Afghan imams wage political battle against U.S.

"Let these jackals leave this country," imam Habibullah said of U.S. forces in a recent sermon at a mosque in Kabul. (Mikhail Galustov For The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 18, 2011

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.

Not choosing sides

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."

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