The Taliban Are Wrecking Ashura Too

Afghanistan’s extremist rulers are cracking down on minorities, especially Shiites, as hard as they have on women.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Shiite Muslims take part in a Muharram procession.
Shiite Muslims take part in a Muharram procession.
Shiite Muslims take part in a Muharram procession in Kandahar, Afghanistan on Aug. 8. JAVED TANVEER/AFP via Getty Images

The most important commemoration of the Shiite religious calendar has been marked in Afghanistan with more than 100 deaths in targeted attacks on worshippers and the cancellation of the official public holiday of Ashura by the Taliban, who now control the country. Residents of Kabul report that the internet has been shut down in parts of the city, and flags, banners, and traditional activities—such as community tea stalls—have been destroyed in what many believe is part of concerted attempts to eradicate them altogether.

Ashura, which falls on Aug. 8 this year, culminates a month of mourning to commemorate the death of Imam Hussain ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who was killed in the late 7th century in what is now Iraq. His death cemented the schism within Islam between followers of his father, Ali, known as Shiites, and Sunnis, who make up the vast majority of Muslims worldwide and generally regard Shiites as apostate. In Afghanistan, Shiites—who are also mostly of the Hazara ethnicity—are regularly attacked by the Taliban and other Sunni extremist groups.

Since the Taliban took control of the country almost a year ago, there have also been deadly attacks on other religious groups, including Hindus and Sikhs, many of whom have left for India. The country’s one remaining Jew, Zebulon Simentov, left Afghanistan last year. The Taliban have struggled to provide security, have yet to feign interest in establishing rule of law, and have systematically cracked down on women and minorities since retaking power. 

The most important commemoration of the Shiite religious calendar has been marked in Afghanistan with more than 100 deaths in targeted attacks on worshippers and the cancellation of the official public holiday of Ashura by the Taliban, who now control the country. Residents of Kabul report that the internet has been shut down in parts of the city, and flags, banners, and traditional activities—such as community tea stalls—have been destroyed in what many believe is part of concerted attempts to eradicate them altogether.

Ashura, which falls on Aug. 8 this year, culminates a month of mourning to commemorate the death of Imam Hussain ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who was killed in the late 7th century in what is now Iraq. His death cemented the schism within Islam between followers of his father, Ali, known as Shiites, and Sunnis, who make up the vast majority of Muslims worldwide and generally regard Shiites as apostate. In Afghanistan, Shiites—who are also mostly of the Hazara ethnicity—are regularly attacked by the Taliban and other Sunni extremist groups.

Since the Taliban took control of the country almost a year ago, there have also been deadly attacks on other religious groups, including Hindus and Sikhs, many of whom have left for India. The country’s one remaining Jew, Zebulon Simentov, left Afghanistan last year. The Taliban have struggled to provide security, have yet to feign interest in establishing rule of law, and have systematically cracked down on women and minorities since retaking power. 

A Shiite resident of Kabul, who did not wish to be named for his own safety, said the Taliban have been cutting down black flags and banners that are traditionally raised during the Muharram month and are “attacking places where people are putting up stands to distribute water and tea, and other meeting places.” He and others said the internet was cut in some areas of the city; in many places, it was still down late Monday.

Hazaras and other Shiite Afghans have long seen a concerted Taliban attempt to eradicate them from Afghanistan, with many branding the attacks a “genocide.” Successive governments, even before the Taliban took over last summer, discriminated against the Hazaras, who occupy the lowest rung of the country’s socioeconomic ladder. Their neighborhoods have seen attacks on schools, maternity hospitals, mosques, and the homes of their community leaders. 

On May 8, 2021, while the Taliban were still rampaging across the country before their takeover, a bomb attack on the Syed al-Shahada girls’ school in a Hazara area of the city left at least 90 people dead and more than 240 people wounded, most of them girls ages 11 to 15 years old. Almost exactly a year earlier, gunmen attacked a maternity hospital in the same Hazara suburb, systematically shooting newborns and women in labor, leaving 24 women, children, and babies dead. The Taliban were assessed to be behind the attacks.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that hundreds of minorities (neither Sunnis nor Pashtuns, like the ruling Taliban) were killed in attacks attributed to the local branch of the Islamic State, known as Islamic State-Khorasan. It said in a tweet on Sunday that more than 120 people had died in attacks in recent days it attributed to the group. The attacks, though, mirror a pattern of Taliban brutality toward Shiites and Hazaras throughout their 20-year insurgency.

Nominally, the Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan are at loggerheads, but some terror experts believe the Islamic State offshoot does some of the Taliban’s dirty work so the group can maintain a facade of counterterrorism cooperation with the United States. The Taliban’s acting defense minister, Mullah Yaqoob, claimed in a recent interview with Voice of America that security nationwide is “100 percent OK.”

That’s not how Shiites see it. The recent attacks have targeted neighborhoods where most residents are Hazaras. Homes and mosques where they’ve been gathering to commemorate Muharram, the month of mourning leading up to Ashura, have suffered numerous bombings. On Aug. 6, terrorists attacked a mosque with women and children inside, leaving approximately eight people dead and 50 people wounded. 

Waliullah Rahmani, a Shiite Hazara media entrepreneur and human rights activist now living in exile, said: “The Taliban are either behind the killings of Hazara and Shia communities or don’t care about them. Instead, they put all their efforts into ensuring that the real numbers of casualties should not be revealed.”

“Unfortunately, it is not the Hazara Shia community alone but all ethnic groups and minorities who are impacted by the Taliban’s oppression and killings,” he added. “Look at the Sikhs, the Hindus, the Kirghiz, and other minorities of Afghanistan who are being eliminated from Afghanistan.” Tajiks have been targeted amid an armed struggle in the Panjshir Valley, not far from Kabul, where locals report vicious retribution. Pockets of fighting continue in other areas of the north as well.

The Taliban, predominantly Sunni Pashtuns with a support base concentrated in the country’s south, have refused to include other ethnicities or religions in their regime. Now, they appear to be tightening the dragnet on minorities and any others who run afoul of their extremist interpretation of Islam, which includes banning all girls from secondary school (and thus higher education). The Taliban are introducing an ever-tightening system of community self-monitoring, Kabul residents said, where neighbors are encouraged to spy and report on one another. Extrajudicial detentions and killings continue with impunity, the UNAMA reported. 

“The world must change its perspective of the Taliban and Afghanistan and must do something to protect Hazara Shia and other vulnerable communities in the country,” Rahmani said.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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