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Taliban find a new target in Afghanistan: Muslim scholars

Rise in killings of preachers who interpret Islam differently in bid to curb their influence

An instructor at the seminary founded by Mawlawi Shah Agha Hanafi visits his burial site on the school’s grounds in Togh-Bairdi, Afghanistan. Photograph: Jim Huylebroek/New York Times

A lone grave, its dirt mound shaded under the drooping branches of a mulberry tree and kept adorned with flowers, has become a daily stop for seminary students and staff members near Togh-Bairdi, in northern Afghanistan.

It is the burial site of Mawlawi Shah Agha Hanafi, a revered religious scholar who founded the seminary about two decades ago and helped it grow into a thriving school for 1,300 students, including 160 girls. This month, the Taliban planted a bomb that killed him as he conducted a discussion about the Prophet Muhammad’s traditions, and his grave, at a corner of the seminary grounds, has become a gathering place for prayer and grief.

“When I come to work, the first thing I do is recite a verse of the Koran at his grave,” said Jan Agha, headmaster of the seminary, in Parwan province. “Then I weep, and then I go to my office.”

Hanafi joined a rapidly growing list of Islamic religious scholars who have become casualties of the Afghan war. The scholars have long been targets, of one kind or another, in Afghanistan. Their words carry weight across many parts of society, and they are assiduously courted for their support – and frequently killed for their criticism.

Hundreds are believed to have been killed during the past 16 years of war, and not always by the Taliban. But there has been a definite uptick in the targeted killing of scholars – widely known as ulema – as the Taliban have intensified their offensives in the past two years, officials say.

It is being taken as a clear reminder of the weight the insurgents give not just to military victories but also to religious influence in their campaign to disrupt the government and seize territory. “The reason the Taliban resort to such acts is that they want to make sure their legitimacy is not questioned by the sermons of these ulema,” said Mohammad Moheq, a noted Afghan scholar of religion who also serves as an adviser to President Ashraf Ghani.

“The only thing that undermines their legitimacy is the ability and power of these ulema if they preach and argue against them,” Moheq continued. “Only they can challenge the Taliban’s ideology, not the liberal scholars or others, and the Taliban understand that.”

Sowing fear

The exact toll of victims among the scholars who preach Islam, but not the kind the Taliban prefer, is hard to gauge. If rough numbers from multiple provinces are any indication, it is enormous, and it has sown fear among preachers who know that their words at the pulpit could cost them their lives.

Religious students attend class in a tent outside the madrasa in Charikar, Afghanistan. Photograph: Jim Huylebroek/New York Times

In Kandahar province alone, the Taliban movement’s original power base, about 300 preachers have been killed since 2004, according to Mawlawi Obaidullah Faizani, head of the provincial Ulema Council there. In Badakhshan, 20 were killed in just the past year, out of a 16-year total of 110, said Abdul Wali Arshad, director of the province’s department of religious affairs.

In Logar province last week, the deputy head of the province’s Ulema Council was gunned down on his way home from dawn prayer, one of the bullets striking his upper lip.

“The reason these ulema are getting targeted is because they tell the truth – and the truth is that the ongoing fighting is just for power,” said Mawlawi Khudai Nazar Mohammedi, head of the Ulema Council of Helmand.

One member of the Taliban’s leadership council suggested that part of the reason for the intensified targeting of religious scholars was the influence of the insurgency’s new leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. He is an ulema and madrasa leader and is considered more of a religious ideologue than his predecessor, who was killed by a US drone in 2015.

The senior Taliban figure, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering other members of the leadership, said that under Haibatullah’s orders, sermons were more closely watched than ever – and that straying from Taliban interpretations of Sharia law was punished “as harshly as possible”.

Being watched

The Taliban’s statement this month after they gunned down Abdul Ghafoor Pairoz (32), a prominent scholar in Kandahar who had written or translated more than 50 books, made the stakes clear. They said he had been killed for considering “the current holy war in Afghanistan as illegitimate”. The Taliban said that “removing such a vicious element” was a signal to others that they were being watched, and that “insolence toward religious orders” would not be tolerated.

Waseel Pairoz, the younger brother of Abdul Ghafoor Pairoz, a prominent scholar who was killed by the Taliban, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photograph: Jim Huylebroek/New York Times

During the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s, Pairoz was a young student in Taliban madrasas in Kabul. When their government fell, he stuck to the path and moved to Quetta, Pakistan, where he completed seven years of higher education in religion to earn the title of mawlana. He remained active in Taliban circles in Quetta, where the Taliban’s leadership council operates from in exile.

But, as Pairoz read more and the war dragged on, he started questioning the religious foundation upon which the Taliban were fighting. He decided the only way to fight back was through an active religious discourse. His last book, a collection of essays titled The Calling, dealt with themes like religious pluralism and the need for tolerance.

“He would translate orally from the text in front of him, and I would type,” said his younger brother Waseel Pairoz, who also pursued religious education. After the Taliban killed his brother and released their statement, the younger Pairoz left Kandahar and now lives in Kabul.

“Pairoz always said that he loved this country, and that if he died for it, it would not be a regret,” another of his brothers, Mohammed Rasoul Pairoz, said. “The message he often delivered to the Taliban was that this world is meant for living – so live in it, and let others live.”

Just like Pairoz, Hanafi, the seminary founder in Parwan, was critical of the Taliban’s path, and often spoke of politics passionately in his sermons. In one of his final speeches, he called on the Taliban to “join hands with the people of Afghanistan, instead of joining hands with Pakistan and Russia”, a country increasingly accused of establishing ties to the Afghan insurgency.

Hanafi’s killing

After multiple attempts on his life, with roadside bombs planted on his path, Hanafi had been forced out of Togh-Bairdi, his home village, and the seminary he had built here. He had taken up another job in the provincial capital, leading a bigger seminary.

On the morning of May 9th, as he sat down with about three dozen students, a bomb that had been planted under his cushion went off. His brother, Mawlawi Jawed Hanafi, succeeded him as head of the seminary at Togh-Bairdi. He said the young man who had planted the bomb – and who was arrested – was a student from the class, and that he had been seen peeking through the window to make sure his instructor had taken his seat. He then walked away and detonated the bomb.

The book in front of Hanafi was ripped and covered in blood. The scholar did not make it to a hospital. “I saw the Mawlawi lying on his back – when he saw me, he moved his lips to say something, but he couldn’t,” said Aziz Agha, his bodyguard, who rushed into the room after the explosion. “His turban wasn’t on his head. His clothes were torn. I held him to help him stand up, but I saw pieces of flesh dropping from his back.”

The ripped and blood-stained book that was in front of Mawlawi Shah Agha Hanafi, a revered religious scholar, when he was killed by the Taliban, in Togh-Bairdi, Afghanistan. Photograph: Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times

The room where the bombing happened remains sealed. Hanafi’s fellow scholars say they find peace in the fact that this is nothing new – that their leader was among the latest killed in the long history of the fight over whose beliefs are true. That fight dates back to the early days of Islam.

“These are not new enemies,” said Mawlawi Abdul Hafiz Mowahed, one of Hanafi’s former students and an instructor now. “Who killed Caliph Osman? Who killed Caliph Ali? Who killed Caliph Omar? The killers were people in the garb of Islam.” He noted that Caliph Osman had also been assassinated after dawn prayer, hunched over as he was reading from the Koran.

“The Prophet Muhammad predicted that once the sword bleeds innocent blood, this blood will run until the Day of Judgment,” he said.

New York Times