students have met the Wolesi Jirga speaker, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, who promised to raise the issue with the president (who has been in New York for the UN General Assembly). The students said a delegation was to meet Mr Karzai on Monday – although this has not been confirmed by his office. Now the deed is done, it may be politically difficult for Karzai to reverse the name change without upsetting supporters of Rabbani, especially those from his powerful Jamiat party. In hindsight, the original decision looks ill-thought out and badly-implemented, especially not involving students or staff but instead presenting them with a fait accompli.
Most of the protesting students were barely born when Rabbani became president and yet that era still has resonance in Kabul – and elsewhere. It was the civil war (1992-1996), when a third of the city was left in ruins and tens of thousands of people were killed in internecine mujahedin fighting. During those years, academic institutions, like other government buildings, became part of the war landscape. The university and polytechnic were, for most of the time, in no-man’s land.(2) The University of Education, then known as the Social Sciences Institute,(3) was bloodily fought over. Early on in the war, it was taken over as the headquarters of Hezb-e Wahdat, itself a committer of war crimes and atrocities. Then in 1993, government forces – Ittihad-e Islami and Jamiat/Shura-ye Nazar – pushed Wahdat out and killed around 700 civilians in the neighbouring area of Afshar.
This unhappy phase of Kabul’s history, when state, armed forces and city split on ethnic and factional lines, is something which the students have been careful not to refer to too specifically, but it clearly lies behind their concerns and protests. They have shown a scrupulousness about not singling out Rabbani’s role as head of the fragmenting state and leader of one of the main warring factions at that time; indeed singling him out would be unfair.(4) For Rabbani’s followers, of course, it is his role in the resistance to the Soviet occupation and the Taleban which is remembered.
Who gets to name the living and the dead as heroes or villains is part of what winning a war is about, part of the way the new rulers try to assert their hegemony over history and geography. In Afghanistan, it is difficult and dangerous to speak ill of others’ heroes, especially if they consider them to be martyrs. By couching their unhappiness in terms of their fear of history repeating itself, of the danger of dabbling in Afghanistan’s murky ethnic waters, the student protestors have tried to assert – very politely and respectfully – that they wish their institution to remain neutral.
(1) Rabbani was killed ten years and ten days after the assassination of his chief commander, Ahmad Shah Massud, and therefore the commemoration of his death came within the already officially designated Martyrs’ Week. The speeches and articles in praise of Rabbani were many. To give you a flavour, here are a couple of examples, both taken from BBC Monitoring, for 19 September 2012:
From 29 Sonbola [19 September] till 4 Mizan [26 September] is named as the week of peace and national unity on the occasion of the heart-rending martyrdom of martyr to peace, Professor Burhanoddin Rabbani, leader of jihad and resistance of the people, former president and chairman of the High Peace Council… No doubt, that it was the sacrifices of the martyrs that today our country is on the path of peace and freedom and that our people live in peace and prosperity. (Anis)
A year has passed since the heart-rending martyrdom of the leader of jihad resistance and peace in Afghanistan… (Mandegar)
(2) Both were occupied at times by Wahdat forces, but neither was as significant as the Social Sciences Institute/University of Education.
(3) It was established during the PDPA regimes, along a Soviet model, and the name change came after 2001. The university currently has six faculties 1) Linguistics (languages); 2 Social Sciences (history, sociology, Islamic culture and sciences, geography); 3 Natural Sciences, 4. Vocational Training (psychology, education); 5. Specialized Training (three different departments of psychology); 6 Sports (tarbiat-e badani).
(4) Anyone wanting to read an account of this phase of the war and the crimes committed by all sides, see here and here.
Photo from the Tolo TV website here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020