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Afghanistan’s Shia anxious in face of Taliban takeover

Four months before seizing Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, the Taliban put out a propaganda video targeting an unlikely audience: the country’s Shia minority, particularly its highly-persecuted Hazara community, long treated as outsiders in their own country.

Hazaras — popularly believed to descend from the 13th century warrior Genghis Khan and his Mongol troops — faced intense persecution during Afghanistan’s previous rule by the Taliban, who are ethnic Pashtuns and hardline Sunnis who do not consider Shias to be true Muslims.

But the outreach video released in April on al-Emarah — the Taliban news agency — made no mention of this bloody history. Instead, Shia cleric Mawlawi Mahdi Mujahid, a rare ethnic Hazara Taliban member, urged his Shia co-religionists — who officials say count for 15 per cent of the 38 million Afghan population though some Shia say the figure is greater — to join the struggle against “invaders led by America”.

The call was part of a broad campaign intended to reassure skittish Afghan Shias — and neighbouring Iran, a Shia theocracy — they had no reason to fear a Taliban return to power, as they sought to secure international legitimacy for their movement.

A Hazara boy flies a kite near the site of the giant Buddha statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, in Bamiyan provinc © Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Yet with the Taliban now forming the government, most Shias are anxious about their prospects, haunted by memories of past persecution, and sceptical about the Taliban’s promises of a new tolerance.

“The Taliban want to portray themselves as leaders of the entire Afghanistan — not just Sunnis, but also Shias,” Said Sabir Ibrahimi, a non-resident fellow at New York University’s Centre for International Cooperation told the FT.

 “They have been telling the world, ‘we are not against the Shia, they are welcome to live in Afghanistan, they are our compatriots,’” Ibrahimi said. “The reality is that the Shias are scared of the Taliban and cannot trust them. If your theology is against the Shia existence, you are going to systematically discriminate against Shias when you are in power.”

‘Soldiers get carried away’

A Pakistan-based Shia cleric told the FT the Taliban are “giving all the right messages and telling Shias of Afghanistan that they mean no harm to us. The problem is down the line, their [Taliban] soldiers get carried away.”

Hostilities between Afghanistan’s dominant Pashtun community — around 40 per cent of the population — and Hazaras go back to the 19th century, when a ruthless Pashtun king ordered the killing and enslavement of Hazaras for revolting against his rule.

During the Taliban’s previous stint in power from 1996 to 2001, human rights groups documented three large-scale massacres of Hazara civilians, including in 1998 in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where Human Rights Watch said scores, if not hundreds, of Hazara men were summarily executed.

Violent attacks against Hazaras continued even after the Taliban were dislodged from Kabul, with commuters travelling between Hazara-dominated Bamiyan and Kabul, often pulled from buses and killed. Hazaras were also targeted in a string of other attacks blamed on radical Islamist forces.

Tehran seeks assurances

But as the US withdrawal got closer, Taliban leaders sought to reassure Shias at home and abroad that the group’s impulses had moderated. In July, Taliban leaders visited Tehran, where analysts and regional officials say the Iranian government extracted promises of safety for Shias and ethnic minority Tajiks.

““If the Taliban starts killing Shias, it will lead to a civil war and Iran will have no other choice but to get involved in an unwanted conflict,” said a professor of international relations at a university in Tehran.

Afghan refugees  living in Indonesia hold posters during a rally outside the building that houses UNHCR representative office in Jakarta
Afghan refugees, mostly members of the Hazara ethnic minority, hold posters during a rally outside the building that houses the UNHCR representative office in Jakarta, Indonesia, this week. © Tatan Syuflana/AP

Shias did hold religious ceremonies for Ashura — a day of mourning that commemorates the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson — unhindered last week, with some Taliban fighters even visiting Shia mosques in what was portrayed as a gesture of solidarity.

But many Shias remain apprehensive, fearing the Taliban’s current claims of tolerance just a tactical manouver to secure international recognition — and will quickly fade once they consolidate their hold over the country.

“The Taliban’s anti-Shia hatred is deep-rooted which cannot disappear overnight,” Javad, a young Shia Hazara from Bamiyan, told the FT. “They have been educated in Pakistani schools and believe Shias are infidels who must be killed.”

He also warned that renewed civil war would be inevitable if the Taliban promises of tolerance are not honoured. “Shias will not accept the Taliban’s unjust ruling and bullying,” he said. 

Anxiety has been further stoked by reported atrocities against Hazara civilians as the Taliban pressed their offensive earlier this summer, including after an assault on Ghazni. Amnesty International last week accused Taliban fighters of massacring nine ethnic Hazara men in July, amid the battle for the city.

‘Difficult days for Shias’

A 27-year-old Shia Hazara construction engineer from Herat who fled to Iran shortly before the Taliban takeover, said the Taliban failed to honour many of its past commitments, including a pledge not to persecute Shias, and a promise not to kill Iranian diplomats in Taliban-held Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998.

It was hard to know how Shias in remote provinces are faring, because of the lack of journalists to report about conditions on the ground, he said.

“There is no record that the Taliban can hold on to their promises,” he said. “Very difficult days for Shias lie ahead.”

Analysts also agree Taliban’s leaders may struggle to ensure their ground forces adhere to their promises of not persecuting religious and ethnic minorities long reviled in the Taliban ideology and theology.

 ““Even if you provide all these assurances you are going to be kind and treat them as equals, its really hard for it to materialise,” Ibrahimi said. “It’s not even a question of trust. I don’t know if they have the ability to fulfil these promises.”

A Pakistani official concurred. “They are not an organised army,” the official said. “Some of the foot soldiers are in danger of doing things that their leaders ordered in the 90s, without realising that the thinking of the [Taliban] leadership has changed”.

 


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