Context & Culture

The Killing of Farkhunda (1): The physical environment and the social types party to her murder


Where Farkhunda died: the square in front of the Shah-e Du Shamshira mosque in Kabul's old city. The shrine by the same name that Farkhunda visited to criticise the amulet sellers is right across the street. Photo: Naheed Esar

40 days after the violent killing of Farkhunda, supporters gathered on Monday, 27 April 2015, to mourn and protest her death. Afghan public opinion has now reached a broad consensus over the unprecedented gravity of this murder. Yet, many questions remain as to what triggered the killing and how it was possible for such a terrible incident to take place in central Kabul at the hands of what looked to be otherwise law-abiding and ‘normal’ citizens. In the first of two dispatches on the murder of Farkhunda, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini and Naheed Esar have been looking at the specifics of the social environment where she met her death and exploring some of the social types who were possibly party to her murder, from the amulet sellers and beggars, whose economic interests revolve around shrines such as that of Shah-e Du Shamshira where the murder took place, to the petty criminals and police of that part of the city, Police District (PD) 2.

A second dispatch by AAN’s Borhan Osman will look at the responses of civil society and the ulama and how a polarisation emerged over how each interpreted the murder; this, he will argue, has complicated chances for a much-needed internal debate among Afghanistan’s clergy.

At the traditional 40-day ceremony, marked all over the Muslim world to mourn a death, those protesting Farkhunda’s murder re-enacted her killing. The dramatised scenes, the beating and burning were painful to those watching – many were in tears – and were later relayed on television news reports. The Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine was closed after the murder, but the messages of condolences and the images of the dead Islamic studies student left by the protesters have turned the place into a new shrine. The area is now calm, but passers-by told AAN an uneasiness remains and they now fear to pass down the road where Farkhunda was murdered.

With the many unsettling issues connected to the killing of Farkhunda, considerations about the place where it happened have generally been sidelined. But geography was and is important in this killing. The area of the incident, Shah-e Du Shamshira and the Kabul riverbanks beside it, are places everybody knows and that many people have to pass when crossing the city. If such a terrible murder had happened in some remote province, or in the outskirts of the city, it would not have been any less grave or atrocious. However, the shrine where everything started and the riverside where her mangled body was finally burned and discarded, lie at the very centre of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan and are arguably perceived as the safest, most controlled and ‘civilised’ part of Afghanistan.

A central place in downtown Kabul

The spot where the incident happened can truly be termed the heart of Kabul. Administratively in urban district number and police station number two, the Shah-e Du Shamshira complex, with mosque and shrine, stands on the left bank of the Kabul river, at the junction of the Old City and the new residential and administrative expansions beyond the river. The latter symbolised the transformation of Afghanistan into a modern state in the late 19th century. Located at the western entrance of the characteristic riverside quays, which form one of Kabul’s most recognisable icons, the Shah-e Du Shamshira is also oriented towards West Kabul through Jada-ye Asmai, the road which crosses the narrow Kabul river gorge and skirts just behind the complex.

Many of the historical and social landmarks of Kabul surround the mosque or are in plain view of it: the mausoleum of Timur Shah, the sovereign who made Kabul the capital of the Afghan kingdom towards the end of the 18th century; Lycee Aisha Durrani, built in the 1920s as one of the European (in this case German) high schools wanted by King Amanullah to modernise education and still the largest girls school in the country; Pamir Cinema, one of the first cinemas to open in Afghanistan in the relatively peaceful mid-20th century, and the Central Polyclinic hospital established by the communist government in 1985.

The area hosts numerous other landmarks, from the National Gallery to the Turko-Afghan Technical Institute, but it is the National Bus Company Central Station close by that influences its human geography most. The square in front of the Shah-e Du Shamshira mosque and the riverside lane to the south of it have become a single transportation hub crowded by taxis, minivans and buses connecting the Old City with other areas of Kabul and the city with the provinces. Thousands of travellers transit through the area every day, and an adequate deployment of street hawkers, food sellers and pickpockets are ready to meet them.

