Afghan Shiite Muslim devotees beat themselves with chains and blades as part of a self-flagellation ritual during Ashura commemorations in Ghazni. (Zakeria Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images)

For Shiite Muslims, Ashura is an annual holy day marked by strong emotional expression — grief and anger, ritualized penitence and colorful celebration — all in memory of Imam Hussain, one of their faith’s most revered figures, who was killed in a battle in 680 A.D. 

But on Sunday, the Ashura holiday here was strangely subdued and grim. There were no motorcades of spray-painted cars with enormous banners circling the Shiite areas of West Kabul. There were no throngs strolling the streets. There were just families hurrying to visit shrines and mosques. Every visitor was hustled into a security line and body-searched, even elderly women and tiny children. 

And for the first time, men wearing camouflage gear and carrying assault rifles kept guard at every religious site. They were Shiite civilians, armed and trained by the Afghan government. After several terrorist attacks on Shiite places of worship in the past month, the spontaneity of traditional mourning had been overtaken by the priority of survival.

By late evening, no serious violent incidents had been reported — a sharp contrast from the pattern of the past several years, when numerous Shiite mosques and shrines were targeted by gunmen and suicide bombers during holy days. Most attacks have been claimed by the Islamic State, which Afghans believe is trying to divide their Sunni and Shiite communities. 

But the lull came at a price: a tacit admission of failure by government forces to protect a large segment of the populace, and a reluctant return to arming private, ethnically based self-defense forces, which were once outlawed by President Ashraf Ghani and which have figured in many belligerent and abusive episodes in recent Afghan history.  

“We didn’t want things to go this way, but we had no alternative,” said Sayed Mohammad Bashir, custodian at the Taimi Afshar mosque. “We know it could provoke the enemy more, but the population was afraid, and the government resources were too few. So we asked for permission to protect our own sites, and the authorities agreed.”

The community decided to act in late August, after a suicide bombing at a mosque in Kabul killed at least 28 people and wounded 20. Officials’ goal was to protect people during the holy month of Moharram, which began in late September. It peaks on the 10th day, Ashura, with booming dirges and mourning rituals that sometimes include self-flagellation by frenzied devotees. 

In response, the National Security Council authorized 600 assault rifles to be distributed to qualified men in Kabul’s Shiite community, as well as others in Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Ghazni. Each volunteer underwent biometric screening. Each is being paid about $90 per month to guard the sites for several months, while government security forces patrol outside the perimeters.

On Sunday, Ghani spoke at the mosque that was attacked in Khair Khona district, telling worshipers that religious diversity in Islam is an important value for all Afghans. “Any threat that other worshipers accept, then Afghanistan’s president also accepts it with his heart,” he said.

There was at least one gunman on every block Sunday. Some guarded sidewalk stands where volunteers distributed free milk and juice; others blocked alleys leading to mosques or directed traffic away from shrines. 

“We are not afraid of these attackers,” said Sayed Qasim, 58, a retired teacher entering Taimi Afshar. “Their goal is to weaken Islam and sow the seeds of discord among Shiites and Sunnis. But we all worship one God, we have one holy book, and we follow one prophet. We will not let them win.”

A few blocks away, at a much grander mosque called al-Zahra, security was even stricter and everyone was on edge. Trucks full of police were parked outside, and plainclothes agents spoke into walkie-talkies. There were snipers on the roof and kneeling behind sandbags. A convoy of black SUVs roared up and delivered a government official to worship as more bodyguards jumped out. 

Just three days ago, despite the new precautions, a suicide bomber attacked al-Zahra, leaving six people dead, including a prominent businessman. And on Friday, another bomber disguised as a shepherd herded a small flock of sheep near a mosque in central Kabul and detonated. This time six people were killed and more than 28 injured, as well as some of the sheep.

Some worshipers praised the government for being pragmatic enough to realize it needed to arm the community; others said it was unfair to put that burden on an impoverished and vulnerable minority. Almost all Afghan Shiites are members of the ethnic Hazara group, which has historically faced discrimination.

But Bashir, the mosque custodian, pointed out that toning down the Ashura activities for security reasons might also act as a mollifying gesture to the country’s Sunni majority, at a time when Shiites have been gaining ground in politics and professional life and foreign terrorist groups are trying to divide Afghanistan along sectarian lines

During the past half-dozen years, Moharram festivities have gradually spread out from the minority Shiite neighborhoods to much of the capital, with bunting-draped archways appearing on many streets, caravans honking and mourning chants sounding more insistently from loudspeakers. To some Sunnis, this has been an annoyance, a muscular sectarian display.

“Ashura is supposed to be a time of mourning. If people are riding around the city in convoys and putting on a big display, it seems too much like a celebration,” Bashir said. “With these new tactics we cannot only reduce casualties, but also tell the public we don’t want to show off. We just want to be left alone.”