From ultra-conservative Salafis to secular-minded feminists, an astonishingly diverse range of voices have found their heroine in Farkhunda, the young woman who was lynched by a mob in Kabul on 19 March 2015. She has become the rare victim of violence to be almost unanimously called a shahid, a martyr. The consensus on her status, however, masks a deep divergence of views on what it was that made people resort to mob justice, who is to be blamed for it and how this should be remedied. The two main and conflicting narratives that have emerged pit conservative religious leaders and groups against activists advocating for ‘rights and freedoms’, with both sides blaming each other for having indirectly driven people to murder. AAN’s Borhan Osman has delved into the debate around the underlying roots of such violent behaviour in the name of defending religion. He warns that Afghanistan cannot afford the increasingly explicit polarisation of society that has emerged since the killing.Mob violence, re-enacted. Scene of a play about Farkhunda's killing during the mourning ceremony 40 days after on Monday. Photo: Naheed Esar
This is the second dispatch on Farkhunda’s murder. The first explored the social geography of the killing, see here.
A young woman going only by the name of Farkhunda was brutally lynched by a mob in the centre of Kabul on the afternoon of 19 March 2015. She was beaten with sticks, pelted with rocks and ran over with a car, after which her body dumped was on the banks of the muddy and polluted Kabul river and set alight. She had been attacked after being accused of burning a copy of the Quran at the Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine. During the attack, which lasted for about half an hour, the police did attempt, at some points, to save Farkhunda, but at other instances they can be seen standing idly as the attackers continue to beat her (this was documented in amateur footage recorded by witnesses, for instance here), although, be warned, the footage is graphic and upsetting).
News of the incident reached the public at large by the end of the day of the attack, 19 March. Most outlets explicitly reported that the woman had burnt a copy of the Quran. Others reported that Farkhunda had had an enduring mental health problem, implying she might have actually burnt the Quran as a result of her mental disorder. (The report of an alleged mental problem had originated with Farkhunda’s family who, in the initial hours and under pressure from the police, had released a statement in an attempt to mitigate the risk of public reprisal.) By the end of the next day, however, it emerged that the accusation that Farkhunda had burnt a copy of the Quran had been false.
A fact-finding mission by the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs that had visited the shrine found that only papers from a Persian book had been burnt, although it was not clear who had done so. An investigation by the Ministry of Interior confirmed the findings of the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs. At the same time, a video of Farkhunda, wearing a black Arab-style niqab (head-to-toe veil, with only eyes showing) and arguing with a group of young men at the gate of the shrine, surfaced on the Internet. Her veiling, a style which represented a departure from the iconic Afghan burqa, implied she had become a more devout, thoughtfully pious Muslim. When her family and teacher started directly talking to the media they revealed that she had been a student of Islamic studies and a fully observant Muslim. It transpired that she had graduated from one of the oldest female dar-ul-ulums (madrasas) in the country and was two years away from graduating from the Sharia Faculty at Kabul University. She had also recently attended a Quran-learning halqa (study circle) organised by an Islamist organisation.
The precise circumstances that led to the accusation of Farkhunda are not clear, but witnesses, speaking to the media and the presidential commission that investigated the murder, said she had been arguing with one of the attendants of the shrine over practices she deemed superstitious and un-Islamic. Those practices included selling tawiz (verses from the Quran or other prayers written on paper and usually worn in a cloth pouch in the belief they will protect the wearer from evil, or bring good fortune), tasting the soil from the saint’s grave in the shrine for its ‘healing powers,’ seeking the saint’s intercession, kissing his gravestone or other markers and performing (normal Islamic) prayers within the shrine. Farkhunda’s family said that she had, for a while, been visiting the shrine to preach against these practices.
These practices have been common in shrines in Afghanistan and elsewhere for centuries, but are increasingly proscribed by a new generation of mullahs who view them either as un-Islamic per se or as having evolved to contain un-Islamic innovations, bida’h. (1) Proscription of these acts has been more evident among Salafis, but finds resonance with many non-Salafi ulama as well, including most imams the author talked to in Kabul. However, other mullahs and guardians of shrines who benefit from these practices say they are not religiously problematic and cast their critics as ‘Wahhabis.’ In this intra-religious debate, Farkhunda belonged to the more ‘orthodox’ camp and had been openly disagreeing with these shrine practices in one of their bastions, the Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine.
Farkhunda’s charred body was laid to rest on the third day after her lynching (21 March 2015). Her coffin was carried exclusively by women, in defiance of the mullahs present in the funeral. In Afghanistan’s patriarchal society where women rarely even attend burials, this was an unprecedented scene, made possible by a popular feeling of empathy with this defenceless woman who had been savagely killed by a large group of men, in the middle of town and against all norms of Afghan culture. The perpetration of such public violence against a woman is a very strong taboo, which made the murder look especially savage (according to Afghan cultural norms, Afghan women should be more respected and less likely to be subject to violence in public than men, although domestic violence perpetrated in the home is a different matter).
The presidential commission released its report after two weeks of investigation. It found Farkhunda had been slandered. She had not burned the Quran and all evidence indicated that her speaking out against certain superstitious practices had prompted the amulet sellers and attendants at the shrine to falsely accuse her and incite people against her. A member of the commission described the particular shrine attendant who was seen as the prime instigator of the mob, named Zainuddin, as an “illiterate person” who could not even read one word from the Quran. This apparent distinction between literate clerics (portrayed as good) and illiterate ‘clerics’ (seen as false and masquerading, as bringing a bad name on the clergy) becomes more relevant later.
