Despatch from Kabul | International

Taliban reaches out to Shias

The Taliban insurgency seems to be pulling all the stops it can to gain political legitimacy in Afghanistan ahead of the intra-Afghan peace talks. In a new video message from the Taliban, released on April 22, the group seeks the support of the Hazara Shias and wants to recruit from the long persecuted minority.

The poorly edited video features the insurgency’s newly appointed northern district Governor Mawlawi Mahdi Mujahid, an ethnic Hazara, Shia cleric, who incites his brethren to fight against the “Jewish and Christian invaders” alongside the Sunni-majority Taliban. “Weren’t you holding our flags alongside the Sunni brothers in jihad against Soviets? How can you forget that history? Why are you silent against these invaders led by the Americans?” he sermonises, with the use of dramatic gestures.

Prisoner swap

The video appeal comes ahead of a much-anticipated peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The insurgent group has already signed an agreement with the U.S. administration, which paved the way for a possible peace deal with the Afghan government. Already, negotiation teams have been finalised, and prisoner releases from both sides are under way.

In this fragile period, by bringing members like Mahdi to the forefront, the Taliban may be attempting to refashion itself into a political entity to gain legitimacy, say experts. “My initial thoughts were that the Taliban are trying to reach out to other sects and ethnicities in Afghanistan to score legitimacy now and perhaps after when and if they return to power,” Sabir Ibrahimi, a researcher at New York University’s Centre on International Cooperation, said. “The Taliban are perhaps being practical and making preparation for their return to Afghan politics. If and when they return to power, in whatever shape or form, they would need to work with the Shias.”

While little is known of Mahdi, the new Hazara Taliban leader finds his roots in the very district he now controls — Balkhab in Sar-e-Pul. “He is a former Wahdat party affiliate, responsible for a number of attacks, abduction and extortion,” shared Mr. Ibrahimi, referring to the Hezb-e Wahdat party founded by Abdul Ali Mazari, a prominent Shia leader who was incidentally killed by the Taliban in 1995.

Mahdi, who has served six years in prison on criminal charges, allegedly controlled the mine-rich district as a strongman for Mohammad Mohaqeq, the former Deputy Chief Executive of Afghanistan. In October 2018, people of Balkhab, fed up with Mahdi, rose up against him — he then fled the town. Mahdi returned a year later, allied with the Taliban. “Mahdi sounded educated in religious studies and referred to Quranic verses. His messaging was in line with the Taliban’s anti-West narratives,” said Mr. Ibrahimi.

The Iran factor

In his appeal, the Shia Taliban leader also addresses the “Shia brothers and religious scholars in Qom”, underlining the Iran factor in the Taliban’s strategy. The Taliban, in recent years, has warmed to Tehran. “Iran has ties with the Taliban, although Iranians do not want a complete return of the Taliban to power like in the 1990s. It is more of a political alliance with Iran than sectarian harmony. To add, Shia communities of Balkhab, Hazaras and Sayyeds, have close religious ties with Iran,” Mr. Ibrahimi added.

In the video, Mahdi also reiterates several times that the Taliban is an inclusive force devoid of racism, trying to portray a different picture of the insurgency which is known for its attacks on minorities and women.

While the Taliban did have few Hazara officials working for its regime in the 1990s, Mahdi is its first known Hazara Shia commander and district Governor.

“Historically, the Taliban have marginalised Shias. They banned Shia rituals in Kabul during Muharam in the 1990s and when the group captured Mazar-e-Sharif, their commander Abdul Manan Niazi said that ‘Hazaras either should fully convert to Islam or pay attributions (like non-Muslims living under the Islamic states in the past)’. Similarly, in Herat, the Taliban had occupied a Shia mosque and named it after Mahawiya, who was an adversary of Imam Ali, Shia’s first Imam. During those years, the Taliban massacred Shias in Hazarajat and in Mazar-e-Sharif,” Mr. Ibrahimi said.

Given the past of the Taliban’s treatment of minorities, it may have to do more than appointing a Shia commander and releasing his videos if it wants to acquire the trust of the country’s religious sects.

(Ruchi Kumar is a journalist based in Kabul)

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 9:52:01 PM |

Next Story