Missed Opportunity in Afghanistan: We Forgot to Pay the Preachers

Muslim preachers are a fount of influence in Afghanistan. Has the chance been lost to make them champions of moderation?

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Miguel Villagran / Getty Images

A man prays outside the Blue Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, in 2010.

The assailants first came for Mullah Mohamed Hatif two years ago. It was a snowy winter night and he was making his way home after leading the evening prayer at his mosque. Two men, their faces covered, clubbed him in between his shoulders. He fell face down on the snow. They took his book ofsermons with thirty years of notes on its margins.

Hatif’s back hurt for 15 days, but undeterred, he continued to preach the kind of sermons many in his home district of Kohistan, in northeastern Afghanistan, believes made him a target. “Don’t blow up the bridge, the road,” the 63-year old would tell his congregation of roughly 800, his voice echoing in the village through the two sky-blue loudspeakers mounted on top of the one-story building. “Study chemistry, study biology, study English because we have huge mines that are untapped yet we can barely produce a plastic jug.” With a degree in education in 1960s, Hatif has taught science and literature in local high schools for nearly four decades. “I haven’t taken my hand off the chalk all these years,” he says proudly. He became a preacher by pursuing part-time religious studies for nearly 20 years.

Hatif personifies the moderate Afghanistan that the United States has been trying to foster. However, many observers fear that goal is slipping away as the U.S. and its coalition wind down their involvement in the country. Hatif is practically a self-starter, unsupported by NATO and a beleaguered government. Instead, a new, well-networked, technologically savvy radicalism has emerged across the country in recent years. Through effective networking, TV and radio evangelism, and the use of mass communication platforms, they have won unprecedented reach across the country in the past decade. The movement is now targeting urban, educated youth largely outside the traditional sphere of radicalization, the madrassas.

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While the U.S. and its international allies have poured billions into infrastructure and security over the last 11 years, they may have missed a key investment in the attempt to stabilize the country and address the root causes of extremism. They failed to win over the Afghanistan’s preachers. “It’s a shame that in a traditional, Islamic country like ours the preacher gets the lowest pay,” says Abdul Malik Ziyaee, director general of mosques in the Karzai government. Preachers are a sector of society that has remained economically marginalized and at the mercy of charity from their congregations, even though the clerics, according to Ziyaee, often possess, at minimum, the equivalent of bachelors or masters. “They feel degraded, they feel begrudged.”

There are believed to be about 120,000 mosques in Afghanistan, butonly 3,200 are registered on the government payroll — just 2.6%. In return for a $70 monthly salary, the registered preachers become government employees subject to policy and sermon directives. Observers say that in light of the more than $600 billion that has been spent by the U.S. on its Afghan mission, $70 a month per preacher could have gone a long in containing anger by incentivizing loyalty.

Davood Moradian, the director of Afghanistan Institute for Strategic Studies says the United States has stayed away from the religious sector because of its sensitivity. Meanwhile, its Afghan partner, President Hamid Karzai‘s government, has its bureaucratic ranks two thirds filled with Islamists of some degree who don’t see a reason to fight the radical elements among the preachers. But, more crucially, he says both partners have failed to realize the “Theo-strategic” importance of Afghanistan as a hub for religion and religious ideas. During the past 10 years, all of the important Islamic actors — Al Azhar (the 1,000-year old fount of Islamic learning in Cairo), the Saudi Wahabbis, the Iranian Shi’a, the Deobandi (the type of Sunni Islam that dominates in South Asia), the Turkish — have invested heavily to promote their brand of Islam in Afghanistan. “The Islam that prevails in Kabul, that will be the Islam that would dominate central Asia,” he says. “The Islam that prevails in Kabul would impact the Islam that is practiced in the sub-continent, in the middle-east.”

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Radical ideas have moved into the vacuum, not only to inspire the underfunded preachers but the still traditional youth. In contrast, the government efforts seem doddering. President Karzai has increasingly relied on his National Ulema Council, a group of 3,000 elderly clerics, for his religious legitimacy, which does little but issue an occasional statement largely aligned with Karzai’s politics. “There is thirst among our youth for religiosity and godliness, but a central authority to meet that thirst is lacking,” says Ziaee, director general of mosques. “If we can’t fulfill that ideological thirst, imported ideas fill in the vacuum.”

All of that provides growth opportunities for the kind of radicalism that energizes the Taliban. “We know that the Taliban are a rural-based clerical movement,” says Moradian. “Now we are seeing the resurgence of an urbanized, or semi-urbanized, type of insurgency based on ideology, which is active among relatively educated population. If these two come together, then no one will be able to resist their powers.” Moradian co-chaired a focus group of national and international experts last year to discuss the findings of a research on radicalization carried out by QARA Consulting Inc, which was commissioned by Karzai’s national security council. The focus group was aimed at providing policy recommendations for the Afghan government and the international coalition. As part of his on-going research on the subject, Moradian says he has seen evidence that radical groups are investing heavily on the mid-ranking officers of the Afghan security forces — in Herat, in the north, and even in Kabul.

“The fear that we have, if we are not careful in the next ten years, we would have an Islamist leadership in the Afghan security forces … aligned with Pakistan’s geostrategic priorities,” he says. Spokesmen for the Afghan police and army deny that they are seeing a similar threat. “It’s natural that such attempts may have happened, but we have seen no evidence of these groups having any influence on our soldiers,” Major General Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan ministry of defense, said.

