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The struggle for Shi'ite hearts and minds (Part I)

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2009-05-14

A new controversial family code has exposed a power struggle within Afghanistan’s Shi'ite community, one that pitches two influential men against one another and that is being waged through Kabul’s streets, airwaves and educational institutions.

On a bright spring morning in Kabul, members of the city’s international community looked on with horror as a group of women protesting a controversial Shi'ite family code were attacked by an enraged mob of mostly men in the heart of the Afghan capital.

Within hours, news stations across the world relayed images of crowds pelting the terrified women with stones as they cowered behind police lines.

But on the very same day, in the dusty western outskirts of the city, a chilling attack on a high school known for its progressive education went largely unnoticed by the international media.

Shortly after 9:00 am on April 15, a mob surrounded the Marefat High School in Kabul’s Dashti Barchi neighbourhood. While more than 2,000 terrified schoolboys and girls huddled inside the mud-walled school compound, the crowd brayed for their principal’s blood.

“We were totally unprepared for them,” said Aziz Royesh, the school’s slight, soft-spoken principal, as he surveyed the school walls. “I actually went out to receive them and try to talk to them. But they weren’t listening, so I escaped. Luckily, they didn’t know who I was because, later, they were screaming that they had come to kill me.”

The school was besieged for nearly six hours before the police finally managed to restore order. Two people were injured in the melee outside the compound, according to school officials.

The assault on the school broke out just as the women’s protest started downtown. Clearly, the timing was not coincidental. They were instigated and implemented in what has turned into a very public battle for the leadership of Afghanistan’s Shi'ite community.

It’s a power struggle that has pitched two influential Shi'ite elders, each former Jihadi leaders with impeccable anti-Soviet resistance credentials and each wielding considerable political and media influence, against each other.

As Afghanistan prepares to go to the polls in presidential elections later this year, they could hold the key to the Shi'ite vote in a country where Shi'ites form nearly 20 percent of the population.

In the ring: Mohseni vs Mohaqiq

The contest for the de facto Afghan Shi'ite leadership pits Ayatollah Asif Mohseni, an influential cleric and the architect of the controversial family code, against Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, a parliamentarian and seasoned Afghan politician.

Mohaqiq hails from the Hazara community, a traditionally marginalized, predominantly Shi'ite community that is the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

Mohseni, on the other hand, is a Qizilbash, or descendant of Persian warriors who settled in the Pashtun region around Kandahar. Although they are Shi'ites, Afghanistan’s Qizilbashis - or "Kandahari Shi'ites" as they are popularly called – have deep Pashtun cultural ties.

The power struggle between the two men became public following the international outcry against the Shi'ite family code, a legal system that critics allege contains Taliban-style restrictions on women.

Mohseni, a vocal supporter of the family code, has close ties with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Experts believe it was these links that led Karzai to sign the family code, a move that backfired when the international community – including senior US, European and NATO officials – roundly criticized the move.

Mohaqiq, in contrast, has a stormy relationship with the Afghan president. In early 2004, the Hazara leader was fired as Afghanistan’s transitional planning minister. Mohaqiq says he was dismissed after he announced his candidacy for the 2004 Afghan presidential election, a charge Karzai denies.

Karzai, the clear frontrunner, won the election with more than 55 percent of the vote in the 2004 election, while Mohaqiq placed third, with an impressive 11 percent.

"A conflict between Islam and the West"

As a representative of the predominantly moderate Hazara community, Mohaqiq has been vocally opposed to the family code, calling it "an offence to Hazaras".

While Karzai has promised to review the controversial law, his ally, Mohseni, has warned the government against any amendments.

In the new Afghanistan, Mohseni’s warnings are not taken lightly. As the founder of the Khatam-al-Nabyeen center, he has considerable resources to dispend. The center in Kabul is a sprawling complex that is home to a university, a TV station and a magnificent blue-domed mosque. It was also the site of the April 15 women’s demonstration.

As the center’s chief, Mohseni has not hesitated to use his influence and resources to try to thwart opposition to the family code.

On April 15, his madrassa students – male and female – confronted anti-code demonstrators.

And the night before, Mohseni’s Tamadon TV (its name means "civilisation") began broadcasting messages accusing Marefat High School of converting students to Christianity and calling on Afghans to protect the sanctity of Islam. Afghanistan is a deeply conservative Islamic country where conversion to another religion can carry the death penalty.

“He is framing this debate as a conflict between Islam and the West,” says Niamatullah Ibrahimi from the London School of Economics’ Crisis State Research Center. “If you are against the law, you are an agent of the West, of a Jewish-Christian conspiracy.”

Royesh himself dismisses the allegations of a Judaeo-Christian agenda, noting that the school is primarily funded by the Hazara community.

Click here for Part II of the story: 'The Iranian government's Afghan TV station'


Date created : 2009-05-13