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Why ISIS Have Declared War On The Hazara Shias Of Afghanistan

The community has long been a target of persecution.

26/06/2017 9:25 AM IST | Updated 26/06/2017 9:25 AM IST
WAKIL KOHSAR via Getty Images
An Afghan security personnel looks at the ground in front of the Al-Zahra mosque in Kabul on June 16, 2017, after a suicide bombing attack.

It was Thursday night (shab-e-jumah) and Haji Ramazan Hussainzadeh was busy making last-minute preparations for the ceremony to mark the death anniversary of Hazrat Ali (AS), the cousin of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and the fourth caliph of Muslims. Masjid Al-Zahra, a popular mosque in Shia-dominated Dasht-e-Barchi area of Kabul which Haji Ramazan founded, was packed with worshippers—young and old, men and women. Inside the mosque, a local cleric was reciting heart-rending eulogies, invoking the martyrdom of Hazrat Ali, who was assassinated in Masjid e Kufa (in present-day Iraq) while offering morning prayers on the same day in 40AH.

Amid the hectic activity outside, a suicide bomber and gunmen forced their way inside the mosque compound after opening fire at police guarding the mosque. One detonated his explosives and the other fired on the crowd, killing four and injuring at least a dozen. Haji Ramazan was among those killed while giving instructions to the kitchen staff.

"Hazaras are not Muslims, you can kill them," Moulvi Mohammed Hanif, a Taliban commander, once told a gathering of Pashtun tribal elders in northern Afghanistan.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes at a time of deep political turmoil following the devastating truck bomb explosion in Kabul on 31 May. The attack resulted in unprecedented civilian casualties and exposed faultlines within the political and military leadership.

The dangerous spiral of sectarian bloodletting in Afghanistan has assumed alarming proportions since the advent of ISIS, also known by their Arabic acronym Daesh. Their hatred for Shias has a historical background, dating back to the assassination of Hazrat Ali. ISIS ideologues take inspiration from those fanatics who carried out the murderous assault on Hazrat Ali in Kufa mosque. They praise the murderers of his son Imam Hussain (AS) and deem the homicide of his followers as legitimate.

The attack on Al-Zahra Mosque is not the first incident of its kind. On the eve of Muharram last year, a gunman wearing army fatigues opened indiscriminate fire at Shia mourners inside the Ziyarat-e-Sakhi shrine in Kabul, leaving more than 18 dead and 54 injured. Victims included four women and two children. ISIS immediately claimed responsibility for the gruesome attack. The following day, in a show of extraordinary defiance, thousands of people marched through the streets of Kabul, remembering the martyrs of Karbala and the martyrs of Kabul.

While the Ashura procession was underway in Kabul, people in the northern Balkh province were mourning their dead. At least 15 Shia mourners were killed in an IED explosion the same day. ISIS again claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on "heretics". The attacks raised very few eyebrows since the terror attacks on Hazara Shias in Afghanistan has become routine and shockingly predictable.

Exactly 40 days later, on the day of Arbaeen, the terrorists struck again in Kabul. At least 27 people were killed and hundreds wounded after a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Baqir-ul-Uloom mosque on Darul Aman Road, a few blocks away from the residence of President Ashraf Ghani and the parliament house. President Ghani in a statement condemned the attack as "barbaric" and the United Nations described it as an "atrocity".

ISIS has claimed that they attack Hazara Shias because of their involvement in the Syria war... However, the more plausible reason is the fact that their religious beliefs clash with radical Islamism...

Hazara Shias are among the few races whose origin remains shrouded in mystery. There are multiple theories about their origin. Some anthropologists trace their ancestry to Turko Mongols, while some believe they were originally Buddhists who lived in Hazarajat, the territory inhabited by Hazara people in the central highlands of Afghanistan, since the period of Kushan Dynasty 2000 years ago, before the arrival of Islam. During the period of the Kushan Dynasty, Hazara-populated Bamyan was the hub of Buddhists, which is mentioned in the book The Hazaras by Hassan Poladi. Hazaras are predominantly Shias, although a small percentage subscribe to Sunni and Ismaili schools of thought.

Afghanistan has a grim history of ethnic violence, especially when it comes to targeted killing of Hazara Shias. In the late 1900s, brutal Pashtun ruler Abdul Rahman Khan had ordered extermination of all Shias in central Afghanistan, which led to the gory massacre of thousands of Hazara Shias. Their properties were confiscated and they were forced to flee their homes. For almost a century, Hazara Shias were incarcerated and sold as slaves to wealthy merchants. Their women and children were sexually abused. Many of them were forced to observe taqiyya (seclusion) and register as Tajiks or Uzbeks.

