This year, the ten-day commemoration of Muharram by Afghanistan’s Shia Muslims follows a wave of bloody attacks directed against them, most claimed by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP). In 2017, the government armed and paid guards at some mosques and other religious buildings in an attempt to thwart attacks. Those guards have stayed in place throughout the year and have now been boosted in some places by volunteer guards, chosen by the mosques, in coordination with the local police. Still, as Kate Clark, Ehsan Qaane, Ali Yawar Adili, Rohullah Surosh, Said Reza Kazemi and Fazal Muzhary have been finding out, the new self-defence measures have not been enough to allay people’s fears or the threats enough to stop many Afghans commemorating the martyrs of Karbala.Muharram flags over Qala-ye Fathullah in Kabul. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2015)
Black, green and red banners can be seen erected in many Shia Muslim majority neighbourhoods and cities in Afghanistan. They commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and many of his small band of companions in the battle of Karbala in the year 680 (61 AH of the Islamic calendar). Volunteers are cooking simple food like shola (a sweet rice dish) and rice and korma and, in Herat a sort of stew called glur in huge cauldrons at the side of the road in ‘camps’ giving out food and water in memory of the suffering of the Imam Hussain and his companions 1,300 years ago; they had no food and water for three days before the battle. Crowds have been gathering in mosques and mourning halls (takia khana), (1) listening to religious songs recalling the events of Muharram. Some men beat their chests in ritual mourning (sina zani) or self-flagellate (zanjir zani). This year, in Afghanistan’s capital, you can also see armed guards and volunteers, blocked roads and checkposts, an increased police presence and, around some mosques, fortifications. One of the authors described the scene around his neighbourhood mosque:
There is a barricade built of metal scaffolding surrounding it, more than a hundred metres distant from the mosque. It blocks all the streets except one entry point to the mosque where there is just a narrow, pedestrian-only gap which delays people getting in, so that they can be searched. Mourners go through three layers of searching before they can get into the mosque. Sandbags have also been stacked at several points around the mosque, including at the inside door. The guards and other auxiliary protection forces take their positions behind these sandbags.
Muharram ceremonies are clearly vulnerable to attack if anyone wants to. Unfortunately, that intention, to hurt Afghanistan’s Shia Muslims, has very much been in evidence, especially over the last year. Kabul, in particular, has seen a wave of sectarian attacks aimed at causing mass casualties, including those specifically targeting children and young people. They have included attacks on a wrestling gym (5 September), an education centre (15 August) and a voter registration centre (22 April). All were in the Hazara-majority neighbourhood of Dasht-e Barchi in west Kabul and claimed by ISKP. Each attack killed and injured between one and two hundred people. (2)
Shia mosques in Afghanistan’s main city in the west, Herat, have also suffered attacks, at least seven since 2016. The magnitude of these attacks has generally been less than those suffered in Kabul, with far fewer casualties (the exception being the August 2017 attack on the Jawadiya Mosque) but still, Shias there have also wanted and been given extra protection. (3) Shias in other places have also suffered attacks and atrocities, including the massacre of at least 38 men and boys during Friday prayers in a mosque in Khwaja Hassan village outside Gardez in Paktia province on 3 August (AAN reporting here).
In the face of this heightened threat to Shias, the authorities have taken various measures.
Protecting Muharram ceremonies: Kabul
Last year, after several sectarian attacks in Kabul, the government authorised the recruitment of five armed guards for the bigger Shia mosques and takia khanas during Muharram (see AAN reporting here). These guards have stayed in place since.