The area was heavily damaged during the civil war in the 1990s, leading many residents to leave, while reconstruction in recent years has been rather selective. The Old City of Kabul proved less attractive than other areas for private investors, split as it is between key government facilities in the flat patches of ground along the riverside and the poor mud-house settlement on the hill slopes to the north and south of it. Although some new residential and commercial buildings have arisen, the area’s former social fabric has not been fully reconstituted. Rather, impoverished immigrants from outside Kabul have replaced many of the original residents.

The mosque of Shah-e Du Shamshira, a shapely square building showing mixed Ottoman ‘Belle Epoque’ and Italian baroque influences and abutting the riverbank, dates from Amanullah’s time. It was Olya Hazrat, the king’s mother, who commissioned the new building on the site of a smaller Mughal-era mosque and inaugurated it, as a votive offering (offered in fulfilment of a vow) for the quelling of the Khost Rebellion in 1925.

If the mosque itself is a favourite spot for Kabulis to go and pray, there is another part of the religious complex that attracts visitors from even farther away. Right across the street, the namesake ziarat (shrine) of Shah-e Du Shamshira stands in memory of the heroic death of an unnamed ghazi, a Muslim warrior, said to have kept wielding his two swords against the infidels, even after his head had been severed by a blow as he fought against the Hindu-Shahi dynasty which ruled Kabul at the time of the Ghaznavid conquest in the 10th century. Inside this highly revered shrine, frequented by visitors to the mosque and people in search of blessings, a number of beggars and amulet-sellers can be found. It was this practice, the selling of amulets, which brought Farkhunda into confrontation with the keepers of the shrine on the day of her murder.

Selling blessings in the shrine

Amulets (tawiz) have a long history in Afghanistan. They can be found all over Afghanistan, most commonly in the form of written pieces of paper and worn on the body of the person it is meant to benefit. They can be different in form and size; some are square, some rectangular and some roundish; they can be made from fabric or metal or be in the form of crystals or gems. Tawiz are often used in the belief that they heal or protect from illness, or solve a person’s problems in life – typically related to love affairs or the wish for offspring, particularly male offspring. However, more recently, the range of wishes has expanded to new topics, from passing the university kankur entry exam to getting a foreign visa. Women are the most frequent, though not the sole users of tawiz: they carry them in the form of a bracelet, necklace, pinned to their clothes, or hidden in houses and cars. They can cost anything from 100 Afghani (two dollars) to 15,000 Afghani (300 dollars).

The status in society of those who write amulets is presently unclear. Traditionally, also in the context of the presence of popular devotional practices centred around persons claiming descent from the family of the Prophet or from Sufi saints, some of them used to be quite prominent and respected as ulama (read a previous AAN piece here). Today, with changing social patterns and religious practices, due to some degree of modernisation at least in the urban centres, amulet-writers are being slowly pushed to the fringes of society.

According to Afghan scholar Abdul Zahir Dayi, the origin of the amulet-writing tradition in Afghanistan was Hinduism and Judaism (see here). Islamic scholars have contradicting views about the status of tawiz in Islam. Some divide amulets into two kinds, those with Quranic verses and those without. Tawiz without Quranic verses are largely considered haram (sinful), while amulets containing Quranic chapters are permissible according to some scholars. The Wahabis, on the other hand, believe that all tawiz are un-Islamic, primarily because there is no mention of them in the Quran or Hadith (see here). The latter attitude seems to have been shared by Farkhunda. A friend of hers whom AAN spoke to during the 40-day commemoration at the location of the murder on Monday said that “for about the past three years [Farkhunda] had regularly gone to the shrine of Shah-e Du Shamshira” to try to convince the amulet writers to desist from what she considered an un-Islamic practice.

Selling other things in the shadow of the shrine

The Old City of Kabul is definitely not ‘uptown.’ Despite the area being frequented by many people for shopping, it is not regarded as the safest. Crime rates are rather high, and while the security forces keep tight control of the area against possible insurgent attacks because of the many potential targets in it, they are not much concerned about repressing common criminality, according to a security analyst working for an independent organisation.

