Herat, Afghanistan – Mehdi is just ten years old, but he is leading processions of black-clad men several decades older than him, beating his chest to the rhythm of chants honouring the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.
On November 14, Shia Muslims around the world marked Ashura, which they regard as among the holiest days of the year.
Mehdi is not the only boy leading Ashura commemorations in Afghanistan, but he may be the most intense. Asked why he strikes himself so intently, Mehdi says simply, “Imam Hussein” – the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was killed in battle in Karbala 1,333 years ago. Shia Muslims believe Hussein was the rightful leader of the Muslim world, and his death at the hands of the Umayyad caliphate widened the split with Sunni Islam.
The prominence of Ashura commemorations in Afghanistan today mark a major shift in the country’s power dynamics, said Farooq Faizi, a 30-year-old journalist from the western city of Herat. Faizi believes the Ashura observances have become larger and more public as a result of the increased political clout of a once disenfranchised population.
The majority of the nation’s Shias are members of the Hazara minority, who for decades were excluded from political and military posts. “They had no power until now. Whether it’s for good or bad, they now can do things like this,” Faizi said.
In 1993, during the Afghan civil war, forces led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf – who had ties to Osama bin Laden, and who is running for the Afghan presidency in elections next year – were accused of kidnapping and killing Hazara in Kabul’s Afshar district. Investigations into what has come to be referred to as the Afshar Massacre found that dozens were killed, and up to 750 more people in the predominantly Shia district disappeared after being kidnapped by Sayyaf’s forces.
Hazara leaders and groups such as Hezb-e Wahdat – a party seen as the chief political voice of the Hazaras – were also accused of human rights abuses during the civil war that often targeted ethnic Pashtuns in Kabul.
We must enhance our awareness of ourselves - that we are a unique nation with our own policies and people.
Under the rule of the fiercely anti-Shia Taliban, Ashura commemorations were forbidden, and the country’s Shia population kept a low profile. In January 2001, the Taliban were accused of massacring more than 170 Shia civilians in Bamiyan province’s Yakawlang district.
Today, however, Hazara and Shia politicans have become more powerful. Karim Khalili and Mohammad Mohaqeq – both members of Hezb-e Wahdat – are serving as second vice president and a leading opposition figure respectively. Several leading candidates in Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential elections have chosen running mates from Shia groups, who comprise about 20 per cent of the country’s population.
With each passing year, the people of Afghanistan becoming increasingly familiar with the traditions of Ashura, said Mohammad Jafar Samiri, a mullah in Herat. Though he called this year’s gathering a success, Herat residents noted that Wednesday’s gathering was smaller than in recent years.
The relatively small turnout may be a lingering effect of a 2011 attack on Ashura commemorations in Kabul, which killed 63 people and injured more than 160. Since then, stringent security measures have been taken to protect worshippers.
Lashkar-e Jhangvi, an hard-line group based in Pakistan that has issued threats against all Shia in the country, took credit for the attack – an example of what Samiri and other attendees called foreign intrusions into Afghanistan. “We Afghans have no difficulties among ourselves. We know our own brothers would never do such a thing,” said Zafar Afsari, who has lived in Herat for 15 years.
Meanwhile, some Sunni Afghans say they suspect that predominantly Shia Iran is behind the increased prominence of the Ashura events in Afghanistan. Herat is located near Afghanistan’s western border with Iran, and the province is often the first stop for Afghan migrants who have been deported from Iran.
Though he did not give any evidence for his claims, Mir Farooq Hosseini, who described himself as the spokesman for Herat’s religious institutions, said “each black flag is reflective of Iran’s evil intentions in Afghanistan”, referring to the banners that Shia raise weeks before the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. Even before the November 14 observances, Hosseini claimed, political groups both domestic and foreign have used Ashura for their own political ends.
For his part, Samiri said outside powers should not be given the ability to break the unity of the Afghan people. “We must enhance our awareness of ourselves – that we are a unique nation with our own policies and people.”