The immediate reactions to the lynching were mixed. There were initial endorsements in the Afghan media and on social media by people who said they would have done the same if they had been at the scene. Others denounced the brutal killing as inhuman and un-Islamic. Among the notables caught on social media applauding the lynching were the Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, Semin Ghazal Hasanzada, Kabul Police spokesman Hashmat Stanekzai and chief of the complaints commission in the Meshrano Jirga, Zalmai Zabuli. Ms Hasanzada responded to the reports of Farkhunda having a mental problem on her Facebook page: “What kind of mental problem was it? Dear friends, it is not a mental [problem], but a deliberate [act]. She was working for the infidels. If you overlook that, you are also one of them [ie an infidel] and putting your religion in danger.” Kabul Police spokesman Stanekzai also posted on his page: “She thought that by committing this type of insult [to Islam], she would get citizenship of America or Europe. But she died before achieving her goal.” Zalmai Zabuli posted the following text alongside Farkhunda’s picture: “This is the horrible and hated person who was punished by our Muslim compatriots for her action. Thus, they proved to her masters that Afghans want only … Islam and cannot tolerate imperialism, apostasy and spies. This is the apostate woman who set the Quran on fire in the Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine. Our Muslim compatriots beat her… and set her on fire, giving her the punishment [she deserved].” All three had to repent publicly when they found the accusation had been false.
Others were more conditional but still, in principle, supportive, like the head of the Awqaf Department of the Ministry of Hajj and religious affairs, Abdul Rahman Ahmadzai, who told a local TV station: “If this women has really acted against verses of Quran [burnt pages from Quran] and she is not a Muslim, we justify the action of the people.”
The attack on Farkhunda happened on a Thursday, a time when imams across the country were preparing their Friday sermons. Speaking to worshippers at a number of mosques in Kabul, Jalalabad and Ghazni, it seems there were imams who condemned the brutal killing of Farkhunda or stopped short of condoning it, but many expressly approved the lynching and talked proudly of the people’s religious vigour, in the words of some clerics “uncorrupted by a decade of democracy.” Among those who denounced the brutality was the imam of Pul-e Kheshti mosque in the centre of Kabul who cautioned against accepting the reports of Quran-burning and described the mob attack as wild. On the other hand, two of Kabul’s best known ulama endorsed the attack. The prominent imam of Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque, Ayaz Niazi, made waves when a tape of his Friday prayer sermon went viral on the internet. Commenting on the police’s chasing of the murderers, Niazi had said:
My appeal to the judicial and legal institutions is to act with caution … When the people’s most important element of belief is insulted, they are not responsible to see if this [alleged insulter’s] mind is working or not working. You have to be careful. This is a huge mistake. If you start arresting people, they will probably revolt. It will be difficult to rein them in.
Another prominent mullah, Mawlawi Habibullah Hassam of the Bagh-e Bala mosque, who is also the former chairman of the Kabul Provincial Council, approved the lynching on his Facebook page. He quickly removed the post before it was widely shared, so few people noticed it. He addressed his fellow imams on Facebook:
Arbitrary execution (mahkama-e sahrayi, literally desert trials) is a necessity that must take place: respected khatibs [preachers], Friday sermons should be dedicated to this subject. The people can no longer tolerate insults to Islam under this or that pretext. A new court has started its work. From today on, the penalty for insulting Islam, the Quran and the Prophet is arbitrary execution. The top brass of the state supports those hostile to Islam …
After Farkhunda was buried and it had become clear she was innocent and pious, many ulama and Islamists took a U-turn and started to claim her as one of them. They emphasised her custom of proselytising (dawatgari) and started to hail her as someone who had sacrificed her life for a religious cause that they all share. A well-known Salafi-leaning Islamist preacher and lecturer of Islamic studies in Kabul University, Abdul Zahir Dayi, called Farkhunda his ‘colleague’ (ham-maslak) in a talk show, presumably in an attempt to reject the claims of women and human rights activists as being the inheritors of her cause. Many young Islamic activists, Salafis and orthodox ulama started to present her as a champion of their cause, a struggler against superstitious practices, turning her, within a week, from a Zionist-Western emissary to highly acclaimed martyr of the faith.
Backlash and counter-backlash
At a conference by human rights activists in Kabul on 20 March, there was a call for a thorough investigation into the murder and public trials of the perpetrators. However, protests really kicked off the following day, on the day of her burial, by which time it was also widely accepted that Farkhunda was not just a victim, but also completely innocent of the charge against her. The protests continued for more than a week. Those in Kabul were led by human and women rights activists, some of whom participated in carrying Farkhunda’s coffin on the day of funeral. The protests called for justice for Farkhunda with slogans such as “Punish the murderers,” “Ignorance is the enemy of humanity,” “ignorance is the enemy of Islam” and “We want an Afghanistan free of superstition, extremism and violence.” A thousands-strong demonstration, organised by a group of civil society activists and organisations on 24 March, asked for “open and immediate prosecution” of those involved in the murder. The protestors said in their statement:
In particular, the shrine custodian and the amulet seller mullah, who are the perpetrators of Farkhunda murder, must be publicly and immediately tried… All those involved in the crime in a way, including those who supported the unforgivable crime, the instigators, accusers, inspirers and justifiers, all should be identified… and brought to court… The government must deal seriously with summary punishments and prevent any type of extrajudicial activities and personal fatwas.
