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Islamic State’s war on Shias in Afghanistan

October 28, 2017 06:27 pm | Updated 10:37 pm IST

An Afghan man inspects the damage inside a mosque in Kabul on October 21, 2017, a day after a suicide attack.

An Afghan man inspects the damage inside a mosque in Kabul on October 21, 2017, a day after a suicide attack.

Six-month-old Diyana Behzad was the apple of her father’s eye. Her father, 31-year-old Khadim Hussain Behzad, had dreamt of a bright future in the service of his country. Unfortunately, Diyana will not see him again. His life was cut short on October 20, when the Imam Zaman mosque in Kabul came under attack.

“Khadim Hussain was a good man,” says the grieving Paiman Speher, Behzad’s cousin, who is helping the family transport his mortal remains to his birth town of Jaghori in Ghazni for final rites. “He founded the Resalat Medical Institute [in Kabul] because he saw that there was need for better health services in Afghanistan. He wanted to train Afghans in quality paramedical and medical services.”

Behzad was among the 59 people reported killed in the attack on the Shia mosque in Afghanistan’s capital. The assault, much like the five other similar attacks on Shia mosques over the past year, was claimed by a faction of the Islamic State. A photo of Behzad with his baby girl has gone viral on social media. “Hussain had gone to the mosque that evening to offer prayers, but never returned. His sister who went to look for him found his body, barely recognisable,” Mr. Speher says.

Attacks against the Shia minority in Afghanistan have been on the rise in recent months. On September 29, a car bomb was detonated at the Hussainia mosque in Kabul while worshippers had gathered to observe Ashura, a day considered holy by the Shias. Six were killed and 20 others injured. A month prior to that, at least 30 were killed when suicide attackers targeted a Shia mosque in western Kabul.

“It may seem that the Daesh (IS) have a problem with the Shias but they also have a problem with the Sunnis. Look at the attack on the Sunni mosque in Ghor,” Mr. Speher reasons, referring to a recent attack on a mosque in Ghor that left 33 worshippers dead. No group has claimed the attack yet.

While this isn’t necessarily a new development, the situation has definitely deteriorated in the past two years. The Shias, who are predominantly of the Hazara ethnic group, have historically faced persecution in Afghanistan. “Ethnic divisions have been a feature of Afghan society and politics for a long time and have been exploited by political groups,” observes Patricia Gossman, a senior Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Sectarian persecution against the Hazaras existed since the 19th century, when Abdur Rahman Khan was King,” says Ahmad Shuja, an Afghan analyst and researcher, referring to the reign of the so-called Iron Amir in 1800s. Khan was known to tax the Shias and forcibly convert them to Sunni Islam, leading to a Hazara insurrection in 1891.

In fear and danger

The increased attacks have brought to light the gaps in security in the Afghan capital. “Not just the Shias, but every Afghan is living in fear and danger. The government needs to get more proactive about our security,” Mr. Speher demands. Following the September 29 attack, the government had armed civilians in response to similar criticism. However, analysts have advised against such moves. “Arming civilians is not a good idea, as this creates militia forces who are not accountable to anyone,” explains Ms. Gossman.

Mr. Speher is certain that the attacks were an attempt to deepen the ethnic and sectarian rift in the country. “They are trying to divide us with these attacks; we can’t let that happen,” he says, echoing the thoughts of Fatima Behzad, the young widow who is distraught with the death of her husband, but determined to not let it be a reason to elevate hate.

(Ruchi Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Kabul)

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