Now, as Western military forces prepare to leave the country by 2014, Afghan Shiites, most of whom are from the Hazara ethnic minority, fear that their window of opportunity may slam shut again, leaving larger rival ethnic groups as well as Taliban insurgents, who are radical Sunni Muslims, dominating power.
“Everything we have achieved, our ability to come out and participate in society, has been in the shade of the international community and forces,” said Mohammed Alizada, a Hazara Shiite who was elected to parliament in 2009. “We are very concerned that once they leave, the fundamentalists will reemerge, ethnic issues will return, and we will lose what we have gained.”
There are more immediate fears, as well. Sectarian violence, historically absent from Afghan society, has been intensifying in next-door Pakistan and spilling across the border. During last year’s Muharram festival, two Shiite shrines in Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif were bombed, killing more than 80 people. Shiite leaders say the Kabul attack was carried out by Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, an outlawed Sunni militant group based in Pakistan.
Tensions increased palpably in Kabul on Saturday, the climactic 10th day of Muharram known as Ashura, when groups of young men beat their chests and whip themselves with chains and knives in penance for the death of Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad.
No terrorist attacks were reported, and Afghan officials attended Muharram ceremonies under heavy security. But at Kabul University, clashes erupted between groups of students after an Ashura ceremony in a dormitory. Police said people were pelted with stones and thrown out of windows. They reported that dozens were wounded and at least 30 arrested.
‘Now we have full freedom’
Afghan Sunnis, who make up about 80 percent of the populace, generally tolerate Shiites and observe Muharram in a quieter way, praying and giving charity to the poor. At other times of year, Afghans of all backgrounds flock to majestic Shiite shrines to meditate, feed pigeons or celebrate the Persian new year in the spring.
“We are all Muslims, and Hussein died in the struggle to bring our religion to the world,” said Hajji Nawroz, 75, a contented soul who ladles out free soup at his stand outside a blue-tiled shrine. “During Taliban time, we could not celebrate or talk about these things, but now we have full freedom,” he said. “Our boys are coming out more now to beat themselves.”
In West Kabul, the heart of the Hazara community, a heady, almost frenzied atmosphere has been growing all week. Every bus, taxi and motorbike sports banners flapping from bamboo poles, and every corner has a charity stand, known as an imambargah, where volunteers give away glasses of hot milk and loudspeakers blast recorded dirges, with a slow and ominous cadence, late into the night.