Ashura in Afghanistan shows sectarian solidarity

Afghans say tradition of Sunni participation in Shiite commemoration gives lie to divisions created by war and politics

For as long as he can remember, Arif Khan Darawal, 67, an Afghan Sunni Muslim, has participated in the local commemorations of Ashura, a holy day for Shiite Muslims.

Despite the historical tension between Shiites and Sunnis, for many Afghans the days of Muharram and Ashura are an opportunity to display the cross-sect unity and brotherhood within the country.

"I grew up in a Hazara neighbourhood and Ashura was a major event there. I remember visiting the local takyakhana [traditional tents set up for the event] and I would be welcomed with warmth and a hug. It didn't matter that I was Sunni," Mr Darawal recalled.

Shiites are a minority in Afghanistan, making up only about 15 per cent of the population. They are also largely Hazara by ethnicity, another minority group, and as a result have faced persecution from insurgent groups like the Taliban and, more recently, ISIS. As militant violence in the country escalates, the Shiite Hazaras and their interests suffer not only from attacks but also a sense of exclusion from the wider society.

However, many Afghans refuse to allow the such divisions to widen. It is not uncommon for Afghan Sunnis to participate in the observances and prayers of the Shiite community, and similarly, Shiite takyakhanas welcome and serve food and drink to large numbers of Sunnis as part of tradition. "If you as a Sunni visit the takyakhanas they will take your shoes and put them in a plastic bag and place it on a safe pedestal. They will also take you to the very front row of the mosque for prayers, which is a prestigious place and sign of respect in Afghan culture," Mr Darawal said.

In the same spirit, Afghan Sunnis are not slow to show support for the minority community.

“We are have prepared and funded this tent together, and my van is always at their service,” said Mohammad Jan, 29, a Sunni driver from Kabul, standing outside one of the many tents set up across the city for the duration of Muharram and Ashura.

He stands alongside Shiites as they distribute ab-e-lemo – a special lemon drink made with seeds of holy basil and flavoured milk – to passers-by as part of the religious custom.

“When we offer people the drink, we don’t ask them if they are Sunni or Shia,” said Mr Jan.

“We are all Muslims; we all say the same Kalima. I have grown up with them and if they ask for my head, I will give it to them.”

Such gestures are deeply reassuring to a minority community that has faced extreme violence in recent years, with attacks on mosques, schools and even maternity wards frequented by Hazaras.

“I see a lot of my Sunni friends on social media changing their profile pictures and commenting [on issues related to Shiite persecution], and it means a lot. It shows solidarity, and gives me hope that we are united,” said Hosnia Mohaqeq, 31, a journalist.

She believes the communal harmony between Afghan Shiites and Sunnis could be an example of brotherhood for the rest of the world.

Ms Mohaqeq spent much of her childhood as a refugee in Iran, a Shiite-majority country where Ashura is a massive national event.

Such ceremonies have been a good opportunity to show the unity, empathy and brotherhood between Shiites and Sunnis in Afghanistan

“From everything I heard from my dad, these celebrations were a muted, closed affair in Afghanistan,” she said. “But what I have seen the past few years in Kabul, I feel this is just as significant and colourful an event as in Iran, even though Shiites are a minority here.”

However, all agree that recent decades of conflict have left behind deep scars and a trust deficit between different ethnic and sectarian groups.

“Our political leaders are the reason we are not united as we should be. They are all aligned with foreign interests and serve their agenda for which they need to keep us fighting each other,” said Mr Darawal, pointing out that attacks on the Hazara community have not been perpetrated by Afghans but by insurgents with foreign backing.

But communal celebrations of events such as Ashura could help bridge the gaps.

“Such ceremonies have been a good opportunity to show the unity, empathy and brotherhood between Shiites and Sunnis in Afghanistan, and to break stereotyped rivalries,” said Hamida Fikrat, 25, a government employee.

“Of course, Shias are targeted and feel particularly unsafe in this country, but the violence in Afghanistan has consumed everyone, and we can see its impact in the sectarian and ethnic problems of Afghanistan. But we can overcome this by respecting others’ views and supporting each other with all our heart and soul,” she said.

“Politicians mix religion with politics to divide everyone for their benefit; look at how the white people treat the black in the western countries,” Mr Darawal said, drawing a comparison to the rise of white supremacists in the United States.

“We need the Afghan youth to not fall for these divisive agendas. We need them to remember that for centuries Afghans have lived in peace and harmony, and that is who we are,” he said.