In the immediate post-2001 period, Kabul’s police districts were taken over and staffed by the military victors – different commanders belonging to Jamiat-e Islami/Shura-ye Nazar and Ittihad-e Islami factions of the Northern Alliance. Enjoying the support of heavyweights like the first post-Taleban interior minister, Yusuf Qanuni, or the first defence minister, Qasim Fahim, they managed to withstand foreign-sponsored reforms for quite a while. Eventually, the commanders had to give up their posts. However, their men have largely remained in place. The majority of the policemen there have been assigned to the area for a decade now and have resisted all attempts to transfer them. According to a Ministry of Interior officer interviewed by AAN, policemen have developed a strong attachment to their posts of duty in Police District (PD) 2, an area that is eminently commercial and offers additional income by levying protection money from shopkeepers and other businessmen in exchange for turning a blind eye on irregularities.

This part of the city is thus a hotspot of petty criminal activities. The massive presence of shoppers and travellers from outside the city draws groups of thieves from the settlement above the area, Deh Afghanan. The partially dry riverbed has also become the abode of drug addicts in recent years and their number has grown considerably, making it second only to Pul-e Sukhta area (see AAN report here). Large amounts of narcotics are thus brought to the area and pass from traffickers, often via shopkeepers for whom it is a side activity, to retail sellers who sell it to those on the riverbed. According to a social worker once engaged in a program to help widows in the area, the amulet sellers and some of the beggars in the shrine are also rumoured to be accomplices in the smuggling and safe-keeping of drugs there. Even the presence of a prostitution ring run from the shrine has been hinted at by the police, who have now temporarily closed the place down.

Together with the amulet-sellers, there are also many gadagaran, beggars, mostly female, within the ziarat enclosure. They can be roughly divided into two categories: those who regularly frequent the shrine and those who come only for religious festivals or during the days preceding them. On such occasions, wealthy merchants and businessmen visit the ziarat and are expected to give alms to the shrine and the assembled beggars. The right to ask for alms inside the shrine is sold – with the involvement of police and shrine staff, as on such occasions, high profits can be made – reportedly for as much as 30,000 Afghanis (600 dollars) in months with such religious celebrations. Some of the beggars at the shrine are said to work in close partnership with the amulet sellers as well.

A widow who often begs for alms inside the shrine told AAN that Farkhunda had had arguments with the amulet sellers in the past.  Another woman, Latifa, a visitor to the shrine and a former customer of Zainuddin, the shrine attendant who would later be accused of having initiated the false accusation that Farkhunda had burned a copy of the Quran, also said she had seen Farkhunda in the shrine on other occasions. “Farkhunda would debate the ‘sin’ of tawiz in Islam and ask the caretaker of the shrine, Zainuddin, to stop this trade.” Farkhunda had also enjoined female visitors to stop buying tawiz. The amulet sellers’ anger about her interference was shared by some of the female beggars who feared a loss in the ‘business’ tawiz clients bring to their begging grounds. The widow also told AAN the female beggars were among the first to instigate others to kill Farkhunda after shrine caretaker Zainuddin’s initial call for Muslims to “save the Quran.”

This is not to suggest that her killing was planned, although worse conspiracy theories about her death have circulated. But given the links between some of the criminal groups active in the area and those in charge of business inside the ziarat, some of those who took part in killing Farkhunda might have known more precisely what they were doing and had one or two ‘reasons’ for it.

The killers: Zainuddin, Sharaf Baghlani and others

“On Thursday at around 3.30, the voice of the cleric Zainuddin was heard from the front window of Shah-e Du Shamshira, and he called the crowd to punish an American woman who had burned pages of Quran.” This is how a female eyewitness, a frequent visitor to the shrine, recalls the start of the murderous rush which resulted in Farkhunda’s death. Reportedly, Zainuddin further provoked the crowd by saying, “If you are a real Muslim, please come and save the Quran.” Following that, some men gathered around Farkhunda aggressively asking her questions, some of which were: “Are you American? Are you America’s agent? Why did you burn the Noble Quran?

Representatives of the presidential investigative commission later also stated that that it was Zainuddin who first shouted that Farkhunda had burnt the Quran and asked the people to punish her. During the investigation, he admitted he had lied about the Quran-burning.