The statement, while thanking those mullahs who “dealt with Farkhunda’s case lawfully and responsibly” also asked the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs to take serious actions against the preaching of violence and militancy in religious institutions.
Public anger towards the murderers and shrine attendant had also been building up, emboldening civic activists to speak out in the name of a shocked public. Notables who had publicly endorsed the lynching now found themselves at the centre of public abhorrence. The government reacted by dismissing police spokesperson Stanekzai and deputy culture minister Hasanzada from their jobs. The interior ministry suspended 22 police and put them under investigation for not doing enough to stop the murder. About 30 other people were arrested for participation in the mob attack, many of them after having been identified from the video recordings caught by spectators with their smartphones and uploaded onto the internet. Parliament reacted by summoning the ministers for interior, and hajj and religious affairs to answer questions about the failure of police to stop the lynching and to present the government’s plans for better supervision of the country’s mosques and shrines. As the members of the parliament discussed the issue, many burst into tears. The Minister of Interior, Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi, admitted the police’s failure to save Farkhunda and the Minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs, Faiz Muhamamd Osmani, promised to rid shrines of amulet and charm sellers. The Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine was subsequently closed. MPs also asked Osmani to curtail the preaching of extremism in mosques and tighten and expand the state’s control over religious institutions, a call that was repeated during a protest by students and civil society activists in Mazar-e Sharif.
A minority among the protestors in Kabul and a small but vocal group on social media attacked mullahs per se. Although the mainstream voice from rights defenders stayed away from saying anything that could offend the ulama, those who did choose to bash the mullahs, blamed Farkhunda’s murder not only on the individual custodian who had falsely accused her (or on the mob who actually killed her), but on mullahs in general, particularly after many of them had condoned and justified the killing. Niazi’s Friday sermon was a particular cause of excoriation. Protestors from a small, radical leftist group, Hezb-e Hambastagi, carried placards with his face crossed out at a demonstration in Kabul and, according to some participants, chanted “Death to mullahs.”
The platform for the most vocal and insulting expressions of the anti-mullah campaign, however, was Facebook where mullahs were castigated by some as reactionaries, ignorant, animals, magicians, makers of money out of religion and peddlers of amulets (this article has collected some of these labels). There were also calls on social media for a militant secularism in Afghanistan in the style of Kemal Atatürk’s in Turkey in order to crush the mullahs. The killing of Farkhunda also attracted some very extreme reactions, both by named and anonymous Afghans in undisclosed locations, including the posting of videos of people setting fire to copies of the Quran or urinating on them and a controversial website run by a diaspora Afghan calling for the Shah-e Du Shamshira to be turned into a public toilet. All of this was, of course, highly provocative and, for most, extremely offensive.
The mullahs hit back, not only on social media, but in mosques and by pouring onto the streets of Kabul. The most conspicuous act was a thousand-plus-strong gathering of mullahs on 26 March 2015 in the same place where Farkhunda was killed, in front of the Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine. The participants included Niazi as well as many other notable imams from Kabul and the provinces, both Sunni and Shia. The gathering was reported by some media as pro-Farkhunda, but watching the full hour and a half video, there were few expressions of regret for her killing or remorse for earlier statements or calls for justice for the victim. By this stage, it was clear Farkhunda had been innocent of the charges against her and, indeed, was also not the sort of women’s rights activist seen by ulama in the gathering as ‘the enemy.’ Indeed, she could be considered one of their own – educated, orthodox and pious – albeit female. Even so, the statement of the gathering dedicated only one and a half lines out of three full A-4 pages to a condemnation of the killing. Even then, it was not of her murder per se, but of the type of killing, one that involved torment, burning by fire and a desecration of the human body. In reality, the gathering was not really about Farkhunda at all, but, almost exclusively, a counterpunch at the mullah’s critics.
Organised by a previously unheard-of body called the Coordination Assembly of the Ulama and Khatibs of Afghanistan, there were diatribes against civil society (understood by the mullahs as solely made of activists and organisations with a liberal, women’s and human rights agenda) and the government, attacking the first for speaking out against the clergy and the latter for not stopping it. One mullah ranted: “I tell Ashraf Ghani and civil society to be heedful… the gun is still in the hand of the mullah. It takes the ulama only a fatwa [to take down, popularly,] this government.” Another mullah asked for the media to be punished for what he said was its hostility to religion and issued this threat to roaring shouts of Allah-u Akbar:
I warn those who use this opportunity [the killing of Farkhunda to insult ulama]…that women will be killed more heinously than our sister [Farkhunda], and many people will be eliminated in a far worse way [if they continue insulting the ulama]. Then, nobody will dare raise their voice. … It is also a warning to those who create such incidents to have mercy on themselves. Once the nation rises up, nobody will be able to stop it. If you value your life, shut your mouths; don’t spread lies against the Quran and Islam.