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The new radical groups range from those that want the return of the transnational Islamic caliphate, to those who focus inwards on “social correction” and the revival of a fundamentalist society run by Sharia law. For example, Hizb u Tahrir is an international movement founded in 1953 that demands the return of the caliphate system. The Afghanistan chapter of the movement has a countdown clock on its website, marking seconds since the fall of the last caliph — the Ottoman Abdulmecid II deposed in 1924. Hizb u Tahrir has gained prominence in Afghanistan since the 2009 presidential election, when its members publicly declared the vote as haram, or religiously forbidden. About 50 arrested for attempting to derail the elections. The group is believed to be particularly active in north and northeast of the country.

“Not only they [Hizb u Tahrir] have roots in Kapisa, but also in Panjshir and other places,” says Ziyaee. “They have created nests in strategic places and are working very actively. With the intensity that these anti-government parties are working, if we give them the time we will face a crisis that will require another 30 years of cleaning up.”

While it posts videos of its meetings online, Hizb u Tahrir is not registered with the Afghan government and works somewhat clandestinely. Another radical group, Jamiat e Eslah, is formally registered with the Karzai government. Founded in 2003 with headquarters in Kabul and offices around the country, the organization holds free of cost courses on the Koran and events commemorating major Islamic holidays. Eslah has had a robust media campaign. For several years, it has been beaming its messages through an FM radio station in Kabul and Nangrahar. It recently launched a television channel, out of Herat. It also has major online presence — with about 200 videos on their YouTube page, and a cumulative viewing of over 370,000.

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While only a small portion of Afghans have access to the Internet, the videos are widely distributed through CD sales as well as Bluetooth sharing. Additionally, Eslah distributes PDFs and publishes magazines as well as ready-made PowerPoint slideshows, and pamphlets such as “Heaven is ready, are you?” or “How to defend the Koran?” The poster-boy for their TV and internet evangelism is Mullah Abdul Sallam Abed, whose passionate sermons are aired on their radio and its videos often packaged online. A search for YouTube videos brings up more than 300 videos of Abed’s sermons. In one such Friday sermon, he calls Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and the U.N., the “big Satan and slave.” The video has gotten over 11,000 views. In another with over 7,000 views, addressing hundreds of students of Koranic studies, with the holy book open in front of him he declares that the U.S. will be toppled. “You should believe it with certainty that they will be toppled — faster than the Soviets.”

Then, there are personality-centered, local groups such as Qari Mujibur Rahman Ansari’s The Literary and Spiritual Association of Peer Herat, in western Afghanistan. The Association reportedly has about 40 Quranic centers affiliated with it. Nearly 10,000 male and female students study in these centers. Ansari championed the banning of a major concert in his home province in August last year. Local media reports summarized the threat he issued: if the concert went ahead, some youth were even ready for suicide attacks. Thesinger Shafiq Mureed was forced to issue an apology to his fans and cancel the event, because local authorities told him they couldn’t protect the event.

A firebrand speaker and a prodigy of sorts who reportedly began preaching at one of Herat’s central mosques when he was just 19, Ansari has been very critical of the media for allegedly leading the youth astray and corrupting society, all the while using the same tools to propagate his fundamentalist message. In a video recorded in 2010, he addressed a crowd of hundreds, attacking the popular reality TV show Afghan Star, an American Idol type reality program that has been a hit among youth. “Shame on that father, on that mother, on that brother, on that uncle that allows their daughter on the TV screen,” Ansari said. “Believe me, since I heard that there was a girl on the Afghan Star program, my heart has been bleeding.” The video of the sermon was watched about 19,000 times on YouTube.

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While the radicals suck up all the oxygen in Afghanistan, preachers like Hatif struggle on in obscurity. Assailants would come for him three more times after that first attack in 2011. The fourth time they came for him, they tried to silence him — literally. At 4:45am on October 6, 2012 Hatif was riding his bicycle to lead the dawn prayer. Half way through the eight-minute ride, two men on a motorcycle pulled up next to him. The man on the back aimed his gun from close range at Hatif’s face and fired two rounds. One bullet burned his upper lip, shattered his teeth and tongue, and came out through his cheek. The other bullet was stuck in his throat. The force flung the old preacher several meters from his bicycle. The men disappeared into the morning darkness.

The preacher scrambled to find one of his shoes, got back on his bicycle and returned home drenched in blood. As his face swelled and his sons – two of them teachers at a local high schools and one of them a university professor – called for a doctor and the police, the old man spread his prayer rug, and prayed his morning prayer. The rug soaked up his blood. “We dumped out two buckets of blood during the ride to the hospital,” his son Kamran, the university professor, said.

Despite a metal brace holding up his jaw for two months, Hatif continued to show up for Friday sermons. But talking hurt, and his mumbled words were difficult for the congregation to comprehend. He finally asked to be replaced.

Abdul Azim Kohistani, the police chief of Kohistan’s District One, said four members of the radical group Hizb u Tahrir have been arrested as suspects in the case and they are held in custody. Hatif denies that, saying no one has been arrested and that the government that he stood by has failed to provide him justice. There has been some recompense. After that fourth attack, Hatif began to get a government stipend. Before that, his congregation would gather half-a-ton of wheat as a way to pay him for his service and dedication.

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