Prominent Afghan Clerics Targeted by Taliban, Authorities Say

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 3, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan -- It began with a spray of bullets and splintering glass. Maulvi Abdullah Fayyaz, a leading religious scholar in the southern city of Kandahar, was working in his office May 29 when two men on a motorbike pulled up outside the window and opened fire, leaving him dead.

Next to be killed was Eida Khan, the outspoken headmaster of a religious school in eastern Paktika province. He was dragged from his classroom at gunpoint June 16 and beheaded outside.

By the time Maulvi Niamatullah was shot to death in a remote district of Kandahar province July 24, he was the sixth prominent Afghan cleric to be slain by unknown assailants in less than two months, and the authorities had reached a disturbing conclusion.

"These murders are not coincidences. They are part of a strategy by Taliban fighters to kill Afghanistan's religious leaders," said Fazl Hadi Shinwari, head of the national council of religious scholars as well as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

A purported spokesman for the insurgent Taliban militia, Abdul Latif Hakimi, has asserted responsibility for Fayyaz's and Niamatullah's deaths on behalf of the group. Shinwari, echoing other officials, said he had "no doubt" that the militia was behind all six killings.

In part, officials believe the slayings reflect a recent shift by the insurgents toward "soft" civilian targets -- including tribal leaders, judges, election workers and doctors killed this year in a wave of attacks apparently aimed at disrupting parliamentary elections scheduled for September.

But the bearded, mostly elderly men who make up Afghanistan's ulema, or religious clergy, appear to be a particular focus of aggression because they are a crucial source of legitimacy for Afghanistan's emerging government, according to Afghan and Western officials.

The ulema are loosely organized into provincial councils, or shuras, which send representatives to a national council of more than 2,000 clerics, known as the Ulema Shura. The network first coalesced in 2002 to issue a religious edict that nullified the Taliban's call for holy war against foreign forces and the Afghan government.

In January, after President Hamid Karzai declared a campaign to curb the opium trade, the Ulema Shura pronounced drug cultivation and trafficking un-Islamic. More recently, the group affirmed that it was the religious duty of Afghanistan's overwhelmingly Muslim citizens to support the upcoming elections.

"Afghanistan is a very religious country, and people put a lot of faith in what their religious leaders tell them," said Sayed Hussein Halemi Balkhi, a member of the council. "When an edict comes from the Ulema Shura, they accept that."

The influence of the Afghan clergy is especially threatening to the insurgents, experts said, because the Taliban first emerged as a movement of religious students and based its claim to power on a promise to return Afghanistan to what its leaders asserted was the true practice of Islam.

"Someone who has the capacity to break down the religious authority of the Taliban is probably the most dangerous threat to them on the propaganda front," observed a Western diplomat based in Afghanistan.

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