KABUL — For the U.S. government, and for the 100,000 American troops fighting in Afghanistan, the messages delivered last Friday could hardly have been worse.
Under the weathered blue dome of Kabul’s largest mosque, a distinguished preacher, Enayatullah Balegh, pledged support for “any plan that can defeat” foreign military forces in Afghanistan, denouncing what he called “the political power of these children of Jews.”
Across town, a firebrand imam named Habibullah was even more blunt.
“Let these jackals leave this country,” the preacher, who uses only one name, declared of foreign troops. “Let these brothers of monkeys, gorillas and pigs leave this country. The people of Afghanistan should determine their own fate.”
Every Friday, Afghan clerics wade into the politics of their war-torn country, delivering half-hour sermons that blend Islamic teaching with often-harsh criticism of the U.S. presence. In a country where many lack newspapers, television or Internet access, the mosque lectures represent a powerful forum for influencing opinion.
The raw frustration voiced in these sermons is periodically echoed by President Hamid Karzai in his somewhat more diplomatic criticism of the West. Although cast in tones of prayer and contemplation, the messages from the mosques pose a serious and delicate problem for President Obama’s counterinsurgency strategy: how to respect the sacredness of Islam without conceding the propaganda war.
In Afghanistan’s mosques, American troops are derided as crusaders and occupiers. Officials with the U.S.-backed government are accused of corruption and deceit. Even in Kabul, the most modern city in an impoverished country, imams regularly denounce American troops and label as stooges their Afghan partners.
With 7,100 publicly funded mosques and tens of thousands of private mosques scattered in cities and villages, it is difficult to generalize about the content of Friday sermons in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, a sampling of sermons in Kabul found that preachers often depict developments here as anti-Islamic but also are careful not to veer into open support for either warring side.
Choosing sides in the war is dangerous for Afghans, and imams are no exception. Those who preach openly in support of the Taliban risk arrest or worse. Any pro-government or pro-coalition rhetoric, particularly in rural areas where the Taliban thrives, can warrant a death sentence. In interviews, several Kabul mullahs insisted that Islam is a religion of peace and said they strive to remain neutral. Honest mullahs, they said, have a responsibility to preach against violence and terrorism.
“My sermons are mainly focused on peace, reconciliation, mutual respect and obeying the central government,” said Abdul Rauf Nafi, the imam of the government-funded Herati mosque in Kabul. “In every Friday sermon, I call on people and explain to them that, look, this is a golden opportunity God has given us. Dozens of foreign countries have a presence here, and they’re all here to help us take steps toward a prosperous future.”
Because the Taliban is led by mullahs and seeks followers in part by casting itself as a defender of Islam, other religious leaders in Afghanistan must take the group’s views into account. Several said that the Taliban’s orthodox interpretation of Islam has flaws and that its reliance on funding and support from Pakistan further discredits the organization. But their arguments against the presence of foreign forces are more categorical.
“If you see a feeling of xenophobia these days, that’s understandable,” Balegh, the preacher, who is also a professor of Islamic law at Kabul University, said in an interview. “I don’t think even a single Afghan is happy with the presence of the foreign military forces here.”
Mohammad Nabi Aman, the imam at the Kabul mosque where Balegh preaches, said the U.S. Embassy has repeatedly invited him for meetings and Ramadan dinners. He said he has refused every invitation. “People don’t like to see their imams and their leaders waiting in front of the gates of foreigners,” Aman said.
A sense of religious conflict also underlies the criticism. The reason that the insurgency has grown so strong in recent years, said Abdul Bashir Hafif, an imam at a private mosque in a wealthy Kabul neighborhood, is that “Americans are considered to be Christians and Jews.”
To harness the political power of imams, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs sends letters to mosques each week with suggested topics for sermons. Karzai’s office has long paid the Ulema Council — a collection of 3,000 mullahs — a monthly stipend in return for support for the government’s agenda.
The United States has also sought to temper the mullahs’ rhetoric. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has spent millions of dollars to fly mullahs to the United States and other countries to meet Muslims outside Afghanistan in the hope of encouraging a more moderate stance. The U.S. military funds mosque refurbishment projects and is partnering with the Afghan religious affairs ministry to facilitate building an electronic database of mosques.
A senior U.S. military official said dozens of mosques in key Afghan districts are used as “command-and-control nodes” for the Taliban, places where fighters can take refuge and stash weapons.
“The Taliban has used that network of mosques to extend their message,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss U.S. intelligence information. “Many, many mosques are directly linked back to the madrassas [in Pakistan] and teachings of the Taliban.”
On Feb. 3, Afghan intelligence agents said they had raided a small mosque in a narrow, muddy lane in a Kabul slum. Inside the imam’s bedroom, stashed in metal boxes, they found two dozen mines, which they said were intended to blow up Kabul’s airport. The disruption of the alleged plot and the arrest of the imam, 23-year-old Abdul Rahman, was a small but significant victory for Afghan authorities.
But by the next day, in his Friday sermon across town, an imam cast suspicion on the arrest.
“Who was he really working for?” Enayatullah Karimi said to dozens gathered at the Ayub Khan Mina mosque. “The Jews and Christians are training some Islamic scholars. They have beards and wear turbans just like us.”
“The Jews and Christians are our enemies,” Karimi told the crowd. “No doubt about it.”
It was a comment by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) — calling for permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan — that set Habibullah, the firebrand imam, off.
“There are some nut cases with pro-West and pro-infidel ideas who are urging President Karzai to accept the Americans’ offer,” he said last Friday. “But no matter how well protected these people are in the arms of foreigners, they should know that God will take revenge on them and turn their bones and flesh into dried spiderweb powder.”
He grew increasingly agitated, at times shouting into the microphone. The Afghans who support the U.S. troops, he said, “don’t have the patriotism of street animals.”
“We brothers are Muslims and worship one God,” he concluded. “Let us hug each other.”
Two elderly men in the front row nodded in appreciation. “God bless you,” they told Habibullah. “God bless you.”
Special correspondents Javed Hamdard and Asad Haidari contributed to this report.