This year, there were calls for an expansion of the guard scheme or permission to arm volunteers. In response, President Ashraf Ghani met Shia leaders and spoke publicly about a temporary weapons distribution plan for Muharram, for example, at a meeting in west Kabul on 8 September with community representatives (also attended by new National Security Advisor Hamdullah Muheb and two senior Shia officials, Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh and former deputy minister of interior for security affairs and now head of the Kabul Garrison, General Murad Ali Murad (reported here). No distribution of arms by the government has taken place, but volunteer guards, some armed, including with Kalashnikov rifles, others not, have been stood up. This is with Ministry of Interior permission. All of the interviewees we spoke to in Kabul – and in Herat – said this the recruitment had been done by the mosques in coordination with the police and other authorities and local communities, as part of coordinated efforts to ensure security. They also said the self-defence force would only guard mosques and takia khanas during Muharram and then would disband.
Unlike the authorised guards who wear military uniform, only some of the volunteer guards are wearing special clothing; some have uniforms provide by their mosque and others wear black or green shalwar kamis to identify them. Some are in normal clothes. The volunteer guards have established checkpoints controlling access to the roads leading to mosques and shrines, in coordination with the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Azemi, the manager of the Madrasa-ye Zainabia, the large mosque and madrassa in Karte-ye Chahr, said there were definite advantages to having the voluntary self-defence force:
They are locals living in the neighbourhoods of mosques, recruited by the management of the mosques. Right now, the volunteer guards help both the five armed men for keeping security inside the buildings [of the Zainabia complex] and also the ANSF for taking the security outside. Because the volunteer guards are local, they know the people coming. This helps the ANSF.
Special ID (front) of Anwar Abbas, a voluntary guard at the Imam Muhammad Baqer Mosque, stamped by the mosque, the council of ulema for east Kabul and the security commission for the East Kabul zone. (Photo:
Kate Clark September 2018)
Special ID (back) of Anwar Abbas, a voluntary guard at the Imam Muhammad Baqer Mosque, stamped by the mosque, the council of ulema for east Kabul and the security commission for the East Kabul zone. (Photo:
Kate Clark September 2018)
Security measures vary between the many mosques and takia khanas marking Muharram.
- Madrasa-ye Zainabia, the large mosque and madrassa in Karte-ye Chahr is being guarded by Afghan National Police (ANP), NDS forces, the five registered armed guards and between 50 and 70 volunteer guards, some armed, according to its manager, Azemi. He said all the weapons were registered with the government, either by civilians or by members of the ANSF who were off-duty but allowed to use their weapons while protecting the Zainabia.
- The Nabi Akram Mosque in Shahrak-e Omid Sabz, Police District 6, also has five registered guards and about 45 volunteer guards. The mullah imam of the mosque, Ali Ahmad Naseri, said they had been chosen by the board of trustees and were from the neighbourhood. One of the five authorised guards described the volunteers as “a diverse group of people” carrying a mix of weapons “shotguns, M4 carbines, pistols and AK-47s.”
- Madrasa Madinat ul-Elm, Police District 6, has 17 guards (last year it was 10), five authorised and 12 volunteers. Muhammad Sajjad Yasa local people collected money and bought weapons for using inside the mosque only. They cannot be taken outside, he stressed. “We plan to register the new weapons so that the government knows about them and they become legal.” He said the police were also patrolling the area all the time, he said, protecting the mosque and the mourners.
- Imam Muhammad Baqer Mosque, Pul-e Khushk, in Dasht-e Barchi has no authorised armed guards, one of as many as fifty per cent of mosques and takia khana which do not. A member of the congregation said the government had “prioritised the mosques that were under high threats and left out [the others].” He said that at his mosque, local people had chosen the volunteers and armed them with tufang-e charayi (a kind of simple gun which he said did not need registering). They also had some Kalashnikovs legally registered to government officials or MPs. This effort had been coordinated with the local police. The police, he told us, were also “putting in an appearance” and helping secure the mosque.
