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A formerly persecuted minority gains clout in Afghanistan

Hazaras, a Shiite Muslim ethnic group once oppressed by the Taliban, welcome and work with Westerners, alienating Sunni Pashtuns.

December 16, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Along rutted streets in newly revitalized neighborhoods hang green, red, yellow and black banners commemorating Imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson, whose death more than 1,300 years ago continues to forge the identity and fuel the grievances of Afghanistan's Shiite Muslims.

For centuries, Shiites, most of them ethnic Hazaras with distinct East Asian facial features, were absent from public life, regarded as an economic underclass and the target of occasional pogroms by Sunni Pashtun-dominated governments. Under the Taliban, they were persecuted with a fervor that approached "ethnic cleansing."

That has changed significantly since the hard-line Sunni Islamists were ousted from power in the U.S.-led war after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America. Now, with more opportunities available for minority Shiites — who make up probably less than a fifth of the country's population — the Hazaras have increased their social, political and economic standing.

And during the 10-day Muharram holidays memorializing Hussein's martyrdom, which culminate Thursday with the bloody self-flagellation ceremonies of Ashura, the country's long-marginalized Shiite minority is displaying its emerging assertiveness and clout, alienating the Sunni Pashtun plurality, some of whose members are driving the Taliban insurgency.

Hazaras and other Shiites display red flags with the words "O Hussein" on their cars and minibuses as they drive through the nation's capital, blasting Shiite religious music. This month, high-ranking Afghan Shiite cleric Ayatollah Mohaqeq Kabuli publicly called on his flock to tone it down.

Afghanistan's history of ethnic and sectarian tensions complicates efforts to eliminate the Taliban insurgency and pave the way for the planned U.S. troop withdrawal by 2014. Some Afghans suspect Iran is funneling resources to Afghanistan's Shiites to bolster its influence. Then again, Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently acknowledged that he received regular stipends from Tehran, and the U.S. has accused Tehran of funding the Taliban too.

The country's Pashtun plurality has long been accustomed to throwing its weight around against the Shiites, who also include the tiny Ghezelbash ethnic group in Kabul, the capital, and a small number of Pashtuns in the southern province of Kandahar.

"It's 300 years of bad history," said Fahim Dashty, editor of the Kabul Weekly. "Pashtuns were always the boss, with a token Tajik leadership. But Hazaras were always cut out. They were never allowed to be officers, just soldiers."

"Hazara" means "the thousand people," a likely reference to an ancient 1,000-man Mongol military unit that invaded Afghanistan. Hazaras enthusiastically joined the 1980s Iranian- and American-backed holy war against occupying Soviet troops. They also took part in the 1990s civil war.

But when Taliban militants, fundamentalist Sunnis allied with Osama bin Laden, succeeded in taking over, their victims included the Hazaras, who were considered infidels because of their Shiite beliefs. Hazaras were driven from Kabul, Herat in the west and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north as well as from their ancestral home in the city of Bamian and the surrounding Hazarajat, a barren and mountainous but majestic moonscape at the country's center.

Many felt forced to flee to neighboring Pakistan or Iran, which considers itself the patron of Shiites worldwide. But the experience of dislocation may have ultimately served them well. For the first time, they had access to the rest of the world, providing new perspectives and opportunities.

Upon the Taliban's ouster, many Hazaras returned to Afghanistan with new skills and values that helped them adapt to the transformed country, badly in need of reconstruction and entrepreneurial acumen. Unlike many Pashtuns, Hazaras view Western forces as protectors and have wholeheartedly backed the nation's political process.

"They see their future within this system," said Nematollahi Ebrahimi, a Hazara and a researcher at Afghanistan Watch, a human rights organization. "They see their interest in taking advantage of the new opportunities."

In the halls of power and the country's educational institutions, the Hazaras' visibility has also increased dramatically. Shiites won 59 of 249 parliamentary seats in September elections, though the results have yet to be ratified by Karzai, a Sunni Pashtun.

"Every year they're expanding their presence," said Wadir Safi, a professor of political science at Kabul University, where he says the proportion of Shiite Hazara students has increased dramatically. "They are the ones in power now. They are a minority, but they are very united."

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