Aga Khan Foundation

The Taliban’s Renewed Assaults on Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia Community

I was surprised to recently read that the Taliban are trying to marginalize the Persian language in Afghanistan, given its near majority status, stature, and role in inter-ethnic communication (see the previous GeoCurrents post). On resuming power in 2021, moreover, the Taliban had promised to pursue less brutal and divisive policies. In their first stint (1996-2001), they had viciously attacked the country’s minority Shia population, mostly found among the Hazara people in central Afghanistan. Some observers viewed these campaigns as almost genocidal (see this earlier GeoCurrents post). But as Radio Free Europe framed the Taliban’s new attitude:

After regaining power, the Sunni militant group tried to assuage Hazaras’ fears of discrimination and persecution. The Taliban visited Shi’a mosques in the Afghan capital and deployed its fighters to protect ceremonies marking the Shi’ite month of Muharram.

Given the Taliban’s previous animosity toward Shia Islam, I had expected that that any reversal of its newly formulated toleration program would be directed against the Hazaras, and perhaps also the smaller non-Hazara Shia communities in western Afghanistan. Yet I had encountered nothing of the sort. It turns out, however, that my reading on this subject had been far too limited. The July 17, 2023 Radio Free Europe article cited above went on to note that:

Last week, the Taliban prevented Shi’a from celebrating an important religious festival. The militants have also restricted the teaching of Shi’a jurisprudence in universities in Afghanistan. In February, the Taliban reportedly banned marriages between Shi’a and Sunnis in northeastern Badakhshan Province.

The Shi’ite community has accused the Taliban of failing to prevent deadly attacks on Hazaras by the rival Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group. Meanwhile, rights groups have documented the forced evictions of Hazaras by the Taliban, a predominately Pashtun group, in several provinces.

Other reports are even more worrisome. As noted by Jurist, “The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) issued a statement on Friday calling for an end to the systemic killing of Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan in order to prevent a possible genocide under Taliban rule.” According to Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, “These violent deaths are further shocking proof that the Taliban continue to persecute, torture and extra judicially execute Hazara people.”

Also shocking is the lack of reporting on this situation in the American media. Afghanistan’s Shia population is massive, constituting something between 9 and 29.5 percent of the country’s population of 40 million (see the two highly divergent pie charts below). Continuing attacks on these people could quickly generate a humanitarian crisis of the first order.

Although most Shia Muslims in Afghanistan follow the Imami, or Twelver, majority sect of the faith, a significant minority adhere instead to the minority Ismaili sect. Most Afghan Ismailis are also ethnic Hazaras, but a few are ethnic Tajiks (both of which are Persian-speaking peoples). One might expect that the Taliban would be especially hostile to the Ismailis, given their heterodox, esoteric, and cosmopolitan orientation. Scant information, however, is readily available on this group. But according to one prominent 2001 report:

Ismailis in Afghanistan are generally regarded with suspicion by other ethnic groups and for the most part their economic status is very poor. Although Ismaili in other areas such as the northern areas of Pakistan operate well-organized social welfare programs including schools, hospitals and cooperatives, little has been done among Afghan Ismaili communities. Considered less zealous than other Afghan Muslims, Ismaili are seen to follow their leaders uncritically.

The news searches that I conducted for information on Ismailis in Afghanistan mostly returned articles about a recent deadly knife attack by an Afghan refugee on women in an Ismaili center in Lisbon, Portugal. A Shia Wave article, however, notes that the Taliban are trying to convert Afghan Ismailis to Sunni Islam, and evidently with some success. I was disappointed to find no information on Afghan Ismailis on the website of the Aga Khan Foundation, the well-funded and highly effective humanitarian wing of the global (Nizari) Ismaili community. The Foundation does highlight its extensive humanitarian work in Afghanistan, but sidesteps the country’s sectarian divisions.

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The Northern Areas Become Gilgit-Baltistan

Divided Kashmir

The former princely state of Kashmir is one of the world’s most contested territories (see map). During the British colonial period, Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu Maharaja (under British “advisement”) even though its population was (and is) mostly Muslim. The political partition of British India into the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947 saw the partitioning of Kashmir as well, with India gaining control over the core areas and Pakistan gaining power over the north and far west. In 1962, China grabbed parts of the far north after defeating India in a short war.

Pakistan divided its portion of Kashmir into two zones: Azad Kashmir (“free Kashmir”) in the west, and the Northern Areas. The Northern Areas were originally a non-self-governing area under Pakistani control, and have generally not been regarded by the international community as a part of Pakistan proper. India, for its part, has maintained that all of the former princely state of Kashmir is rightfully Indian territory.

This situation changed somewhat in August 2009, when Pakistan renamed the Northern Areas Gilgit-Baltistan and allowed the election of a local legislative assembly. A month later, Pakistan signed an agreement with China for the building of a massive dam and hydro-electrical facility in the area.

Indian authorities were further angered in December 2009 when the region’s newly elected chief minister declared that Gilgit-Baltistan was now Pakistan’s fifth province, and that it had “no connection to Kashmir.” An Indian spokesman retorted that “The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India by virtue of its accession to India in 1947. Any action to alter the status of any part of the territory under the illegal occupation of Pakistan has no legal basis, and is completely unacceptable.” A Pakistani official then replied that Gilgit-Baltistan merely enjoys a “special status,” as its legislative assembly cannot pass laws. Gilgit-Baltistan is now best regarded as a de facto but not a de jure province of Pakistan.

Unfortunately, Gilgit-Baltistan has recently witnessed an upsurge of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunni stalwarts, who wanted the area to merge with Azad Kashmir, were not happy when the Shia-majority region was awarded a province-like status. According to journalist B. Raman, Pakistan’s powerful “Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had over the past years encouraged and helped Sunni extremists organizations … to set up a presence in the Gilgit area.” (http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2009/12/sectarian-terrorism-in-pakistan-during.html).

Whatever its geopolitical status and religious tensions, Gilgit-Baltistan has made great educational strides in recent years. This extremely rugged, remote region had negligible levels of literacy thirty years ago. In 1998, adult literacy had reached 38 percent, and by 2006 it had risen to 53 percent. In many areas, most boys and girls now attend school, often learning their lessons in English. Most observers credit the gains largely to the Geneva-based Aga Khan Foundation. Many residents of Gilgit-Baltistan are Ismaili Muslims, members of a highly cosmopolitan and education-oriented sect of Shia Islam that is headed by the Aga Khan. Also significant are the philanthropic efforts of U.S. author and mountaineer Greg Mortenson, author of the acclaimed book Three Cups of Tea. The region also supports a high-quality English language news site, the Dardistan Times (http://dardistantimes.com/) (“Dardistan” is itself an interesting geographical appellation, but that is a topic for a later post.)

Selected Sources:

http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/in-paper-magazine/education/education-in-gilgit-and-baltistan-809

http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/newdelhi/Gilgit-Baltistan-is-part-of-Kashmir-asserts-India/Article1-492780.aspx

 

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