The gathering culminated in a statement which blamed the media for creating deliberate confusion in its initial reporting of the incident. It suggested the media had intentionally spread the account of Quran-burning in order to entrap the ulama into defending the murder and only revealed the true story later to then defame them in a conspiracy hatched together with civil society. Evading its own logic of conspiracy, the statement defended the lynching regardless of any conspiracy or the actual truth of what happened: “Those who acted in defence of the sacred which led to the painful incident [ie the killing of Farkhunda], their sentiments are justifiable since their action was based on the intention of protecting the Quran and divine rites.” The ulama in the statement also urged the government to ban what they called anti-Islamic civil society groups and uphold Article 3 of the constitution which stipulates that there shall be no law repugnant to the beliefs and ordinances of Islam. The statement also declared that it is the ulama’s duty to root out “the dirty tree” of civil society which, they claimed, is hostile to religion.
Organised religious currents shared the ulama’s antagonism to critics of the clergy. For example, the mostly youth-based Hezb ut-Tahrir condemned those whom, it says, had attacked religious values and the ulama and had exploited the lynching of Farkhunda, calling them followers of Satan. It likened the responses to the murder to reactions to the Charlie Hebdo attack in France which, it says, was an organised effort to malign Islam. Another Islamist group, Jamiat-e Eslah, also attacked those who, it said, worked behind the façade of civil society as opportunists, weaping crocodile tears while pursuing their own ideological agendas. It described critics of the ulama as extremists more fervent than Farkhunda’s killers for their all-out smearing campaign against the clergy and religious beliefs.
The concerns about what is called din-stezi in Persian (anti-religion activism or hostility to religion), a term which has never been used that widely in Afghanistan before the Farkhunda protests, became so noticeable that popular TV channels had to feature the topic in their talks shows. In one of the programs, the Minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs Faiz Muhammad Osmani said he knew that Farkhunda’s murder was being used by those hostile to religion and that they were doing a disservice to her case.
There were also efforts to soften the initial polarisation, possibly in response to the mullahs’ strong counter-campaign. One of the later civil society meetings on Farkhunda on 31 March prominently acknowledged the role of the ulama and religion in bringing justice for her and combating the wider roots of injustices in society. Four of the eight articles of the statement it issued were dedicated to or contained references to Islam and the religious institutions. It voiced its appreciation of ulama and religious leaders in standing for justice for Farkhunda and called for the prosecution of those insulting Islam. The meeting, which brought together various civil society and social organisations, also featured ulama.
The mullahs’ protest seems also to have alarmed leaders of the national unity government. Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah met prominent members of the Coordination Assembly of the Ulama and Khatibs on 2 April 2015. His office only released a video of the meeting, without audio or further explanation, but according to a leading member of the ulama body their discussion had centred on the “unprecedented wave of insult to religion under the new government.” Three days after this meeting and coinciding with the release of the fact-finding commission’s report, on 5 April 2015, Ghani addressed the nation in a video message. In his address, he referred several times to the role of ulama. He thanked them for standing with the people in Farkhunda’s case and pointed out that:
In condemnation of this issue [Farkhunda’s murder], there has been no dichotomy and confrontation among our people. Rather, all stood together against this savagery. We should not forget that the ulama and spiritual leaders are an inseparable part of civil society and we appreciate all their efforts in strengthening the rule of law… The Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs has been instructed to keep consistently in touch with the ulama and spiritual leaders and create necessary coordination in spreading the true values and ordinances of Islam.
Similarly, the presidential fact-finding commission, which consisted of MPs, women rights activists, ulama and senior government officials, included in its report specific clauses which responded to the concerns of the mullahs. The report said there was no evidence of the involvement of any mullah or alim in the murder of Farkhunda and that that most of the shrine’s attendants and amulet sellers had been found to be illiterate. The commission’s emphasis on the fact that those directly implicated in the lynching were illiterate looks partly like an attempt to safeguard the reputation of the ulama and prevent a backlash. The ulama themselves have frequently pointed out in TV debates and in the 26 March rally that Zainuddin and other attendants of the shrines did not qualify as religious scholars; rather they cast them as illiterate religious workers deriving purely commercial benefit from the use of their religious status. There is a problem here, though, given the fact that being a mullah and being illiterate are not mutually exclusive, especially in rural areas. The government may be seeking to address that now. The Minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs, Faiz Muhammad Osmani, for example, told Tolo, “Unfortunately, unlike any other profession, there are no criteria and rules for who qualifies as an imam of a mosque or as an alim. We have brought many ulama together in Kabul after the killing of Farkhunda to discuss this issue. They agreed there should be universal criteria for becoming an imam.”
Finally, the commission, in its recommendations, said: “Our demand from the ulama and civil society activists is to condemn concertedly and loudly those irresponsible statements under the name of civil society or spiritual society which are aimed at inciting people to turbulence and instability.”
The debate: why did the attack happen?
The discussions that followed the lynching of Farkhunda have involved a lively debate and, indeed, some soul-searching (although often of others’ souls) as people struggled to answer the question: what makes people do what they did to Farkhunda? Articles in the mainstream media, websites and social media, independent commentators, ideologues, social sciences scholars and analysts have tried to identify the underlying causes for Farkhunda’s murder and for the mob’s behaviour. Generally, the opinions fell into two camps: those who blamed the type of religion practiced in Afghanistan or how it has developed and who is in charge of it, and those blaming ‘secular society.’ Within the mass of commentary some interesting ideas have emerged.
