KABUL — To most Afghans, the late Mohammad Omar was an enemy of the state, a religious fanatic who oversaw five years of repressive rule and then launched a ruthless insurgent campaign that has killed thousands of his countrymen and fellow Muslims.
But in pockets of ethnic Pashtun culture, in scattered Sunni mosques, among some religious political parties and even in some corridors of government, there is a soft spot for the Taliban founder, whose long-rumored death two years ago was revealed in late July.
As a result, the government of President Ashraf Ghani, under siege from a protracted Taliban offensive that has taken more than 3,300 civilian lives since January, has suddenly found itself faced with embarrassing reports of scattered mourning ceremonies or gatherings being held in Omar’s honor.
Several such events, organized by the Taliban, have been raided by Afghan security forces. In Ghazni province, officials said Taliban fighters blocked roads and ordered residents to slaughter animals for a mourning rite last week. Afghan forces attacked the site, killing several insurgents.
But other commemorative gatherings reportedly drew prominent Pashtuns — the ethnic group that spawned the Taliban — including some government aides. Memorial prayer services are a major religious and social institution in Afghan society, and war victims or heroes are honored as martyrs or “shahid.”
In response, the government last week ordered a ban on all such events and threatened to arrest anyone who attends. The national intelligence police announced that any ceremony for Omar would be a “legitimate target” for attack. The agency’s spokesman said that Omar had been responsible for killing thousands of Afghans and that honoring him would be an “insult to the thousands of martyrs of this nation.”
The government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, went further. At a cabinet meeting, he demanded that any officials who participated in such events should be prosecuted. Such recognition, he added, would give a “psychological boost to the enemy. . . . A serious part of the problem is us.”
The official threats appear to have driven such ceremonies and pro-Omar sentiments underground. Although it is common to hear Afghans say they miss the security and freedom from corruption that prevailed under Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, even former Taliban officials here denied having attended any rites for him, and most people asked about his death nervously refused to comment.
Clerics at several conservative Sunni mosques and seminaries, including one run by a former Taliban official, declined to speak about Omar’s death and legacy, saying they wanted to keep out of “politics” and simply preach Islam.
Maulvi Qalamuddin, the former Taliban minister of religious enforcement who lives in Kabul, described Omar as a “humble and virtuous man” who had “no ambitions for power or financial gain, only a dream to see a peaceful and secure country with a strong Islamic government.”
But Qalamuddin insisted that an event he attended last week, which has been described as a mourning ceremony for Omar, was nothing of the sort. He said it was a meeting of the religious party that Omar was once part of, Harakat Inqilab-Islami, which is now promoting peace talks and urging Taliban insurgents to seek reconciliation. The current party head declined to be interviewed.
At a large and ornate seminary on the outskirts of Kabul — founded by a former Taliban diplomat, Abdul Salam Zaeef, after he was released from detention at the U.S. base in Guantanamo, Cuba — academic officials said they knew of no ceremonies for Omar and could not comment about him. “We are just here to serve the people and teach religion,” said the headmaster, who gave his name as Noorullah.
Similarly, in an ethnic Pashtun area of Kabul where there was once strong support for the Taliban, the head cleric at a local mosque said he knew little about Omar and sought to avoid political controversy. “I try to teach the moral values of Islam, that people should be kind and compassionate,” he said in a brief interview. “We don’t have anything to do with politics.”
But in a mud-walled alley nearby, a young man who attends the mosque, speaking nervously but forcefully, said that he admired Omar and that Afghans should be allowed to mourn him properly.
“To me, he was king,” the young man said. “I am very sad that he is gone, and I don’t care what the government says. We should mourn him because he was a man of good character who served Islam. He did not have bank accounts abroad like many of the leaders today.”
Nearby, in a truck repair shop, a group of men mumbled and fell silent when asked what they thought about the death of Omar. But one, a government employee who gave his name only as Hotak, said the government had no right to ban mourning ceremonies.
“I cannot say if he was a good leader or a good Muslim, but he was a Pashtun like me, and we should commemorate his life and death,” Hotak said. He noted that several late militia leaders from other ethnic groups, known for abusive and cruel behavior during the civil war of the 1990s, are officially mourned as martyrs and have had public monuments erected to them.
“These are men who drove nails through people’s heads and cut off women’s breasts, and they have been commemorated by the current officials,” he said angrily. “In the Taliban time, we had peace and security. We should have the right to mourn someone whose only aim was to bring sharia to the country.”
At least one government official, former finance minister Omar Zakhilwal, has expressed similar views. Zakhilwal, now an adviser to the president, wrote on Facebook that he was “not delighted or sad” about Omar’s death but was “utterly against” preventing people from participating in mourning ceremonies. “This goes against the traditions of Afghans and our holy religion,” he wrote.
Zakhilwal added that Omar was only one of the individuals responsible for the civil and religious conflict that devastated Afghanistan in recent years. Without naming names, he noted that “many controversial figures, some considered the main cause of Afghanistan’s tragedy and accused of war crimes, have their death anniversaries officially celebrated.”
In neighboring Pakistan, religious groups openly organized numerous mourning prayer services for Omar last week, some attended by hundreds of people. Pakistan originally backed the Taliban and sheltered many of its leaders, including Omar, after the Islamist regime in Kabul was overthrown in 2001 by Afghan and U.S. forces.
But in today’s Afghanistan — even two years after his death and amid a nationwide terror campaign by his armed followers — the undercurrent of religious and ethnic loyalty inspired by Omar, a long-reclusive former village mullah, appears too threatening to allow public voice.