A Young Shiite man surrounded by moharram banners is spattering red paint on a car to symbolize the blood of Imam Hussein, a 7th century martyr to Islam whose death is commemorated during Moharram. (Pam Constable/The Washington Post)

For the past week, the Afghan capital has been draped with black cloth arches and festooned with huge colored banners. Mournful, pounding chants pour from loudspeakers across the city, filling the air with slow martial intensity.

The dramatic display is all part of Muharram and the 10-day Shiite festival that commemorates the slaying of Imam Hussein, a 7th-century holy figure and early champion of Islam. But it is also a symbol of the growing religious and political freedom that Afghanistan’s long-ostracized Shiites have had in the past decade.

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.

A Shiite Hazara girl at a Moharram service in a west Kabul seminary, passing out wheat kernels to be cleaned for charity bread to be distributed to the poor. (Pam Constable/The Washington Post)

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.

But this year, the arches and banners and chants have reached farther than ever across the city, arousing new resentment from the Sunni populace. There has been sharp public criticism of the flagellation rite, Sunni clerics have denounced the elaborate festivities as offensive to Islam, and President Hamid Karzai has asked the Shiite community to celebrate calmly and avoid antagonizing others.

The hostility also stems from another concern: the widespread belief that Iran, Afghanistan’s Shiite neighbor to the west, is promoting Shiism and bolstering Hazara leadership as a way to gain cultural and political influence. Several years ago, Iran funded the construction of a large religious university here, and Karzai was heavily criticized for reportedly accepting large cash donations from Tehran.

Hazaras, an Asiatic minority from the mountainous north, have long been Afghanistan’s poorest ethnic group, relegated to menial labor and often ridiculed. During the civil war of the early 1990s, many fled to Iran, while their militia leaders in Kabul fought Pashtun and Tajik rivals with cruel ferocity. More fled during the repressive reign of the Taliban that followed.

Yet many Hazaras who returned from Iran after the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001 say they were exploited and ostracized there and want nothing to do with any Iranian designs on Afghanistan. They said Iranian Persians tended to look down on them, much as Afghan ethnic Pash­tuns and Tajiks have traditionally done here.

‘They hate us’

“They hate us,” said Roya Sultani, a teacher who helped organize a Muharram prayer service for Shiite girls on Thursday. She said she spent years in Iran, and that people there often insulted Afghan exiles because of their Hazara origins. “They call themselves Muslims, but they are cruel and only thinking of their own interests.”

During the past 10 years, Afghan Hazaras have gained a small but significant toehold on power, winning seats in parliament and beginning to outgrow their longtime dependence on a few ethnic strongmen. Younger Hazaras, especially girls, who are freer to mingle in public than those from other ethnic groups, have taken advantage of new educational and job opportunities in post-Taliban democracy.

But Sultani, like others, said she was also worried about what would become of her community after Western forces withdraw. The specter of renewed ethnic violence haunts the community, and Hazaras, still vulnerable despite the show of religious bravado that has consumed the capital this week, fear they would bear the brunt of it.

“Today we can celebrate freely, and we feel secure,” Sultani said during the prayer service. A dozen girls in black robes crowded in to listen, while others chanted mournful poems or cleaned wheat to make bread for the poor. “If NATO leaves Afghanistan, we don’t know what will happen. Once we were afraid of the Taliban. Now we are afraid for the future.”