Scrutinising the religious culture for violence
In a Foreign Policy piece, one diaspora Afghan, a journalist and cultural critic, argued that the murder of Farkhunda had revealed that
… a fanatic strand of Islamic [sic] has become normalized and accepted by a mainstream audience. The imam who incited the violence, the mob who lynched Farkhunda, the bystanders who filmed it — they were not the disenfranchised. They were ordinary Afghans, members of the middle class, including shop keepers. The initial public reaction was approval, expressed by public figures representing the spheres of culture and education. What do we learn from this? A populist, fanatic strand of Islam appealing to base emotionality has become mainstream, finding an audience in all levels of society. Listening to the preacher Niazi’s sermon, it is easy to learn what kind of Islam is disseminated to the wider population through the institutions of mosques, universities, and religious media outlets. A key characteristic of this version of Islam is that is encourages lawlessness … mullahs are doing mass manipulation and brain-washing … carving foreigners as enemies and therefore unlivable … This image is carefully cultivated and sustained through collective effort.
Another commentator, a former journalist of Radio/TV Afghanistan, found political Islam and the long-preached jihadism as the key reason for the younger generation’s violent behaviour. He wrote:
From the countless beheadings in Iraq and Syria to the kidnapping of hundreds of girls in Nigeria to the immolation of an innocent woman in public in Afghanistan … all have roots in political Islam and irrational thinking rather than the superficial behaviour of the fringe strata such as amulet-peddlers, fortune-tellers and traditional mullahs. It will be a huge mistake [to think] further tragedies such as that of Farkhunda would be avoided simply by getting rid of amulet-sellers and fortune-tellers.
Another observer pointed to the mullahs’ unshakable influence over society, given their “violent reading of religion” and general ignorance as a reason that leads to violent behaviour in the name of defending Islam. She stated: “As a result of obedience to every mullah, we now have people who are ready to kill a person in broad daylight in front of thousands of people after a mere hint from an amulet-seller. Those who withhold their minds and dance to the clergy are like programmed robots who have the capability of applying any type of brutality.” This commentator sees the excessive religious zeal and bigotry as a symptom of a deeper social problem which, she believes, is a product of the absence of quality education, illiteracy and the absence of ‘real’ religious scholars who have a non-violent reading of religion.
Finding fault with ‘civil society’ activists
On the other side are those who castigated the actions of ‘secular activists’ who, they believe, offend the conservative norms of society to such an extent that it became the driving force behind the killing; the threat posed by these ‘secular activists’, they contended, had caused the people’s knee-jerk reaction to an accusation of blasphemy and apostasy (and without the need for the slander to be proven). Three recent incidents (which happened between December 2014 and March 2015) in particular, which are viewed as initiated or supported by ‘civil society activists,’ and have outraged the ulama and Islamist organisations, featured prominently in such analysis. These include an unnamed and unknown woman pictured walking bare-legged (and bare-foot) in Kabul (her motivation remains unknown) and two public protests against the harassment of women: a group of Afghan men wearing burqas and a female artist who wore a home-made suit of armour designed to protect her from and as a protest against being groped in the street by strangers.
These three incidents may appear minor and unrelated, but religious activists have taken them as totemic of a wider sense of grievance inculcated among many conservative Afghans who then sprang into action to “defend the Quran” as soon as they heard the shout that it had been burned. These themes were mentioned frequently in the ulama gathering, as well as in opinion pieces, such as this one by the head of Kandahar University’s Faculty of Sharia, who is a senior member of Jamiat-e Eslah, Muzammel Islami. He wrote this a day after the lynching when the dominant narrative still considered Farkhunda as a Quran-burner:
Although people do not have the right to punish someone publicly in that way [as Farkhunda], the government had to convince the people that it takes serious action against those who commit even a minor desecration of people’s beliefs and values. This lenience and incompetence on the part of the state has probably emboldened the people to react in this way to the burning of the Quran [in a way] which is probably not compliant with the Sharia. Logically, people should not enforce laws themselves. However, we have examples in the recent history of Afghanistan of, for example, the Holy Quran being burnt by the foreigners [troops] or someone converting from his religion; these people have not been handed any punishment… That is why I think the people probably feel the government cannot punish these people… If the government had some records of punishing certain people [who had been accused of blasphemy], this incident [the lynching of Farkhunda] might not have happened.
A short piece in Weesa daily also referred to the public inclination against anti-Islam actions following the three ‘anti-Islam’ incidents. It added: “The donning of the suit of armour by a girl against the Islamic spirit of hijab, the wearing of chadari by young men in order to ridicule hijab and the celebration of a donkey were some incidents that have incited the people’s minds against anti-religion projects.” (The celebration of donkey refers to a small event titled “Donkey, the reality and perception; Donkey an unappreciated servant” organised by some Pashtun civil society activists in early March where they discussed virtues of the donkey in its services to human beings.)
An article on the Taleban’s website on 26 March referred to “the increased anti-Islam and anti-woman efforts” in the context of giving reasons for Farkhunda’s murder. It said: “[E]vil anti-Islamic currents are trying continually to … target the honour-loving and faithful generation and to encourage a sort of mistrust and ill will within Islamic society. It can be said that a lack of full awareness by Muslims about actual realities can lead to shocking incidents, such as that of Shah-e Du Shamshira.”
