Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

AAN Reportage: What Sparked the Ashura Day Riots and Murder in Kabul University?

Borhan Osman 23 min

Last November, on the day of Ashura, a Muslim religious day with particular importance for Shias who mourn the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Hussain, clashes erupted between Sunni and Shia students in the dormitory of the Kabul University. The campus was literally turned into a battlefield. One student was killed and more than a dozen were wounded. The sectarian clash in the country’s prime academic institution shocked many in the country, spreading fears of both sectarian violence and students deeply absorbed in politics and religious activism. AAN’s researcher Borhan Osman presents a ‘whodunit’, looking at what really triggered the university melee. In a later paper, he will look at the extent of sectarian trends in the country as a broader issue and ask if there really exists any appetite for resorting to sectarian violence.

When I visited the campus four days after the confrontations, it was still littered with homemade weapons – branches cut from the campus trees and used as sticks and metal bars pulled from dormitory bedframes, as well as bricks and rocks. Dormitory windows were badly shattered. Those students who had come to take their belongings from their rooms and leave for home were dazed, upset and bewildered at what had happened in their university, the premier higher-education institution in Afghanistan.

The violence had all the hallmarks of religious fighting when hundreds of students in Kabul University’s dormitory clashed on the day of Ashura, 24 November 2012, after dividing into Sunni and Shia battle lines. Each side shouted their slogans loudly to fuel sectarian emotions against the other. The very same students, though, had always lived together in a friendly way. They had played football in joint teams and shared dormitory rooms and meals with each other. In fact, student groupings and alignments in Kabul University usually take shape along political and ethnic lines, rather than on sectarian grounds. Sect-based sentiments have been the least-active factor in creating political alliances and enmities among the students.

Afghanistan, unlike other countries in the region with mixed Shia-Sunni populations, has historically presented a model for peaceful coexistence. The concept that sectarian violence is alien to Afghans goes so deep that when a massive explosion in a Shia shrine during the 2011 Ashura killed dozens of Shias, no Afghan group claimed responsibility and Afghans almost unanimously looked for the perpetrators outside the country. Although a likely intent behind the attack was to trigger inter-sectarian clashes as so often happens in neighbouring Pakistan, in this instance it failed (see AAN’s blogs in the wake of last year’s mass bombing here and here).

By no means all students were caught up in the violent clashes at Kabul University or the emotional arguments that preceded it. Many more stayed out of trouble than participated. Even so, it was a shocking event for both students and Afghans generally, and prompted this investigation into what went wrong on the university campus on Ashura 2012.

AAN spoke to people from both sides, as well as relevant officials and third-party sources; all alleged that ‘hands’ from outside the campus had played a role in inciting the students to fight each other in the one-and-half-hour-long melee. However, such an explanation appears inadequate to understand why students in an academic facility should suddenly go at each other’s throats. Given Afghans’ tendencies to point the finger at foreigners to cover up the real, internal causes of unpleasant incidents, it seemed necessary to unpick the complex chain of events. This means starting with looking at the recent past and establishing a little background.

Ashura happens, according to the Islamic calendar, on 10 Muharram, the first month of the Islamic Hijri(1) lunar calendar. For Shias, Muharram is an intensely emotional time as they grieve for those killed in Karbala 1,300 years ago. During the ceremonies, which take place over the ten days of Muharram, emotions climax on the day of Ashura itself. Traditional laments recounting the events which befell Hussain Ibn Ali, the Prophet’s grandson, and his family are rendered in chants (noha) or a specific type of song (marsiya), and mourners may beat their chests in time to the chants with their fists (sina-zani) or – and this is far less common in Afghanistan than some other Shia countries – flail themselves with blades on chains (zanjir-zani).

Another piece of background information is that there are two main mosques at Kabul University: the ‘dormitory mosque’ in the student hostel and the ‘new mosque’ which is closer to the university’s classrooms and faculties and was inaugurated three months before Ashura in 2011. Both mosques are used almost exclusively by Sunni students and university staff. Shias have tended to stay away, preferring to pray in their hostels. In Afghanistan, Shias and Sunnis have their own mosques and do not normally attend each other’s mosques for prayers. Ashura rituals usually take place inside takiakhana, Shia places of worship built particularly for that purpose.

