The first time I visited Afghanistan was in 2002. Ashura, the holiest Shiite holiday, was in full swing. As we drove up into the predominantly Shiite central highlands of Bamiyan–Hazara country–my Afghan traveling companions were amazed at the open expressions of Ashura. Processions clogged the single dirt road passing through small villages and long black flags on poles flapped in the wind. During the Taliban years, expressions of Shiism were suppressed by the the Taliban, the hardline Sunni fundamentalists who ruled the country and decried Shiism as apostasy.
The past decade has seen a relatively peaceful coexistence between religious sects in Afghanistan, but that was shattered today by a series of brutal, coordinated bombings in three cities that killed at least 63 people and raised fears of renewed sectarian conflict. A Sunni religious group from Pakistan, Lakshar-e-Jangvi, claimed responsibility for the attacks, which targeted Shiite Muslims participating in ceremonies to observe Ashura.
Undoubtedly, there are complex religious and cultural undercurrents in Afghan society. Sunni Muslims make up some 80 percent of the population while Shiite Muslims are roughly the other 20 percent. Afghans often identify themselves by ethnic group, which include the Pashtun (42 percent and mostly Sunni), the Tajik (27 percent and mostly Sunni), and the Hazara (9 percent and predominately Shiite). (There are various estimates of these ethnic percentages–I am using the CIA fact book estimates. No doubt some readers will quibble with these numbers but they are directionally correct.) Long-regarded as secondclass citizens, the Hazara have confronted significant discrimination and hostility, particularly under Taliban rule. As a National Geographic feature notes, “A Taliban saying about Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun ethnic groups went: ‘Tajiks to Tajikstan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and Hazaras to goristan,’ the graveyard.” Nevertheless, despite their difficult history, the Hazara have achieved economic and social gains in modern Afghanistan. Hazara women have done relatively well too: In 2005, ethnically Hazara Dr. Habiba Sorabi became the country’s first female governor. Dr. Sima Samar, another Hazara woman, leads the Afghani Independent Human Rights Commission and was a top choice for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
Today’s attacks in Kabul, Kandahar, and Mazar-e-Sharif demonstrate the fragility of religious and ethnic coexistence in Afghanistan, harkening back to some of the darkest chapters in its recent, troubled history. In 1998, the Taliban targeted the Hazara in Mazar-e-Sharif, massacring an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 civilians in apparent retaliation for the deaths of thousands of Taliban soldiers in the city in 1997. Reports provide chilling evidence of the Taliban’s ethnic and religious motives in the killings, with troops forcing the Hazara to “recite Sunni prayers to prove that [they] were not Hazara.” The 1998 atrocities in Mazar-e-Sharif remind us of the potential for large-scale religious and ethnic violence in Afghanistan.
Today’s Ashura bombings must be seen in the larger context of political strife in Afghanistan. Unlike the violence in 1998, today’s attacks originated from a group in Pakistan and underscore the precarious relationship between the two countries. Yesterday, Pakistan boycotted an international conference on the future of Afghanistan in order to protest the deaths of Pakistani soldiers killed by an American airstrike. Today’s massacre makes hopes of a negotiated peace to the conflict there even dimmer.