The attacks last year and again this year have brought back chilling memories of the 1990s when the Taliban would raid houses, identify and kill Hazara Shias, mostly in northern provinces. "Hazaras are not Muslims, you can kill them," Moulvi Mohammed Hanif, a Taliban commander, once told a gathering of Pashtun tribal elders in northern Afghanistan. Muharram commemorations were completely banned in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. While many Hazara Shias fled to Pakistan and Iran during 1990s, many stayed back to face unutterable horror. In one of the most barbaric episodes in recent history, thousands of Hazara Shias were systematically killed in northern Mazar-e-Sharif city in 1998, which author-analyst Ahmed Rashid describes as "genocidal in its ferocity".

[T]he attacks have failed to push Hazaras towards sectarianism but have deepened the community's alienation from the Afghan government.

After the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001, Hazara Shias—who account for up to 20 percent of Afghanistan's 30 million population—emerged out of obscurity. However, they continue to walk the tightrope with the advent of many new armed groups in Afghanistan. Abductions, extortions and targeted killings by groups operating under the banner of ISIS have increased alarmingly over the past few years. In November 2015, seven Hazara Shias, including women and children, were abducted and killed mercilessly in the southern Zabul province. In June last year, 25 Hazara Shias were abducted by armed assailants in the northern Saripul province. Many such horrifying stories often go unreported.

For these Hazara Shias, terrorism and discrimination represent a dangerous cocktail. In July last year, thousands of them took out a march in Kabul to express their anger and resentment over the government's decision to move a power transmission line out of Bamiyan, the only Hazara-dominated province in Afghanistan. A deadly explosion ripped through the peaceful rally, killing at least 85 people and wounding 400 others. The attack was one of the deadliest in Kabul and deadlier than the bombing of Abul Fazl Mosque in Murad Khane in 2011, which left 70 dead. Following the carnage, thousands of Hazaras launched an online campaign under the hashtag #Justice4Hazaras to commemorate those killed in the attack and to demand justice, equality and equal representation for Hazaras.

ISIS has reportedly claimed that they attack Hazara Shias because of their involvement in the Syria war. "Unless they (the Hazara Shias) stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran, we will definitely continue such attacks," a top ISIS commander told Reuters last year. Hundreds of Hazara Shias from Afghanistan are fighting in Syria as part of the Liwa Fatemiyoon force. However, the more plausible reason behind the unrelenting attacks on Hazara Shias is the fact that their religious beliefs clash with the radical Islamism propounded by ISIS ideologues.

After the latest attack, a Hazara Shia friend in Kabul said, "Even a place like mosque is not safe for us anymore, they don't even respect the sanctity of God's abode."

In February 2013, a group of activists and poets had written a letter to the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, asking him to take necessary measures to ensure safety and security of Hazara Shias. "Even in their homeland, Afghanistan, Hazaras are not safe. Every year, they are attacked by Afghan Kuchis who are backed by the Taliban and the Afghan government. Hazara roads are blocked by the Taliban gunmen. Hazara cars are halted and passengers are killed," read the letter. Maryam Jafri, writing in a UN Dispatch in April 2015, said Afghans need to embrace their national identity as a multi-ethnic society if they want to survive and thrive. "They need to stand up against sectarian and ethnic division. This is not only for the good of ethnic minorities like Hazaras, but for the whole of society," she stated.

Rohullah Yakubi, a fellow at UK-based Human Security Center, believes there are two reasons for the horror unleashed by ISIS on the long-persecuted Hazara community in Afghanistan. "First, ISIS refers to the Shiites as the Rafidah (the rejecters) and views them as heretics worthy of death. Hence, Hazaras are legitimate targets. Second, ISIS seeks to ignite sectarian violence in the country," he wrote last year, adding that the attacks have failed to push Hazaras towards sectarianism but have deepened the community's alienation from the Afghan government.

After the latest attack, a Hazara Shia friend in Kabul said he feels insecure and hopeless: "Even a place like mosque is not safe for us anymore, they don't even respect the sanctity of God's abode." That quite succinctly sums up the tragedy of Hazara Shias in Afghanistan today.

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