Attacks on Shia Hazaras deepens ethnic and religious schisms
by RUCHI KUMAR
Most of the structure of the mosque still stands intact, and from the outside one can even see the intricate mosaic designs, in Persian styling, made with blue-and-white, hand-painted tiles, on the large dome structure.
But if one were to look closely, they would notice that many windows have only shards of glass around broken wooden panes. There are cracks on the walls and in some parts, the paint and plaster has peeled away, as though melted with strong fire.
This because the Baqir-ul-uloom mosque, as its known, in central Kabul was attacked by a suicide bomber in late November 2016 — third such attack on a Shia mosque in three months. Sixty-two young and old men lost their lives, and more than a hundred men and women were injured. Among the dead were several children, some as young as four years old.
All the attacks have been claimed by Islamic State, which is fast putting down roots in Afghanistan.
“They want to kill the Shias, but at least nine people who died here and 16 among the injured were Sunnis,” says 33-year-old survivor Haji Ali Waizi, pointing to the large photographs of those martyred in the attack.
The attack took place during a religious ceremony for the Shias. But since the mosque is located in a largely Sunni-populated area, there were a lot of Sunnis in the attendance as well, Waizi explains, while seated on a broken wooden chair close to the very spot where the young bomber exploded his bomb, leaving behind a carnage and bloodshed.
The diverse nature of the casualties notwithstanding, fact remains that ISIS is working with a very distinct anti-Shia terror model in Afghanistan. The last five months were witness to three deadly attacks in Kabul alone, targeting not only the Shia religious sites but also civil gatherings of members of the Hazara community, a predominantly Shia ethnic group in Afghanistan.
According to Human Rights Watch, the attacks have inflicted more than 500 casualties in the Shia community.
In a country that is still reeling from decades for war, the popular narrative around increased Islamic State activity has been that the insurgent group has caused — and is attempting to further increase — the sectarian rift between Shias and Sunnis in Afghanistan.
“We were living in unity and harmony here,” Waizi says. “Shia-Sunni conflict was never a matter of conflict in Afghanistan. If anything, we were an example of sectarian unity, and this is what the Daesh want to attack,” he reasons, using a slang term for ISIS.
But despite Waizi’s firm belief that sectarian conflict is fairly new to Afghanistan, ethnic dispute — which has some roots in sectarian as well as tribal conflict — has been around in country for decades, even centuries.
Differences in ethnic groups in Afghanistan have existed since the late 1800s, since the times of Abdur Rahman Khan, also known as the Iron Amir, who taxed Shias and even threatened them with death for refusing to convert to Sunni Islam — a lesser-known Afghan civil war in 1891 that’s also known as the Hazara insurrection.
“In the later years, during the Taliban, its soldiers went door to door in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in 1998, identifying Shias and Hazaras and killing thousands,” explains Ahmad Shuja, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Shuja points to an HRW report documenting crimes committed by then-Taliban governor of Balkh province, Mullah Mannan Niazi, who went mosque to mosque and asked people to convert or face death.
Stories of Taliban’s mistreatment of the Hazara community, a group that largely identifies as Shias, are common — as are tales of ethnic rivalries that existed before, during and after the Taliban.
“I actually doubt that the sectarian divide has increased as a result of Daesh violence in Afghanistan,” says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network. Ruttig emphasiszes the difference between the phrases “sectarian divide” — which exists — and “sectarian conflict,” which doesn’t.
“What I see is that Daesh has been trying to to exploit the existing divide, which, at least in the past 15 years, did not lead to any significant Sunni-Shia violence.”
“So far, both communities have not reacted in the way Daesh apparently wishes them to — by starting to hit back, as it has been the case in Syria and Iraq, so there seems to be some resilience,” Ruttig continues.
“The Daesh onslaught has raised awareness over the need for Afghans of all backgrounds to come together against ultra-terrorism, but I would not go that far to state the country has been “united” by this. There are too many old grievances, bolstered by institutionalized impunity over past crimes that are dangerous.”
Shuja says he agrees. “Daesh has tried to position itself as the defender of the rights of the Sunnis, which is why many believe they’ve attacked Shias in Syria and Iraq.”
“Their attacks in Afghanistan may not inspire sectarian violence between Afghan Shias and Sunnis today, but as the experience of Shia-Hazaras in Pakistan shows, unless the tide of these attacks is stemmed, this one-sided attack against the Shia community risks becoming another bloody layer in the middle of all other carnage and bloodbath in Afghanistan.”
That the sectarian divide has always existed — and is formalized in society in some form — was recently highlighted by Afghan parliamentarian Hafiz Masoor, who alleged that the school and university textbooks in Kabul and several provinces promoted a Shia-Sunni divide.
He has asked for the ministries of education, cultures and religion to investigate and reform the syllabus wherever necessary.
Waizi, who says he agrees with Masoor’s demand to investigate and reform education, believes that the ethnic divide affects sectarian divisions in Afghanistan. “Of course, there has been periods of extreme divide between all ethnic groups, including Hazaras — who are mostly Shias — and Pashtuns and Tajiks, who are largely Sunnis,” Waizi points out. “Their textbooks teach them to kill Shias for an assured place in paradise.”
Interestingly, the Taliban has been very vocal in its condemnation of these increased attacks on Shia groups in Afghanistan. The group has begun to portray itself as a force for unity in Afghanistan, despite its own history of encouraging and participating in ethnic rife during its rule — and even after.
“The Taliban have changed their policy towards [the Shia] Hazaras,” Ruttig says. “Perhaps they understand now that they cannot alienate a large community, if they ever want to rule the country again. It also plays in their favour that, in comparison, they seem less radical than Daesh.”
However, it seems it will take more than verbal condemnation of ISIS for the Taliban to gain any popularity among the masses — especially the Hazaras, who have yet to forgive the Taliban for its recent crimes.
“I don’t understand what they are condemning,” says Waizi, who recalls the days when the Taliban were in power. “They massacred so many Hazaras and Tajiks and other groups of people who disagreed with them. They left a trail of bloodshed in every village they captured. They cannot be trusted.”
Shuja says he concurs. “We at Human Rights Watch are not convinced that the Taliban are now the protectors of human rights because their actions on the ground speak otherwise.”
Considering its history of systematic exploitation of Afghanistan’s ethic divide, the Taliban continues to be just as much of a threat to minority groups as ISIS is. “Of course, the element of ‘newness’ and the nature of their atrocities seem to create a fear that Daesh is bigger than the real threat, the Taliban, who remain a strong force,” Ruttig warns, adding that the methods used by Islamic States have also been applied by the Taliban in the past.
In fact, the Taliban has not shown any remorse for its bloody history of war crimes against minority communities. Instead, the group continues to refer to its time in power — with all its atrocities — as a form of government worth restoring.
Amid the public hostility toward the Taliban, there’s an increasing awareness of the threat that ISIS poses to Afghanistan’s already delicate social fabric, as the militant group attempts to wedge itself in existing ethnic rifts. “Sure, we are united, but this is obviously not the last attack against Shias in Afghanistan,” Waizi says.
Having survived one attack, he — like many Shia Hazaras — says he feels vulnerable. “In west Kabul alone, there are nearly 2,000 religious, cultural and social centers that are frequented by Hazaras,” he points out. “Unless the government takes serious steps to protect these places, the Daesh will keep attacking the unity of Afghans — Shias and Sunnis alike — ‘til it breaks.”