Some of the mosques have taken other security measures unilaterally restricting the mourning. At the Zainabia, ceremonies finish around ten pm; previously, they used to carry on until early morning on some of the nights. At the Nabi Akram Mosque in Shahrak-e Omid Sabz, they only started the ceremonies on the sixth day of Muharram. (Communities had already, mostly in 2015 and fully in 2016, voluntarily stopped processions between mosques on the night of seventh Muharram on security grounds and also so as not to ‘bother the neighbours’.) In an unusual measure, the Zainabia has put a complete ban on women attending ceremonies. This is for the second year running. Manager Azemi explained their reasoning:
It is difficult to check women and the terrorists could exploit this, launching an attack wearing women’s clothes… Also, if an attack happened like the one on the Imam Zaman mosque in Khair Khana… it would be a dishonour to see the bodies of female victims. Also, it is not good for a non-related man [na-mahram] to touch body of a wounded woman when helping her.
Bekrabad Square in Herat city, close to the Jawadiya Mosque, decorated with flags and banners (Photo: Said Reza Kazemi, 2018)
The government has been paying for armed guards for what one interviewee thought were 300 mosques and takia khanasin the province. In Herat, there generally seems to be four per mosque. The mosque authorities have also been organising armed volunteers to boost security during Muharram. This has been done in coordination with the local elders and police. In one shahrak (informal settlement) on the outskirts of Herat city, which is homogenous in terms of being largely populated by Hazaras and Shia Sayyeds, the armed volunteers have a wider remit, patrolling the whole settlement, day and night.
Several sources told AAN that the city authorities in recent months have told Shia leaders that they have the freedom to put in place what security they need to protect themselves over and above the guards paid for and armed by the state. As in Kabul, there is some variety in the security measures:
- The main Shia mosque in Herat city, the Sadeqiya Mosque, has about 30 people guarding congregational prayers and other ceremonies such as during Muharram. They are a mix of the authorised guards, paid and armed by the government, body guards of influential people, including mosque officials, and volunteers paid for by the mosque. These have been guarding the mosque since Muharram last year. An official described how they are on the roof and in and around the mosque so that worshippers can pray inside and safely approach the mosque.
- Kazemiya Mosque, another major mosque inside Herat city, has four authorised guards, along with several volunteer guards and the three bodyguards of the mullah imam, when he is present. Our Herat researcher described the scene:
One of the four guards, who have been registered by the provincial government and provided with Kalashnikovs, told AAN he was on duty from eight in the morning to about 11 at night and could go to home when all the Muharram ceremonies had been fully completed. He sits in a sentry-box located above the entrance to the backyard of the mosque. His Kalashnikov is handy and he constantly monitors the alley leading to the mosque from a small window, keeping a watchful eye on who comes in and who goes out. There are sandbags inside the checkpoint and especially around the small window through which he keeps an eye on the alley.
- A mosque in a village in Guzara district, some 15 kilometres south of Herat city, in a shahrak, has four armed guards. They were introduced by elders, including members of the Community Development Council (CDC) and have received eight to ten weeks of training by the security department of the district administration on military and police affairs (how to use firearms and police duties and conduct). They have been biometrically registered and provided with Kalashnikovs. They stand in and around the mosque when there are congregational prayers and ceremonies such as during Muharram. At other times, they can work elsewhere. There are also dozens of armed volunteers patrolling in the vicinity of the mosque, day and night, checking people moving through the neighbourhood. They are chosen by the community and the board of the mosque and are armed, either by local elders who have Kalashnikovs (some reportedly unregistered) or the young men themselves, influential and well-connected among their peers, have bought simple shotguns from the market in the city. Some are also equipped with walkie-talkies. Unlike the registered guards who wear uniforms, the volunteers are in plain clothes.
On 18 September, provincial government and security officials including the provincial police chief and NDS director met Shia ulema and officials for the third time this Muharram to discuss security measures, the governor’s spokesman, Aref Nuri, told AAN. “There are around 150 mosques and takia khanas in Ghazni city. We have agreed with the Shia representatives that we will support and arm two to five guards for each.” The guards have been selected by the communities, he said, and, as last year, the weapons would be collected again after two months. (In Kabul and Herat, those armed guards have stayed in place.) Nuri said the guards were part of wider security measures:
The Shia communities have identified the people to work in the first protective cordon, those immediately around the mosques who are checking the people coming to the ceremonies. They get salaries for the days they are working. The second protective circle is made up of government security forces and they take care of the surrounding areas, also checking all bridges and roads used by mourners going between mosques.