The ‘anti-Islam and anti-hijab campaign’ has been a frequent topic in articles on the Taleban websites both before and after Farkhunda’s murder, most of them putting it in the context of the unity government’s ‘anti-Islam inclinations.’ The most recent such article entitled “Shocking wave of desecration of Islam” and published on 21 April referred to all the mentioned incidents as well as an interview by the first lady Laura Ghani when she backed the French ban on veiling the face. The article then blames Farkhunda’s lynching on all such ‘provocations:’
[T]hese civil society organisations and foreign organisations undertook some provocative actions which aroused in the minds of the Muslim nation the feeling of avenging the insult to holy beliefs. It so much disturbed Afghans psychologically that anyone who does something offending will naturally meet a bitter end. Farkhunda’s killing and immolation is a clear manifestation of that feeling. If there had not been such desecrations of sacred affairs, the public might not have reacted so hastily to such incident.
Identity politics or ‘Muslim degeneration’?
Among the Afghan academia and well-known intellectuals, some have tried to offer more nuanced explanations. A lecturer at Ibn-e Sina University of Islamic Studies in Kabul, Ali Amiri, sees the mob’s act as an indication of cultural degeneration that, he says, is common across the Muslim world. He concludes that the roots of Farkhunda’s lynching lay in Afghan society’s wider irrationality and the erosion of spirituality, which has caused a loss of respect for human life and dignity. He describes Farkhunda’s killers as nihilistic mischief-makers who covered up their sadism (gaining pleasure from the suffering of others) in religious language since in this way, they could explain away their brutality as religiously-sanctioned violence. In response, one reader blamed the atrocity on what he refers to as the embedding of violence in religion and the religious culture of the Afghan society; he accused Amiri of being a religious apologist for analysing ‘culture’ separately from religion.
A diaspora intellectual, Muhammad Kazem Kazemi, sees Farkhunda as a victim of others’ “absolutist thinking.” He describes this as a tendency to think and judge in absolute terms without differentiating between levels of good and bad and says it is typical of Afghan society. He argues such thinking blinded accusers and attackers of Farkhunda alike to the actual offence she was alleged to have committed and the “proper punishment” for that offence. He says Farkhunda’s murderers were, unfortunately, ‘normal’ members of a society in which such absolutist thinking and an inclination towards prejudice and mischievous violence is common, indeed, has come to be at its core.
This is that simplistic and absolutist mentality that makes us ignore differences between disrespecting the Quran, burning the Quran, denying the truth of the Quran and denying the existence of God. In our view, the severity of the crime of someone who burns amulets by fire is the same as of someone who burns the Quran. The crime of the latter is [seen as] the same as someone who disbelieves in the Quran and God… This problem also manifested itself in a different way. Many deemed those who immolated Farkhunda as outside the circle of humanity, depicting them as savages with no semblance to humanity. The truth is that they were people from this same society with various levels of morals and religious understanding. Their traits probably exist within ourselves [the rest of the society] at different levels and we might express these behaviours according to circumstances … The minimum harm of seeing them as the most evil people on earth is that it makes us think safely about the people around us since we think only few wolfish people can commit such an atrocity. That is not true. The distance between us and those people is probably not huge, as manifested by our behaviour on the internet … This absolute thinking did not stop here. Those who supported Farkhunda’s killing in the initial moments … were treated in an extreme manner. They were treated as if they had set fire to Farkhunda, themselves. Some of the worst smears were thrown at people who had expressed an unconsidered opinion
The dean of Kabul’s Ibn-e Sina University, Amin Ahmadi, in a seminar at his university (the transcript of the speech is published here) focused on religion-based identity politics as the key reason for driving members of Afghan society to such violent action when there was a perceived attack on their religious beliefs.
He looked into the cultural context of the society and pinpointed three specific characteristics to explain the attack on Farkhunda: the fact that religion in the Afghan society has become a giver of identity and any perceived insult to it brings an emotional response; the ubiquitous perception of a Western threat to Islam, which is also rooted in the identity-oriented religiosity; and the inability to think and decide rationally during dire situations. The conspiracy theory that the West is constantly plotting against Islam is so deeply embedded in the minds of the public, he argues, that when the people outside the Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine heard of someone setting the Quran on fire, they not only immediately believed it, but also automatically thought it a conspiracy to defame Islam. This is illustrated in a video showing young men shouting at Farkhunda in the initial moments after the accusation, claiming that she had been sent by the Americans [to burn the Quran]. He argues that when religion as a strong definer of identity is perceived to be under threat, it feels existential and strips members of that society of the ability to decide rationally. That is why most people, he argues, could not make a definitive decision to wholeheartedly condemn or support the murder during the first 24 hours after the lynching – until it was clear that Farkhunda was fully innocent of the charge of burning the Quran.
One Kabul-based sociology student tried to distinguish religious zeal from instinctual sadism. He says there might be little doubt that the primary motive for the violence had been religious, but that it quickly turned into unreligious action driven by “the pleasure of murder” as manifested by the step-by-step application of a variety of brutal methods of violence. He writes that, despite the mob desecrating a human body and setting it on fire, both acts which are strictly proscribed in Islam, the attackers hid their thrill at the killing behind a religious defence, ‘saving’ the Quran.
Non-religious social factors
Other analysts and commentators have examined the possible (non-religious) social causes of the murder. One commentator writing on a website run by Sweden-based Afghans put it this way:
This murder in which 250 people were involved against the backdrop of thousands of other cases of murdering, immolation and harassment of women… indicates that there is something horrible happening in the society. This horrible thing has roots in the school, in the mosque, in the family, in the weakness of the state and the absence of a value system.
