The Muharram commemorations late last year were observed under fear of renewed terrorist attacks. This was due to last year’s first-of-its-kind suicide attack on an Ashura procession in Kabul (Ashura being a major religious event observed by Shia Muslims) that killed about 80 people, and for which a Pakistan-based anti-Shia militant outfit, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Al(a)mi, claimed responsibility; the same group is involved in attacks on Shias in that country. But the 2012 Muharram passed largely peacefully thanks to the high-alert security arrangements by the Afghan National Security Forces. Two suicide bombers intent on targeting Ashura gatherings were arrested two days before the event. The only earlier significant post-2011 incident of inter-sectarian violence happened in February 2006 when five people were killed and several injured in Herat province during a clash between Sunnis and Shias while an Ashura procession was passing through the city.
However, what went widely underreported in Afghanistan as a minor incident was a clash at Kabul University on the eve of Ashura during which one student was killed and about 30 were injured. Local and foreign media outlets sketched a picture of a quarrel between some Sunni and Shia students over the issue of observing Ashura at the university’s dormitory mosque, thus shaping an ill-informed and divided public opinion (on its best display on social media, taking a slightly sectarian turn among ordinary Afghans both Sunni and Shia), while the secular intellectual and elite class questioned why a religious ceremony like Ashura should be held at a university at all.
If one talks to students at Kabul University, it appears that the clash was not a minor sectarian confrontation among them. What has gone unreported in the media is the involvement of some radical elements with links to Hezb-ut-Tahrir (HuT, Liberation Party), also known as ‘the Salafi group’ in the dormitory of Kabul University. Some students told me that, during dormitory meetings about the event, HuT activists were staunchly opposing the Ashura commemoration. And during the clashes, two Shia students were thrown out the window from the fourth floor with slogans of takfir – in which one Muslim declares another Muslim apostate.
Hezb-ut-Tahrir is a neo-Salafist, pan-Islamist, transnational political organisation banned in many countries including Germany, Russia, the Central Asian republics, Turkey, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It advocates for a return to the Caliphate system, unifying all Muslim countries in an Islamic state under Shariah law, but advocates using only peaceful means in this struggle. Founded in 1953 in Jerusalem by the Palestinian Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, this secretive organisation is not only active in Arab countries, but has large followings in Central Asia, particularly in our neighbouring countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Pakistani authorities maintain that the organisation has also penetrated that country’s army: last August, five officers – one brigadier and four majors – were court martialled for links with HuT after an alleged plot to bomb the Pakistan Army’s headquarters with an F-16 jet and take over the government was foiled.
When exactly HuT-Afghanistan was established and the exact number of its members or sympathisers is unknown. The group came to notice during the 2009 parliamentary elections, when Afghan police arrested more than 40 of its members from mosques and other public places in July during their campaign that called the participation in elections haram (forbidden/sinful), that asked Afghans to stand up for the reestablishment of Khilafat and that denounced the kufr (unbelievers’) democracy system. In July 2010, some Afghan journalists and activists were invited to a conference by HuT in Beirut, Lebanon. They were not granted visas. Around the same time, the chairman of Afghanistan’s National Security Council, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, accused Pakistan of failing to take action against radical groups, and mentioned HuT among them.
Emboldened by the rise of Salafis in the Middle East, from Tunisia and Libya to Egypt in the ‘Arab Spring’, HuT-Afghanistan has increased activities in recent months, particularly in madrassas and universities throughout Afghanistan. The group claims to be active in many provinces. Building on the current trend of growing neo-radicalism in Afghanistan, the neo-Salafis of HuT appear to be focussing their recruitment drive on educational institutes and government circles, including civilian and military officials. That, at least, has become visible in Pakistan.
The party holds regular protest demonstrations against the US, NATO, Israel and ‘Western imperialism’ outside Kabul and Jalalabad Universities, as they did last September. It seems that HuT members do not mention the party’s name if they talk with media. But HuT flags were visible during protests outside Kabul and Jalalabad Universities, particularly during Quran burnings and anti-Islam film demonstrations in February and September last year. At Kabul University, the group is active, with hard core members in the Shariah Department.