Another man, Sharaf Baghlani, who is in his thirties and has claimed a connection with the Afghan Forces on his Facebook account (the page has since then been removed), bragged about his role in the killing of Farkhunda. The translated version of the post said: “Salam: today at 4.00 pm, an atheist woman burned the Quran at the Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine. Afterwards, the religious people of Kabul, including myself, killed her. Hell shall be her place.” Baghlani was one of the first suspects to be detained. He had already posted, on 21 March 2015: “I believe in an extra-judicial court system for an un-Islamic country like Afghanistan.” He said, “suicide bombers released by the Afghan government” was one reason why he thought handing over criminals to the state authorities was pointless.

One of the other suspects, a young man in his late twenties, would later say his “religious emotion” was the reason he joined in the killing. Others would later condemn their own actions. One man in his early thirties spontaneously surrendered himself to the police saying his “sleep at night had been extremely disturbed by the anxiety and fear created by his feeling of guilt.”

Those involved in the crime were typically young men in their early 20s to late 30s, many of them ‘modern-attired’, sporting jeans and fashionable clothes. Some of them may have been associated with the drug users or crooks crowding the area, but many more seem to have issued from the mosque, while others might have been shopping in the bazaar along the riverbanks when the turmoil started.

If Zainuddin represents the conservative and self-interested use of religion to cow society into obeisance and Sharaf Baghlani the violent and ruthless face of the vigilante, the majority of people who took part in the killing cannot easily be dismissed as leftovers of Afghanistan’s past of violence and extremism, or as dangerous characters living at the margins of society. Rather, they appear to forebode a new generation having lost its bearings in terms of culture and social behaviour.

No shelter from the mad crowd

With the crowd being this diverse in its motivations, the criminality and degradation in the area we have described and the availability of goons to conduct a killing does not yet explain how a mob of some 400 persons could have gathered for such a long time to lynch one girl. The sheer numbers of the crowd prevented the police from succeeding in their, albeit half-hearted, attempts at rescuing her. It also doomed the efforts made by a few individuals to help Farkhunda and bring their fellow Kabulis to reason. It seems that some bystanders did try, in vain, to help her. AAN talked to a woman who asked a policeman only about ten metres away from Farkhunda to intervene. She said the policeman did not budge and calmly remarked, “Let her be killed. That will be a good lesson to those who insult Islam.”

Some observers have wondered why the gender of the victim did not protect her, given that women are usually at less danger from public (although not domestic) violence in patriarchal Afghanistan. While largely agreeing with this analysis, looking deeper into Afghan ‘traditions’, there is a different approach to gender to be detailed. Afghans can be said to treat women in a more ‘equal’ way than that often imagined by outsiders, meaning the treatment meted out by society to a woman seen as guilty of something is unlikely to be more lenient because of her sex. In the Afghan psyche, the duty to defend a ‘helpless’ women is not linked to some romantic idea of chivalry, but to a very concrete understanding of collective honour and respectability. Women who have not trespassed the boundaries set for their place in society are indeed more protected. However, those who are seen as having transgressed lose their status as women who need to be protected. This might have reduced Farkhunda’s chances of eliciting feelings of pity from the people who were attacking her.

What was also shocking about the killing was not just the behaviour of the mob but also of the people who witnessed it. Many filmed it on their smartphones or joined in to take part briefly in a sort of ‘I was there, too’ attitude. Judging by the images, this social type of the casual onlooker, among them many young shoppers, far outnumbered the actual killers. This is disturbing particularly given the hopes so often placed in young people to bring much needed changes in society and push it forward, away from the scars and ruins of the civil war.

But also most of the remarkable mobilisation witnessed in the days following the murder was initiated by Kabul youth, albeit a different section. These activists have been calling for “justice for Farkhunda”, that is, harsh punishments for her murderers. This attitude may feel reasonable at this stage, but it does not seem sufficiently introspective. This murder needs deeper and harder questions to be asked as to how Kabulis came to murder one of their own in the heart of their city.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture