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Growing Sectarianism Can Challenge Lasting Peace in Afghanistan 

The Taliban’s insistence on the supremacy of Sunni Hanafism has alarmed Afghan Shias who have long been marginalized.

By Said Sabir Ibrahimi for
Growing Sectarianism Can Challenge Lasting Peace in Afghanistan 
Credit: Unsplash

As the peace talks continue between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, the Taliban have resorted to sectarian positioning that has the potential to derail lasting peace in the country.

Last February, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal, two main elements of which are the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the beginning of the intra-Afghan peace talks, which finally started a month ago. 

The process is slow and the Afghans and the international community are anxious for results. The two sides have been discussing a “code of conduct,” or guidelines on how the “real” negotiations should proceed. One of the hurdles is the Taliban’s insistence on using the Sunni Hanafi fiqh (jurisprudence) as “a guide to all aspects of the terms and conditions.” Taliban’s insistence on the supremacy of Sunni Hanafism has alarmed Afghan Shias, who have long been marginalized.

After the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001, the Shias of Afghanistan (mostly ethnic Hazaras) not only gained constitutional rights but also assumed public offices and took up government positions. Shias participated in politics, making their way to the Afghan parliament and several government institutions, including the office of the second vice president under President Hamid Karzai and President Ashraf Ghani. The Shia Personal Status Law became part of the Afghan legal system, allowing Shias to have the freedom to be judged by their own laws – Jafari fiqh. In other words, Afghanistan has worked to achieve legal Shia-Sunni parity, which is now at risk because of sectarian posturing by the Taliban and other groups.

Shias and Sunnis share a common belief in the oneness of god, the holiness of the Quran, and the finality of the prophethood. What set the two apart over a millennia ago was a divergence in their beliefs regarding in the rightful leadership of the “umma” or Muslim community after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad. Afghanistan’s population of 35 million includes an estimated 15 percent Shias.

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Sectarianism has not always been a major social problem in the country in comparison to other Muslim majority countries such as Pakistan. Second Vice President Sarwar Danish, also a Shia leader, said “Shias do not have problems with the Imam Abu Hanifa.” He said that Imam Hanifa established a rationalist and justice-centered school of thought and said “that anyone who prays to Kaaba (in Mecca) is a Muslim.” 

Nevertheless, throughout the history of contemporary Afghanistan, Shias remained marginalized by the state. The first episode of Afghan state anti-Shia policy was executed by King Abdur Rahman Khan, known as the Iron Amir, to subjugate them to his rule. In 1892, Khan had his Ulema Council issue a fatwa denouncing Shias, particularly ethnic Hazaras, as infidels and imposed Hanafi jurisprudence on the Shia population. This led to the large-scale massacre and enslavement of ethnic Hazaras.  

The second major wave of state-sponsored anti-Shi’ism came from the Taliban during their rule in the 1990s. The group banned the public proceedings of Shia rituals during the month of Muharram. While Shias were allowed to practice their faith in their mosques and in private, they lived in fear. The Taliban massacred hundreds of Shia civilians in Daikundi, Bamyan, and Mazar-e-Sharif  – in retaliation for armed Shias’ resistance to the Taliban rule. In 1998, the Taliban governor, Mullah Niazi, in Balkh denounced the sect and asked the Shia population to convert to Sunni Islam or leave Afghanistan.  

As the peace talks are underway, the Taliban’s spokesperson has said that two sectarian schools of thought cannot be implemented in one country. In April, Mullah Fazel Mazloom, a senior Taliban official in Quetta, Pakistan, categorized Shias with infidels. On another occasion, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, a Taliban splinter group commander in Herat, said that Shi’ism is fake. These assertions are alarming and resonate in the Taliban thinking. This is also an indication that extremists would resist coexistence with the Shias in Afghanistan. At the very least, these extremist views will keep the fire of sectarianism burning. At the worst, extremists could continue to resort to violence on their own or through new alliances with Pakistani anti-Shia groups or the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP).

More concerning, sectarian voices also come from other extremists who live under the umbrella of the Afghan government. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hizb-e-Islami, a former anti-U.S. and anti-Afghan government insurgent, also said that he agrees with the Taliban that Sunnis are the majority and thus Hanafi jurisprudence should be applied to bigger national issues. While Hekmatyar says that personal issues between Shias can be resolved through Jafari fiqh, his assertions point to the dissatisfaction of the Hanafi Islamists with the sectarian parity in the country. Both Hekmatyar and the Taliban have said that this issue will be discussed during the debates over amending Afghanistan’s constitution  – another uphill battle.

Taliban’s religious ideology stems from the Deobandi order of Sunni Islam in madrassas in Pakistan, including Darul Uloom Haqqania, where many of its leaders have studied. In the early 18th century, the Deobandi order was established in India as an anti-colonial institution. While the Deobandi order distinguished itself from anti-Shia Wahhabism, which originated in today’s Saudi Arabia, one of its leaders, Abdul Aziz Dehlawi wrote a prominent anti-Shia book in rejection of the sect. After India’s partition, the Deobandi branches in Pakistan moved toward Wahhabism, especially during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, when madrassas were subsidized by Saudi Arabia to produce dogmatic militants. The Darul Uloom itself became the university of jihad with links to several Sunni militant groups and some anti-Shia groups involved in sectarian violence in Pakistan. 

The Taliban through their deeds have shown that they see Shias as second-class citizens in Afghanistan. For practical reasons they have publicly distanced themselves from attacks on Shias and have established relations with Shia-majority Iran. In some instances, the Taliban even have reached out to the Shia communities. However, in areas under Taliban control, Shias have been harassed and attacked. The Taliban are also trying to capture Shia-dominated districts. This has prompted some Shias to pick up arms in provinces such as Sar-e Pul, Daikundi and in Ghor  – which could give birth to a new wave of warlords in the country. Meanwhile, ISKP has continuously targeted Shias since 2015. 

The cloud of sectarianism looms over Afghanistan at a time when the country is going through yet another pivotal historical moment with the peace talks underway in Doha. The Taliban have insisted on sectarianism, throwing a wrench into the process and simultaneously encouraging other extremist elements to show their dissatisfaction with the attempt at sectarian parity in the country. Sectarianism will challenge the prospects of lasting peace in Afghanistan and can prolong the war in another form. While the issue is now put aside, it will likely resurface again when there is a political settlement, and the constitution is up for an amendment.

The government of Afghanistan and the country’s civil society should stand firmly for the constitutional rights of all religious minorities as well as women, and the freedom of speech. There is also a need for a counternarrative to extremist sectarian views, with calls for tolerance and coexistence. Moderate Sunni and Shia leaders should speak out against sectarianism and launch an inter-sectarian dialogue to counter extremist views and protect the limited gains in Afghanistan.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Researcher for Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Previously he has worked with several developmental organizations in Afghanistan. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. For comments follow @Saberibrahimi.