Another observer, writing for BBC Persian, noted that Farkhunda’s lynching was an example of a misjudgement stemming from ignorance. He pointed to superstitious religious beliefs as a particular problem, exacerbated by a broader failure of the social institutions, which has not left the new generation untouched. He writes:
Among those involved in Farkhunda’s murder are people from the younger and educated generation which has been brought up under the educational system of the current government and learnt religion from mosques and madrasa of this [post-Taleban] society. The murder of Farkhunda exhibited in the first place the failure of the educational and upbringing system as well as the failure of the human rights institutions and of the ulama.
For some women rights activists, the attack on Farkhunda illustrated the wider oppression of women in Afghan society. Fawzia Koofi, a known activist and member of parliament (who was also on the fact-finding commission), told The New York Times: “This happened to [Farkhunda] because of her gender … If there is no rule of law, not only women, but any human being in this country, is not safe.” Any further explanation of his was not quoted. However, a scholar based at an American university writing in a US Muslim newspaper did do so, pointing to what she said was “a crisis in status of Afghan men … a significantly large group of whom feel excluded from the benefits of the new Afghanistan” as the root cause of their violent behaviour towards women, and in this case, towards Farkhunda. She said: “These men tend to view women, especially successful and/or independent women in public spaces, as a symbol of men’s collective failure.”
The role of rumour-mongering and conspiracy-mongering
In addition to social or cultural factors, there is also a wider distorted thinking at work, however, which led the crowds to over-hastily respond to the shout of burning the Quran and to misjudge the circumstances around the accusation, rather than questioning the accusation and listening to Farkhunda. In Afghan society, rumours are often sufficient to drive people to action and can thus become a powerful, destructive tool in politics and culture. (2) In Farkhunda’s case, everybody nearby seemed inclined to believe the rumour. In video footage circulated on the internet, young men surrounded Farkhunda at the gate of the shrine to yell at her, demanding to know why she burnt the Quran, but with no attention to her responses, as if they had already had proof of the burning. The rumour was repeated as a fact in accounts by people from the scene, young and old, and in TV reports from the site hours after the incident. Even the inaction of the police who failed to stop the lynching, according to a member of the truth-seeking commission looking into Farkhunda’s murder, stemmed in part from their belief in the truth of the rumour and in the rightness of the death penalty for the accused. A senior police officer was quoted an hour after the lynching by the BBC recalling the reason for Farkhunda’s murder to be her burning of the Quran – as a fact rather than an accusation or rumour. The pervasiveness of believing rumours, especially when involving sensitive social or political issues, may back up Professor Ahmadi’s contention that a threat to religion is perceived as an existential issue which strips people of their power to act rationally and urges action.
The persistence of the report and the fact that the actions were still praised afterwards by people who were not facing the same urgency to act and who had enough time to examine the rumour before judging the killing – such as the clergy and some officials – seems to have been exacerbated by rampant conspiracy-mongering. The perception that Islam is constantly under an external threat, usually from the West, is so entrenched in Afghan society that it finds subscribers in all strata. Although mullahs and Islamist groups are often leading sources of this conspiracy theory, they do not have a monopoly over it. One can find similar sentiments expressed by senior government officials and members of the security forces. (3)
On 29 March, for example, several members of the parliament, called for an investigation into reports that Farkhunda had been in contact with foreign embassies prior to her alleged burning of the Quran. On social media, hours after the lynching, a detailed ‘report’ of a plot popped up in which the United States embassy was said to have invested 25,000 dollars in partnership with a local TV channel which had been the first to air the news of mental illness of Farkhunda. Pictures of a woman standing beside John Kerry amid a group of other Afghan women was circled and compared with the bloodied victim to ‘prove’ an American plot. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that a people so alert to a perennial and cunning threat to their all-important religion did not give someone accused of burning the Quran the benefit of the doubt, no matter how pious and Sharia-compliant she looked (Farkhunda’s wearing of niqab could readily suggest she was religiously observant). Under such conditions of delusional conspiracy-mongering, a person accused of harming Islam is by default guilty until unequivocally proven innocent.
Finally, there is the perception that the state is too lax, corrupt or afraid (of its international backers) to take the necessary action in cases of blasphemy. The reactions and views already cited from Mawlawi Hassam, Muzammel and the Taleban’s website illustrate this perception. Even Kabul Police spokesman Hashmat Stanekzai’s reaction is based on the notion of apostates and blasphemers slipping through the net of state justice. The mistrust in the state’s ability or willingness to respond to popular sentiments when there is a case of actual or alleged blasphemy made some ulama condone mob justice – at least that is what they said. Although Kabul imam Niazi did later admit, in an interview with AAN a month after the murder of Farkhunda, that the attack was un-Islamic and would set a dangerous precedence if the defense of religion was left to the people, he also said: “When the people feel the government is not standing up to protect the core values of society, it should not shock anyone that [the people] do it in their own messy way. What they do is out of desperation, not that they are convinced they should act in the place of the law enforcement agencies.”
Niazi also accused the media of earlier distorting his words by taking them out of the intended context.
I have always been and will continue to be against arbitrary trials. Farkhunda was murdered by the common people who believed she actually burnt the Quran. In that Friday sermon, using that incident, I tried to alert the government of the building of public anger against the state for its inaction towards incidents of blasphemy and mockery of Islamic ordinances. I did not approve Farkhunda’s killing by any way. I said whether Farkhunda really burnt the Quran or not, what the people did to her was a result of the increasingly public lack of confidence in the government to apply the law in cases related to insult of the people’s holy beliefs. The media and anti-religion currents misused the widespread sympathy with Farkhunda to undermine the ulama.