In 2011, Shia students asked the university administration for permission to commemorate Ashura in the dormitory’s mosque with a single ceremony. The dormitory management agreed, on the condition that consent was obtained from Sunni students who, up until then, had been the sole worshippers using this mosque. The Sunni students, who make up more than 70 per cent of the dormitory’s 2,500 residents, agreed to let the Shias hold Ashura Day commemorations in what they see as their mosque as long as no words of hate were spoken against the sahaba, the companions of the Prophet, during the speeches(2) and no sina-zani or zanjir-zani (chest beating and flagellation) occurred.

One of the Sunni student leaders, Ahmad Khan Ahmadi, a fourth-year student of Law and Political Science who heads the Shura-ye Masjid or the Mosque Council, explained that they believe the Shia mourning rites are bid’ah (an innovation in the practice of worship and therefore alien to Islam) and that practicing them in the mosque would be an aggressive move against the Sunni students’ religious rights. However, according to both side, these terms, which had been agreed upon, were broken by the Shias, and this upset the Sunnis.

As Ashura in 2012 drew near, the Shia students in the university planned to hold many more ceremonies than the year before in university facilities. However, in the run-up to Ashura the Ministry of Higher Education sent a letter to all its public institutions forbidding any such ceremonies at educational facilities. Holding political, religious and ethnic or sectarian events in the university has been understood as illegal for a long time, under the general instructions of both the president and the Ministry of Higher Education.(3) Kabul University’s dean, Habibullah Habibi, told AAN that any such ceremony would have to be clearly authorised by the ministry.

The Shia students embarked on massive lobbying to get their ceremonies approved. This yielded its first fruit when hundreds of them marched to the gate of the Ministry of Higher Education on the same evening that the letter banning any ceremonies on university land arrived. A few of the students were allowed to meet the deputy minister for academic affairs, Muhammad Osman Babury. According to the Shia student representative, Reza Mu’in, Babury agreed they could hold one ceremony for commemorating Ashura, and that it would be an academic event, only, with speeches from religious scholars.(4) The students managed to hold the conference the following day under the supervision of the Faculty of Sharia at the auditorium of the Faculty of Economics.

Both the university’s deanery and the ministry say the conference was the only officially allowed commemoration event for Ashura. Sunni students who actively participated in the audience and heard their Sharia faculty members address it said they felt a single Ashura ceremony in the prime academic institution of the country was enough and they were ‘okay’ with this. However, the Shia students who, apparently, had decided early on to hold two additional ceremonies, were determined to go ahead with these. According to Reza Mu’in, who together with another Hazara student activist, Baqir Mellatyar, effectively led the Shia students during the Ashura troubles, they organised additional ceremonies for the Thursday night and on the Friday night, the eve of Ashura, 23 November, in the newly built mosque of the university. According to Reza, the first night was mainly to be an internal event with a few guests from outside the campus, while the second night would be mainly characterised by guests from outside.

The Sunni students, led mainly by the Mosque Council, were aware of the plan, said the head of the council, Ahmad Khan Ahmadi, but had already got assurances from the dean of Kabul University that no further Ashura ceremony would be allowed to take place on campus. ‘We were surprised,’ he told AAN, ‘to see notices throughout the dormitory announcing an Ashura ceremony for Thursday night, just hours before the event. Our boys were boiling when they learned about the ceremony in the mosque which was then due to take place without any consultation with us.’

The Shia students say they had written a petition to the management of the dormitory who, according to Reza, referred it to the Ministry of Higher Education. The ministry’s administrative chief, Amanullah Faqiri, again according to Reza, sent it to the vice chancellor for administrative affairs, Hadi Hedayati, who says he never saw the letter and wondered if the Shia boys might have kept it to themselves. Faqiri, meanwhile, told AAN he never signed such a letter and accused the students of lying. However, Hedayati (himself a Shia) helped the students hold their commemoration ceremony on the Thursday in the new mosque. Hedayati and the Shia students both argue that Deputy Minister Osman Babury gave the students verbal permission to hold the ceremony in the mosque. Whether permission was actually granted is now contested by Babury, who told AAN in a phone interview that his remarks were misunderstood and distorted. He declined to give any further explanation or a full interview.