In April last year, HuT held its first public conference, on the fight against corruption, in Kabul. It was attended by a few hundred people. HuT officials and activists called for the return of the Caliphate, presented as the solution for all ‘problems of Muslim Ummah’, and denounced the current constitution of Afghanistan and the democratic system of government as kufr (a Video link here). In the east, Jalalabad University has become a hub of their activists, with regular protests against ISAF and the government blocking Kabul-Jalalabad highway.
On 20 November last year, HuT staged its first demonstration in front of Takhar University in northern Afghanistan, where the group is seeking to expand its reach and influence after successful recruitment campaigns in eastern and western Afghanistan. It seems a low-profile media presence is its tactic until it has a larger following, to avoid government attention and crackdown. Its official black and white flag, the banner of Khilafah, as followers call it, makes the group visible in these demonstrations. To alert local officials of HuT’s growing influence, the National Directorate of Security wrote a note to the governor of Badakhshan in October 2012 warning him that the local university and schools were becoming ‘HuT academies’.
Though HuT claims to be a non-violent political organisation, in a demonstration outside Kabul University on 16 September 2012, its members were chanting praises of the ‘Libyan mujahedin for killing the US ambassador’. Even if not directly involved in any organised violence, HuT admires the Taleban’s and Hezb-e Islami’s insurgencies against ISAF and the Afghan security forces. As a result, only a thin line remains between HuT’s admiration for organised violence and its participation in it. Its pledge of non-violence appears to be a cover to avoid a government crackdown. In my view, its rejectionist and exclusive takfiri ideology will inevitably lead to violence in years ahead. Although the Afghan government still needs to conduct a thorough investigation of the Ashura clash and the HuT involvement officially established, Muhammad Ismail of Kabul University’s Information Technology Department may have become the first victim of HuT-incited violence in Afghanistan.
Kabul University has been the birthplace of earlier fundamentalist movements, the first one being the Muslim Youth (Jawanan-e Muslimin). Many of its leaders were inspired by the Muslim brotherhood, either directly when studying at al-Azhar in Cairo or indirectly, and many of them became mujahedin leaders and warlords.
With its demands of re-establishing the Caliphate and bringing all Muslim countries under one state, HuT’s ideology is different and more radical than that of Hezb-e Islami, Ustad Sayyaf’s Dawat-e Islami (which became Afghanistan’s first Salafi mujahedin group in the 1980s) and, even that of the Taleban’s insurgent Salafism. HuT could gain attraction among a new generation of Afghans – particularly youth at universities who have grown up under the civil war, tanzimi and Taliban rule and who are weary of the current vast corruption, huge unemployment and ethnic factionalism. (Hezb-ut-Tahrir does not claim to be exclusively Sunni, although it opposes some Shia rituals.)
Simultaneously, seeds of another Salafi brand, Saudi-inspired wahhabism, are being sown in Kabul, with the construction of a grand Islamic Centre to be built by Saudi Arabia with a cost of more than USD 100 million. The agreement signed last year in Jeddah says it will be run by the Saudi and Afghan ministries for religious affairs, unlike other educational institutes and universities, which are run and monitored by the Ministry of Education.
The Saudi project rivals Iran’s, a grand Shia madrasa in the western part of Kabul, the Khatm ul-Nabi’in Islamic University. The latter has cost more than USD 17 million and is run by an Afghan Shia cleric, Sheikh Asef Mohseni. Mohseni has close links to Tehran and reportedly is a member of a commission that supports religious outfits in the region and which is headed by Ali Akbar Welayati, a former Iranian foreign minister and current advisor to their Supreme Leader. Mohseni also runs his own TV channel in Kabul, Tamadon. In an interview with Radio Free Europe, he said that both Shia and Sunni students were enrolled at the centre.