Nuri said the Shia representatives were themselves restricting movements for the first seven days of Muharram. They were aware that, since the massive Taleban attack on Ghazni in August, many members of the ANSF were busy conducting military operations and there were not enough security forces for inside the city. On the eighth, ninth and tenth days of Muharram, however, crowds of Shia would be going from takia khana to takia khana and from mosque to mosque.
The Shia representatives have also identified three mosques where the provincial authorities will pay special protection guards who will keep their weapons permanently.
In Kandahar, Shia worshippers are relying on the regular police to guard them. One local journalist said it appeared that either police who were Shia or who were very trustworthy had been put on this duty. People had also been asked to hold ceremonies inside and not hold processions.
In Mazar-e Sharif, the security of the Blue Mosque is provided by the ANP from inside the precinct, while Shia mosques and other religious buildings are being guarded by armed members of the community. The numbers of guards will differ from mosque to mosque.
Unlike Kabul, one local observer told AAN, “The government, either national or provincial, did not communicate openly that they have armed local volunteers from the community to provide security for Muharram. “What seems to have happened here is that influential and rich members of the Hazara community provided their armed bodyguards to guard mosques and have additionally provided weapons to community members for their defence.”
People’s responses to the threats
In Herat, the numbers of those participating in Muharram appear to be as high as normal. In the shahrak, there are more ‘camps’ than last year, more ceremonies and a great deal of social mobilisation – not just to ensure security, but also raising money for the ceremonies.
One major religious leader, for example, has gone house to house and shop to shop carrying a big sack, asking people to throw in their contributions, anything from tens to thousands of Afghanis. It is also noticeable that, despite the high emotion and sorrow, for many of the youth, Muharram is also somehow fun. It is an opportunity to gather and socialise in the in the ‘camps’, not only during the day but also throughout the night. For the young men chosen as armed volunteer guards, this is also a mark that they are becoming important, well-regarded people in their neighbourhoods.
Herat, however, has not suffered attacks to the extent Kabul has, which may explain why the numbers of mourners are still high. The series of atrocities in the capital has, most of our interviewees thought, meant some mourners staying away this year. Muhammad Sajjad Yasa at Madrasa Madinat ul-Elm thought there had been a ten per cent drop in numbers, especially for those coming for sina zani. Nezari from the Nabi Akram Mosque in Shahrak-e Omid Sabz also said numbers of mourners were already down last year, but, this year, “had decreased even more significantly.”
As Muharram reaches its climax with Ashura (on Thursday, 20 September) Kabuli Shias gave a variety of responses when asked about the risk of marking Muharram in 2018:
Myself and all my family members have been going to the Muhammadiya Mosque in Qala-ye Musa from the second day of Muharram onwards. The mosque allows both men and women to attend the commemoration during the evening and there is also a women-only commemoration from 9 am to 12 noon. Security measures have been tight this year. Women are searched twice when entering the mosque by searchers, trained, I heard, to use pistols. I recite the kalima (declaration of faith) before setting out.
I always come to this madrassa not only in Muharram, but also for Friday prayers. I am not worried about any attack. All my family members, including my mother, wife and children all attend the Muharram commemoration too. If we are supposed to die, it would happen at home too.