The university dean, who by the Thursday afternoon had left for his home in Mazar-e Sharif for the weekend holiday, said he had been totally unaware of any ceremonies to be held by the students. In his absence, Hedayati was officially in charge of the university, and he was supporting the students to hold the Thursday night commemoration. His support is something confirmed by both himself and the Shia students. Hedayati says he acted upon the (reported) instructions of the Ministry of Higher Education’s administrative chief, Faqiri, who had asked him to help the boys and coordinate the ceremony. But he said he never saw the all-important letter and that it was only quoted to him on the phone by Shia students, mainly Reza. He said they have the letter; but, they have failed to show it to AAN.

The Sunni students felt the Shias had overstepped the boundaries by holding a ceremony in addition to the Wednesday conference and, most importantly, holding it in (what they see as) their mosque. In the words of Abdullah, a Sunni student of engineering in his last year, the Sunni boys are not against Ashura, or the Shias’ religious ceremony itself, but rather against what they believed was a politicisation of such an event: ‘Our objection did not mean that we had a previous bias towards or hatred of the Shias. Rather, we have several times participated in and co-organised their religious ceremonies. This year in Ramadan, for example, we postponed one of our own night-time ceremonies in the mosque because of theirs. We are against exaggerating one’s identity and sect for political purposes.’

Ahmadi’s Sunni-only Mosque Council, which says it defends Sunni religious values and causes inside campus, took leadership of the growing protest by the Sunnis. In a meeting after the maghreb (early evening) prayer in the new mosque, they discussed ways of stopping the Shia students’ plan. Ahmadi told fellow students he had talked to the Shia students and got an agreement that nothing would take place that was wrong from a Sunni point of view: ‘I went to the podium to calm down the boys who had got so emotional and assured them there would only be speeches in the ceremony and no bid’ah in the mosque,’ said Ahmadi. ‘I also assured them there would be no such ceremony in the future and that we had to participate in today’s program.’

Shia students and the Ministry of Higher Education’s administrative chief, Faqiri, who acted as a middleman between the two groups, confirm that such an agreement was reached; but, two hours into the ceremony, after 10:00 pm, the mourners in the mosque started sina-zani, in addition to singing noha and marsiya, in breach of the agreement. Earlier, one of the two guests from outside who delivered speeches, Waezzada Behsudi, a Shia mullah from Muhammad Mohaqeq’s Hezb-e Wahdat-e Afghanistan, condemned Abu Sufyan, his son, Muawiya (both sahaba), and the whole dynasty of the Umayyads, attracting negative attention. Sunni participants in the ceremony objected to the sina-zani, noha and the mulla’s attack on the two sahaba and called for their fellow Sunnis to intervene. However, the row was extinguished with the intervention of Faqiri and Vice-Chancellor Hedayati, as well as the dormitory’s manager, Abdul Muhammad, and the commander of the Battalion for the Protection of Universities, Nasrumenallah Karimi. Both Shia and Sunni students calmly returned to their rooms before midnight.

Faqiri says his participation was aimed at solving the dispute, and he could not have stopped the students as he heard about the ceremony just two hours before it was due to start: ‘I faced a situation which I could not undo,’ he told AAN. ‘It was a fait accompli. The only thing I could do in such a situation was try to defuse the tensions, not ask about the lawfulness of the event.’

While the first of the two planned evening ceremonies was finally and peacefully over, the main one on the eve of Ashura on the Friday evening was still open for confrontation as there had been no agreement between the two sides. Indeed, it had not even been discussed. This time, Reza asked Ahmadi at Friday noon if the Sunni students represented by the Mosque Council would agree to holding the ceremony in the mosque for the night. Ahmadi replied:

I told Reza that I could not make a decision by myself; I had to consult the other boys with whom I would be sitting after offering Friday prayers in the mosque outside the campus and would then discuss the request of the Shias. They said, ‘We would never allow them to hold the ceremony because, twice, they did not stand by their word: last night and last year’ and they were right. Another reason why we opposed the program was that the speeches by the Shia mullahs on such occasions always include disrespect to sahaba.