The unhealthy face-off between mullahs and anti-clericalists
The killing of Farkhunda instigated by a religious worker and some mullahs’ immediate endorsement of the lynching plus the calls (by protestors and in the parliament) for curtailing preaching in religious institutions that encourage violence all seem to have put the clergy under public pressure. In general, there was little soul searching among the clergy. There was a condemnation of ‘clerics’ involved in faith-healing and charm-selling, but this looked like an attempt to distance ulama from the type of religious worker involved in the murder.
It seems, two factors brought clerics and Islamic groups (in the past, not normally natural bedfellows) together, so making a real debate within the religious domain more unlikely. The first was the fear of the state’s increased control over religious institutions as a result of public pressure. The second was a fear that mullahs might cease to be beyond criticism in the eyes of a new and educated generation (in traditional society, clerics are rarely criticised). The responses to Farkhunda’s murder, which partially entailed a confrontation between the mullahs and the ‘secular’ activists, indicated the possibility of a change to the status of mullahs as beyond criticism, at least in some urban settings.
These two challenges felt to the clergy’s independence and status seem to have diverted what might have been a rare chance for an intra-religious discourse on reform. Instead, the discourse is pitting the religious against those seen as their secular rivals. Although the ulama’s appetite for such soul-searching remains untested, of course, one would have hoped it could have been triggered by the murder and its aftermath. Religious civil society could have taken some time to assess the underlying problems in the religious sphere that contributed to the occurrence of the murder.
Specifically, three problems needed to be examined and were not. The first would have been the relationship between what is preached by the ulama plus Islamic activist groups in the name of religion and the violent behaviour as witnessed during the brutal killing of Farkhunda. Notably, religious institutions cannot ignore the need for a definitive stance on the promotion and use of violence in today’s society, where the state should have the monopoly over the use of coercive power.
The second issue is the perception of rule of law and the validity of the vigilante in dominant religious discourse. The praise of the attack by some clerics during their Friday sermons on 20 March, the speeches of the ulama in the gathering on 26 March and what some mullahs said online during the initial days suggest there is little respect for rule of law when it comes to attacks perceived to be against Islam. A serious question is what would have been the reaction of the ulama and Islamists if Farkhunda had indeed burnt the Quran? Responses supportive of the lynching in the initial days as well as the statement of the ulama gathering should provide at least half the answer.
The third problem needing to be raised for the intra-religious debate is the wild conspiracy-mongering ingrained in parts of religious civil society (and elsewhere) and its consequences for wider society. The lynching of Farkhunda could have been used as a lasting lesson for both the absurdity and danger of that sort of thinking. Serious debates about these issues did not materialise partly because the debate ended up being centred on a rather unhelpful axis. Feeling challenged from rights-centric ‘civil society,’ the clergy banded together to defend what they saw as an encroachment on their political and social status. Anti-mullahism pushed moderates in the religious camp towards the hardliners, bringing together Sunni and Shia, pro-state and anti-state ulama with more modernist religious activists. Niazi, himself a moderate mullah by Afghan standards (irrespective of his reported initial stance on Farkhunda’s killing), was probably not known that widely among the religious community before the campaign against him. An example of the campaign actually bringing out more support for Niazi and the ‘embattled clergy’ was the strong statements by Balkh’s powerful governor, Atta Muhammad Nur, who lashed out at secularist activists for what he said was their exploitation of Farkhunda’s case for ideological goals and their insulting of ulama and religious values. On his Facebook page, he warned he would stand with his full power against blasphemy and anti-religionists. (Atta’s Mitra TV aired the ulama’s gathering in full.)
What Afghanistan now needs is a critical and level-headed discourse on the sacred realm rather than divisive lines between the ‘religious’ and the ‘anti-religious.’ Such lines will only further close off the religious sphere to an open debate. Additionally, clashing with those who act as gatekeepers of religion and intentionally insulting them, threatens to only further radicalise them. Anti-mullahism as a way to reform the religious sector has also proved self-destructive in Afghanistan’s past: once it led to the fall of the reformist King Amanullah, despite him having earned Afghanistan’s independence, and again after the communist coup of 1978. A better way ahead, rather than seeking to disempower and humiliate the mullahs, seems to be to modernise the system and institutions that produce religious leaders. Afghanistan cannot afford another social polarisation along such virulent ideological lines.
(1) During their last two years of rule, the Taleban government tried to curtail these practices and even almost closed Shah-e Du Shamshira (they also stopped elevating the flag or janda on Nawruz in Mazar-e Sharif which they also saw as un-Islamic tradition); at the same time, there were also many Taleban foot soldiers among the visitors to shrines.
(2) There have been examples throughout Afghanistan’s history, including in the 1920s, as described in this Al Jazeera article, when British agents disguised as Pashtun tribesmen spread malicious rumours against King Amanullah in 1928 and disseminated doctored photographs of Queen Soraya in a state of ‘undress.’ This purportedly fuelled the ire of the conservative masses, already seething over the king’s modernising reforms, which eventually led to Amanullah’s overthrow.
(3) The author for instance found such sentiments quite common during his research into so-called ‘green on blue’ attacks in 2012-2013; many in the security forces, who were working with the foreign forces, said they believed Islam was in confrontation with the West.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020