Muhammad Amin, worshipper at Madrasa Madinat ul-Elm
I and the other eight members of his family aren’t going outside for Muharram this year. I have turned my home into a mosque. I have collected a lot of rowza [recital of the tragedies of Karbala] recorded on cassettes and flash disks and given them to my family to listen to at home. [Despite my orders though,] my three sons have crept out to the mosque furtively. I will also go to the commemorations on Tasa’a and Ashura [the ninth and tenth days of Muharram] because Ashura should be kept alive as it is part of our religious creed. If we do not mark Muharram, I fear we might go back to the past, when Muharram was commemorated underground.” (4)
Muhammad Zaman Sufizada, a driver, Dasht-e Barchi
Muharram is very, very dangerous this year. I first marked Muharram as a small boy, taken by my mother to Chandewal, the only place having the ceremonies during Zahir Shah’s time. I have never experienced it so bad in my lifetime. My son is at a camp on the roadside and a volunteer guard. I pray these last few days pass quickly.
Mourner in Taimani, a Kabuli resident since the days of Zaher Shah
(1) Takia khanas are Shia religious buildings used specially for Muharram mourning ceremonies, but also throughout the rest of the year for other gatherings.
(2) In its mid-year report on civilian casualties (see AAN analysis here), UNAMA recorded 366 civilian casualties (115 deaths and 251 injured) in attacks aimed at Shia Muslims, mainly Hazaras, nearly all suicide and complex attacks claimed by ISKP.
(3) The mosque attacks are:
22 November 2016: A bomb exploded during evening prayers in Rezaiya Mosque, in Ghor Darwaz area in the north of Herat city. Four people including the mullah imam were injured.
1 January 2017: An explosion near the Imam Muhammad Baqer Mosque, in Pul-e Bagh-e Zubaida in the Darb-e Iraq area of Herat city. Five people were wounded and one killed.
19 January 2017: A bomb in Abul Fazl Mosque, in the Jebraeel area in the Police District 13 of Herat city, destroyed much of the mosque. No deaths or injuries
11 April 2017: An explosion near the Saheb-ul-Zaman Mosque, in the Police District 7 of Herat city. One person killed and two injured.
6 June 2017: A blast during a funeral near the northern gate of the Great Mosque, Herat’s ancient mosque situated near the Office of the Provincial Police Chief in the city centre. At least seven people killed and 16 injured including several influential Shia clerics.
1 August 2017: So far the worst attack in Herat. Two suicide bombers stormed a fully-packed Jawadiya Mosque, in the Bekrabad neighbourhood of Herat city, during evening prayer. At least 34 people were killed and dozens injured.
5 March 2018: Two suicide bombers attacked Nabi Akram Mosque, in the Bazar-e Lelami area in downtown Herat. One person killed and eight others injured.
(4) Speaking to older Shia Kabulis, they recalled Muharram being commemorated inside during Zahir Shah and Daoud Khan’s time. One remembered Zahir Shah attending a ceremony in Chandewal. At that time, one said, there were relatively few Hazaras in Kabul and they tended to be among the poorest of the city’s residents so ceremonies were limited. During the PDPA, one interviewee remembered commemorations being held openly and also some processions.
After the civil war broke out in 1992, one resident said it depended where you lived. In the west of the city, in areas controlled by Hezb-e Wahdat if they were also relatively safe from rocket attack, such as Dasht-e Barchi, the ceremonies were big and public. Elsewhere, either the fear of rocket attack or the fact that Shias were living in areas controlled by other factions meant ceremonies were difficult to hold.
Under the Taleban, indoor mourning ceremonies were allowed and some Taleban officals attended (as Zahir Shah had done) (see reporting here). In 2000, bans on flagellation and chest-beating were lifted, with permission to carry out them out given by Mullah Omar (delivered in Kabul, at least, in a letter given to Sufi Gardezi, a Shia commander with the Taleban).
The camps, banners and very public commemorations are a post-2001 phenomenon.
For a longer, historical view on sectarianism – or the lack of it – in Afghanistan, see this AAN dispatch, written in the wake of the 6 December 2011 Ashura attacks, what we called “a new type of violence” in Afghanistan.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020