However, a Shia student, Ismail Rasekh, believed there were other reasons for the Sunnis’ rejection. ‘The Sunni boys opposed any Ashura ceremony,’ he told AAN. ‘They saw it as a political show and viewed the Shias’ way of commemorating the event as entirely superstition and bid’ah.’

As the evening got closer, both sides showed signs of determination to go ahead in their own way: the Shias to hold the ceremony and Sunnis to stop it.

Reza, who rejects any notion of being pushed by people from outside the campus to hold the ceremony, says he received calls from multiple political Shia figures and parties to give up his plan of holding further commemorations inside the university. He lists the offices of Muhammad Mohaqeq, Karim Khalili, Asef Mohseni and several members of parliament who, he says, pressed him not to hold the ceremony. But what Ahmadi and Abdul Muhammad say gives a different picture of what the Shia heavyweights wanted. Abdul Muhammad says: ‘I received a call from the office of one of the important Shia political figures, most probably Mohaqeq [Abdul Muhammad, himself, told AAN he was not fully sure], asking me why I did not help the Shia boys to hold the ceremony.’ Ahmadi recalls a similar experience. ‘Somebody called Haidari from [Asef] Mohseni’s office called me and requested me not to oppose the Shia student’s program. I told him it is not my own decision, but had been made in consultation with others.’ Reza also recalled that the Iranian embassy’s cultural attaché’s branch at the Kabul University (Iran is the only country which has an attaché branch at the university) offered help to the Shia boys for holding the Ashura ceremony while planning the Wednesday seminar, but that he rejected the offer.

By evening, Sunni boys had moved in their hundreds to the new mosque where their Shia counterparts were planning to hold their ceremony. The aim was to occupy the mosque and stay there as long as it took to prevent the Shias from entering. As the situation got tense, Hedayati, Faqiri and the dormitory manager, Abdul Muhammad, intervened and sat with representatives of both sides inside the mosque, but to no avail. According to Hedayati, representatives of both sets of students threatened each other and the debate turned into a show of force. Hedayati said, ‘Each side threatened to stop the other by force and boasted of a manpower of a thousand supporters.’ The former Kabul MP and influential Shia figure, Haji Ramazan Hussainzada, also arrived and talked to both sides. He proposed to his fellow Shias to give up the ceremony plan and keep their unity with their Sunni brothers, but again to no avail.

The intermediaries were facing two stubborn groups of students, both now intensely emotional. The students were preparing for confrontation, with some from each side taking up sticks and remaining on alert. Dignitaries from the government security institutions, such as the Kabul police chief, Ayub Salangi, the head of the crime investigation division, General Muhammad Zahir, the commander of the 111 Army Corps, General Qadam Shah Shahim, a senior Interior Ministry official, Brigadier General Ali Gawhar, the head of the Kabul NDS and a senior official from the Independent Directorate for Local Governance – all of them members of the Commission for Organizing Ashura Ceremonies(5) – and Abdul Qadir Alami, one of the most prominent Shia clerics, arrived and first met the Shia students who were in the office of the dormitory manager. Then the Shia intermediaries, Gawhar, Alami and Hedayati, met the Shia students, in private, in the dining hall while the Sunni middlemen went to the Sunni students who were in the mosque being lectured by their representatives on the defence of the mosque.

As the time to start the ceremony arrived, a confrontation between the Sunnis in the mosque and the Shias outside was averted by the presence of these dignitaries. According to students on both sides, the talks continued until 11:00 pm and then Salangi left, upset with both sides for not heeding his words. The Sunni students’ proposal to the Shias to hold the rituals as they wanted at any other facility of the university except the mosque and General Zahir’s suggestion to host the ceremony either in any mosque outside the university or at any security facility in Kabul were shunned. A semi-consensual agreement was finally reached with a proposal to hold a joint (Sunni-Shia) khatm-e Qur’an (collective recitation of the Qur’an) in the same mosque the following day, Saturday, at 1:00 pm and to cancel any plan for the Friday night, as it was already late.

On Saturday morning, the 10th of Muharram, which marks the climax of the commemoration, mistrust of the Shias and a suspicion that they intended to betray this agreement spread among the Sunni students. General Ali Gawhar of the Interior Ministry, who works as Director for Governmental and Non-Governmental Projects of the Afghan Public Protection Force and was previously affiliated with Mohseni’s (Shia) Harakat-e Islami party, met the Shia students privately in a dormitory room for a short period of time.

Reza says the general merely assured them of full security for the ceremony, but the Sunnis became suspicious of what was going on behind closed doors. Sunni students accuse Gawhar of encouraging Shia students to hold the ceremony the way they wanted, including with guests invited from outside, and promised he would protect them, says Ahmadi. That meeting at around 10:00 am also dismayed Abdul Muhammad, the dormitory manager. ‘In principle, such a meeting should have taken place not in a dormitory room, but in an administration facility or conference room or at least in the presence of the university officials. As the dormitory manager, I felt by-passed when the general went directly by himself to a dormitory room and met the Shia students.’

By midday on the Saturday, according to Ahmadi, the Sunni students learned from the Battalion for the Protection of Universities that the Shias planned to have, in addition to the agreed khatm-e Qur’an, speeches by their outside guests. They rushed to the mosque with sticks and metal bars in their hands. The Shias followed, but remained mainly around the gate of the mosque while the Sunnis were inside.

Most of the officials who had come the previous night were back on the campus. Sunni students were ordered by the head of the crime investigation division, General Zahir, who had arrived to calm down the situation, to evacuate the mosque. Both the Sunni and Shia students formed lines outside the mosque against each other, with sticks in their hands and started shouting religious slogans – ‘Allah-u Akbar’ or ‘Ya Hussain’. The anti-riot police had arrived and now formed a buffer between the two. The minister of higher education, Obaidullah Obaid, also arrived at this moment – around 2:00 – to try to end the conflict. He met representatives of the two sides in a joint meeting in the mosque. An agreement was reached that the minister would speak and a khatm would follow to end the ceremony.

By this time, Alami, the Shia cleric, and Ustad Muhammad Akbari, a prominent MP from Bamian, had arrived as purported guests speakers, invited by the Shias. Around 100 students were allowed from each group of students outside the mosque to go in and participate in the ceremony. The Sunnis, thinking that the Shias no longer were in control of the program, objected when the Shias’ master of ceremonies for the programme rose to the podium. Faqiri, senior Education Ministry official, took the role, instead. The minister’s speech ended with a call for unity. The Sunni boys again shouted in objection when Alami started to take the podium. (Faqiri had invited him after receiving a note from the Shia representatives.) The noise subsided as Minister Obaid interfered and called for the khatm so as to end the whole ceremony.

The boys from both sides sat in the mosque in lines to recite Qur’an, and everybody apparently thought the row was over. ‘The minister and the guests left and the students threw away their sticks,’ said the mosque caretaker, Najibullah. They started to evacuate the mosque heading to their dormitories; Sunnis left first and then the Shias.

According to the Sunni version of the story, which was also that of the police present at the scene, as the Sunnis arrived at the gate of the four-floor dormitory to go to their rooms, Shia boys and young men, most of whom were not students and who had been pouring in from surrounding areas since midday, amassed in the (public) road in front of the dormitory. These Shia crowds started to hurl stones at them. The crowds were stopped from entering the building by the police who were ordered to let nobody from outside in. ‘They had collected many rocks and even filled their pockets with them,’ says Abdul Jalil, a police officer who guarded the gate and kept the crowd away.

The Sunni students, according to several interviewed by AAN, said they now found themselves trapped between the two groups of Shias: the non-student crowd outside and the students inside. ‘Then,’ said Habib Jan, a third year Sunni student of computer science who was there, ‘everybody started throwing stones at the other side; Shias at Sunnis and Sunnis at Shias.’

This version of events is not accepted by Shia students whom AAN spoke to who were there. Several said it was Sunni students on the roof of the dormitory who triggered the clash by throwing a chair down at the Shia students, who were then passing beneath, and the outsiders joined in with the stoning later.

