A formerly persecuted minority gains clout in 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."

Hazara faces now crowd the entrances to Kabul University as well as a new crop of private higher education institutes in the capital and elsewhere that offer computer, medical and language courses. Many of the female students wear colorful and breezy head scarves in the style favored by urban women in Iran.

Coreligionists in Iran appear to be pouring money into cultural, religious and educational institutions, including a massive seminary in west Kabul that locals dubbed "Little Qom" after the Iranian religious capital where Shiite clerics train.

"A nation without education won't develop," Ayatollah Asif Mohseni, the senior Afghan cleric who heads the seminary, said in an interview. "We have to learn so that the economic wheels of this nation get going."

Western organizations in Afghanistan appear to gravitate toward hiring Hazaras for their local staffs, in part because they're viewed as trustworthy. "When you get job interviews, the best candidates will often be Hazaras," said Martine van Bijlert, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Scandinavian-funded think tank in Kabul.

Some Afghans accuse the Hazaras of overstepping their place, and Westerners of manipulating the country's ethnic politics.

"This is the conspiracy of the occupation," Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban official who was granted amnesty by Karzai and now lives in Kabul. "The foreigners are supporting the minority against the majority."

Once the Americans leave, a "balance" will return, he predicted.

Shiites, especially Hazaras, take such sentiments as a blunt warning of the renewed oppression they would face if the Taliban reascended to power.

Hazaras have settled in Afghanistan's major cities in droves, in part because their years abroad left many urbanized, but also because they felt less vulnerable in areas fully under government and Western control.

"Many Hazaras have become middle class," said Candace Rondeaux, an Afghanistan-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels- and Washington-based think tank. "For the first time they have decent jobs, housing, a little money in their pockets and the ability to insulate themselves from political pressures."

Their boisterous assertion of cultural pride during Muharram, even if it offends some, may also be an effort to force other Afghans to adjust to their presence. Each year, Kabul residents say, the Ashura celebrations have grown in scale and geography, as if the Hazaras and other Shiites were trying to stake out new territory.

"This is our culture, and we won't forget it," said Mohammad Askar, a 35-year-old Shiite taxi driver preparing the fire for the stews served on Ashura in west Kabul, a Shiite stronghold. "And we won't let the others forget it either."

daragahi@latimes.com

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