The strength of Afghan society’s religious pluralism and harmony is that Muharram and Ashura have been a cultural commemoration observed by both Sunnis and Shias. This has saved us from drifting into violent sectarianism. But the increasing Iranianisation of Shia religious festivities in Afghanistan, their monopolization by Qom-trained pro-Iran clerics like Mohseni, is changing that atmosphere, giving it a political color. Recently, new rituals have been imported and are becoming more common in Ashura commemorations, like the self-flagellation with blades (zanjir-zani). However, what has particularly raised public sensitivity among Sunni Afghans is that Iranian traditions have come to Kabul: the traditions of covering the streets with black cloths and colorful banners as well as playing noha – mourning recitations – at high volume over loudspeakers during the first ten days of Muharram. My observation is that the display of Muharram banners on the streets in Kabul is carried out in an organized way. This indicates considerable financial support by an active group. Friends tell me it is funded from Tehran.
Recently, Afghan government officials have been alerted to and are expressing concerns over the increasing sectarian sensitivities among ordinary Afghans about these public displays. Abdulhaq Da’i, Deputy Minister for Hajj and Auqaf, talking to BBC Persian said, ‘we have objections to the over-display in these celebrations and the issue needs to be discussed with Shia ulema.’ A Sunni mulla, MP Maulawi Abdul Rahman said, ‘It’s the Iranian way. [But the] over-display of rituals causes more sensitivity that leads to disunity’. At the same time they ignore the main source of growing disunity, the Saudi-Iranian competition for ideological influence, and unconditionally agree to its manifestation: each country’s grand mosque project.
Afghan leaders have to take firm steps to stop the growth of neo-radical groups, whether neo-Salafi or Iran-inspired. They urgently need to focus on these first stirrings of the dangerous rise of sectarianism. In Pakistan it started with similar signals and ended up causing extreme religious polarization that resulted in a long chain of bloodshed and which has undermined sectarian harmony for more than three decades now.(3) The Afghan government and parliament, in consultation with ulema, need to move towards legislation banning the practice of takfir and take gradual steps towards developing broader legislation towards a more pluralistic society. Though the public display of religious observance is its constitutional right, the Shia religious leadership in Kabul needs to realize the increasing sensitivities in society. A better approach would be to observe Ashura and other such celebrations only within Shia neighborhoods of urban centers. Afghanistan must not be allowed to drift into the full-scale sectarianism displayed in Pakistan and emerging in a growing number of Middle Eastern countries. The government must strictly monitor the results of foreign ideological rivalry played out on Afghan soil if we are to become a civic nation state with peace and prosperity. Otherwise, a bloody sectarian ideological war will mark the new era of an already conflict-ridden country.
In recent history, Afghanistan has been a pluralistic religious society where politics and conflicts have been ideological and ethnic, rather than sectarian. It was in the late 19th century, when internal Afghan conflicts took on an ethno-sectarian color for the first time. Then, King Abdur Rahman Khan (ruled 1883–1902), in his campaign to bring semi-autonomous regions under Kabul’s control, launched a war against the Hazaras, who make up Afghanistan’s third largest ethnic group and most of its Shia population. He gathered an army of tribal volunteers from today’s Afghan-Pakistani border region. Using sectarian slogans, and through a Fatwa by his royal ulema that declared the Shias ‘infidel’, hundreds of thousands were killed and others forced to abandon their villages and take refuge in neighbouring countries. He also launched a war against the small non-Muslim Kalash people living in today’s Nuristan province, forcing them to convert to Islam en masse and imposing Nuristani as their official ethnonym.
The second time in Afghan history we witnessed widespread bloodshed on an ethno-sectarian basis was during the Taliban rule. They had not only banned Ashura processions but also systematically killed thousands of Hazaras in a number of massacres (like in Mazar-e Sharif in 1988, Yakaolang in January 2001 and at the Robatak Pass in Samangan in May 2001). In his notorious sermon in Mazar in October 1998, Taliban commander and provincial governor Mulla Manan Niazi warned the Hazaras to either convert to Hanafi Sunni Islam or face the consequences. Following that sermon, thousands were killed in a few days in Mazar. However, the current insurgency has avoided sectarian attacks.