Whoever and however the stone-throwing started, it quickly intensified, with most of the Sunnis being positioned on the roof of the dormitory and inside the rooms and most of the Shia students remaining outside. The police fired warning shots at those students at ground level, but failed to disperse them effectively. As the Shias were pelted with stones from the rooftop and the rooms, the Sunnis were hit by those on the ground from all sides. The Sunnis in control of the dormitory switched on the dormitory mosque’s loudspeaker to call their fellow Sunnis to show steadfastness and to condemn the Shias.(6)

The crowd outside the campus was constantly trying to get in, but the police stopped them. At one point, when Ali Gawhar the senior Interior Ministry official previously affiliated with Mohseni’s Harakat-e Islami talked to them, says a police officer who was at the gate, the crowd got aggressive and unruly. However, ‘when the general left,’ recounted the officer, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, ‘the boys marched towards us belligerently and threatened to enter by force whether we allowed them or not.’ However, rumours of atrocities appear to have driven the Shias outside the university gates to get in. Rasekh, a Shia student, says he believes the crowd got aggressive when they heard – wrongly – that some Shia students inside had been killed. ‘One of the people in the crowd later asked me,’ he said, ‘how the Sunnis could kill a dozen of us and said he would avenge any Shia’s blood that had been spilled that night. I calmed him down, saying nobody had been killed.’

The stone-throwing started at around 3:30 pm and lasted for about one and a half hours. It only ended when hundreds more police and some senior security officials arrived at about dusk to back up the several hundred police already in and around the campus. Warning shots were fired at the crowd outside as people started breaking the fence around the campus to try to enter the dormitory.

One student was killed during this violent melee and more than a dozen were wounded, two of them critically. The dead boy was named as Muhammad Ismail from Balkhab district of Sar-e Pul province. He was a first-year student in computer sciences. His classmate and roommate, Muhammad Zia, who miraculously survived, says he and Ismail were in their rooms on the fourth floor studying hard for their end-of-year exams and had locked the door when a group of five or six people with covered faces broke down the door and came in. ‘We ran away onto the balcony, but they followed us,’ said Zia. ‘They grabbed me and threw me [off the balcony] and then threw Ismail after me.’ He spoke to AAN in late November from his bed in Aliabad Hospital where he had been hospitalised with two broken legs. Ismail died on the spot. Zia says neither he nor Ismail – both Shias – had taken part in the troubles and had not attended the Ashura ceremonies inside the university. He did not recognize the masked people at all. One of the other seriously wounded students was a Sunni from Wardak province. He received bloody wounds to the neck.

As seen in the case of Ismail and Zia, the dispute had not fully divided the campus along sectarian lines. By no means all the dormitory students were involved. It was a public holiday and many had left for outside. More significantly, many were not interested in the dispute. The police at the campus speculated that the numbers of students involved on each side were almost equal and were in the several hundreds – this from a total student population of about 2,500. Many others were in the dormitory during the holiday, took no side and said they had not been moved to get drawn into the row.

Dozens of Shia students who were caught inside the dormitory rooms as the clashes started were protected by their Sunni roommates, classmates and other Sunni students who did not subscribe to the angry confrontation. A Sunni student from the political science department, Ahmad Farhad, said he locked five Shias inside cupboards in his room. The police later rescued and released all these students.

After the police separated the two sides, and the raining down of stones had stopped, they started to transfer the students en masse in police vans to wherever they needed to go. Those who lacked any shelter outside the campus were provided with accommodation that night inside police facilities across the city. By 8:30 pm, the university was evacuated. A ten-day holiday – which was later extended to three months for all the four public universities of Kabul – was announced to give everyone enough time to forget their bitter feelings towards each other.

In the days after the violence, AAN spoke to students visiting the dormitory to move their belongings home who said they were deeply sad that their campus had been turned into a battlefield. They blamed groups of fanatics on both sides who, they said, had used the highly emotionally charged atmosphere to exhibit and foment religious intolerance of the other. Abdul Matin, a Sharia student from Khost who was packing his luggage to leave to his home province, said: ‘We feel so sorry because this incident gave the whole community of students living here a bad name while it was the action of a limited number of extremists working for the interests of political circles. We can’t undo this now.’ Ali Ahmad, a psychology student from Jaghori, said he was puzzled to hear how the students had gotten involved in sectarian fighting: ‘It is really difficult to imagine that students were the pioneers of sectarian clashes in this country where we have never had such a thing. This is obviously not an incident inspired from within. Rather, I find it of an external nature, motivated by actors from the outside, not inside.’

Pointing the finger at ‘some extremists’ and at hands from outside the campus is an accusation that appears to be sticking, at least to some extent. Most of the numerous interviewees for this report said the campus was not short of religious activists who tend to use sectarian rhetoric in public. On the Sunni side, there are ‘religiously awakened’ youth, some attached to Islamist groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Hezb-e Islami, Jamiat-e Eslah, and some sympathisers of the Taleban, as well as many non-aligned zealots who, interviewees say, are actively involved in promoting their ideologies on the campus. On the Shia side, many students, AAN was told during these interviews, identify with ethno-centric political parties like the two Hezb-e Wahdats of Karim Khalili and Muhammad Mohaqeq, as well as Asef Mohseni’s Harakat, or with religious or sectarian sentiment that sees being Shia as inseparable from the Hazara ethnic identity.

Outside instigation cannot be ruled out, but, despite the visible activism of students from both sects (including those involved in the Ashura clashes) along politico-religious lines, the author could not find any concrete evidence to link the trouble to these outside factors. On this, the jury is still out.

Even if the skirmishes were caused by students acting on the orders of political factions from outside, questions remain as to why no-one in authority managed to head off trouble. Were mistakes made and could they have been avoided by the different bodies and individuals within the government who let the tensions build until violence could break out? A report by a parliamentary commission assigned to look into the event drew some general conclusions:

Not enforcing the presidential decree on keeping educational institutions away from politics, the lack of arrangements by security officials to prevent this incident and negligence by the Commission for Organising Ashura Ceremonies were the main causes of the incident.(7)

However, questions remain about specific causes, beyond the general causes cited by the parliamentary commission. The first issue is why the Ministry of Higher Education and Kabul University’s management allowed the Shia students, allegedly either through informal cooperation or through tacit agreement, to hold the ceremony despite strong opposition from Sunni students and despite a prior ban on such a ceremony. Both institutions could have predicted from the behaviour of those opposing the ceremony on religious grounds (that ‘bid’ah’ cannot take place in a ‘Sunni mosque’) and the determination of Shias pushing for their religious ceremony, that there might be clashes. Even if the ministry faced – in the words of Faqiri – a ‘done deal’, it could have been more decisive either by convincing the two sides of a solution or standing firm on banning the ceremony entirely, using its own authority and previous decrees.

Another question revolves around the very nature of holding the ceremony inside the university. First, it seems to have been planned well ahead, but kept secret from relevant authorities who might have intervened to stop it had they been informed. Faqiri, from the ministry, and the dean, Habib, say they learned about the plan from Sunni students who called them just two hours before the first night’s program was due to start. Officials of the Commission for Organizing Ashura Ceremonies, whose main job was to provide security for the places where the mourners would be gathering, say they also learnt that the university was to be one of the sites at the last minute. General Zahir, a member of the commission, said that if he had known about the plans in advance, he would never have allowed the ceremonies to go ahead at all.

Another question, asked mainly by the Shia students, scrutinises the performance of the hundreds of police present on the ground during the whole saga. Why did they allow the crowd outside the dormitory to gather? Why did they not interfere decisively at an earlier point and prevent the situation from escalating into a pitched battle?

Finally, as the issue of who ‘owns’ the campus mosques stood at the heart of this trouble, Shia students now say they have asked the Ministry of Higher Education to build a separate mosque for Shias or allocate one of the existing ones to them.

The Shias’ plan to hold mourning ceremonies for three consecutive days for the first time in the university, and the determination by both Shias and Sunnis to oppose each other at all cost may just have been an example of what happens when young men get emotionally wrapped up in a matter which they feel affects their rights, honour and deepest held identities. Even so, it must be stressed that by no means all students became ‘hot-heads’ during the November 2012 Ashura.

The incident did polarise the university’s campus, but only to some extent. But letting a religious schism escalate into violence and the disturbance of inter-community relations is not welcomed by most of the student body or, indeed, by most Afghans, generally. The incident did not ignite the wider populace and failed to polarise other parts of Afghan society, except for a limited number of religious ‘enthusiasts’.(8) Similarly, a major previous incident of this kind (triggered by similar causes and with community-level involvement), Ashura 2006 in Herat (read here), also failed to set off a broader reaction. Neither did the 2011 Ashura bombing of a Shia shrine in Kabul (which did actually appear to be the work of ‘foreign hands’, in this case Sunni extremists in Pakistan; see reporting here).

There is a certain mutual bias against the other among Sunni and Shia Afghans, but at the same time, sectarianism has almost never played anything more than a minor role in shaping conflicts and politics (with the except of certain, very limited stages in recent history).(9) Communities have tended to live together peacefully and even occasionally have intermarried in some urban settings. Nonetheless, the conflict at Kabul University was a warning of how latent feelings might be exploited, especially as small groups of extremists are taking root on all sides.

The broader relationship between Sunni and Shia in Afghanistan and the scope of sectarian trends on the two sides will be discussed in an upcoming paper by the author.

(1) This calendar starts on the day of the migration (hijra) of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions from Mecca to Medina.

(2) Most Shias are critical of most of the sahaba and some even curse them, considering they became apostate after the death of the Prophet Muhammad; they believe the first three Sunni-recognised caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar and Othman) robbed Ali of his legitimate right to succeed the Prophet. The Sunnis, on the other hand, revere the sahaba and do not accept any accusations of injustice against them. This has been one of the points of difference between the two sects throughout history.

(3) President Karzai has called for politics-free campuses several times and urged students to focus on studies instead of politics (see here, here and here).

(4) Reza explains that during the back-and-forth of the meeting, Babury became convinced after students made several coherent arguments in favour of holding the ceremony:

We explained our right to hold such a ceremony in the university first on legal basis, then we pointed out to the deputy minister several other purely political events held in this very university, such as commemorations for Ahmad Shah Massoud, General Muhammad Daud Daud, Mustafa Kazemi and Ustad Rabbani [Afghan leaders killed in suicide attacks]. There should not be any double standards, we told him, when it comes to our religious day for a more important Shia figure, Imam Hussain. We also assured Babury that our program would have the active participation from Sunnis as well. Then, he called the dean of the Kabul University and ordered him, orally, to help us organize the event for the following afternoon.

(5) The seven-member commission composed mainly of senior security officials and led by a deputy interior minister was formed according to a presidential decree during the early days of Muharram. Its main responsibility was to ensure security for Ashura ceremonies across Kabul.

(6) Shia students say fatwas of jihad and other inflammatory remarks were made against the Shias from the loudspeaker.

(7) The quote is from a briefing to the Wolesi Jirga’s plenary session on 26 November by Keramuddin Rezazada, a Ghor MP and member of the parliamentary commission to look into the incident (see the report here).

(8) This refers to reactions from some religious circles to the incident. According to sources that attended a Friday sermon in one of Kabul’s biggest and oldest mosques, Pul-e Kheshti, and one of the biggest and oldest takiakhanas, the Chandawal Takiakhana, in the wake of the university clashes, the senior clerics at both places of worship angrily reacted to the incident using sectarian rhetoric. Each threatened the other sect not to ‘touch’ the sectarian bomb; otherwise the people of their respective sect would be strong enough to defend themselves.

(9) This refers to anti-Shiism during the Taleban regime, including some massacres (in Mazar, Bamian and Yakaolang), justified with sectarian language, among other factors, and to events like the March 1993 massacre in the mainly Shia Afshar neighbourhood committed by Sunni factions. See the Afghanistan Justice Project, ‘Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, 1978–2001 – Documentation and Analysis of Major Patterns of Abuse in the War in Afghanistan’ (2005) and The UN Mapping Report 2005.

photo: In front of Kabul University dormitory on Ashura Day 2012, with permission of Pajhwok News Agency

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