The Taliban’s rise to power in 2021 raised concerns about their treatment of ethnic and religious minorities in the country, who had been persecuted during the first Taliban regime. Shi’ite Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and other religious minorities suffer systemic discrimination under Taliban rule.
In the 1980s, there were around 100,000 Hindus and Sikhs across the country. After the war began in 1979, growing persecution pushed many out. The Taliban and rival groups promised to protect religious minorities but this did not occur, and Sikhs and Hindus lost their homes and businesses. During the first Taliban regime, militant rulers announced that Sikhs and Hindus would be forced to wear yellow badges to be identified, which led to international uproar. They were also prevented from building new temples and had to pay jizya, taxes for not being a Muslim.
Other religious minorities, such as Shi’a Muslims, make up approximately 15% of Afghanistan’s 40 million people, and are mostly ethnic Hazaras, some Tajiks and few Pashtuns. In addition to harassment and persecution, the minorities are also denied the right to use their jurisprudence in courts. Afghanistan’s 2004 Constitution permitted Shi’a to use their Jafari jurisprudence in court cases. But the Constitution has since been suspended indefinitely by the Taliban and minorities are asked to follow the Taliban’s rules.
Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The Taliban originally promised better treatment towards minority groups. They visited Shi’a mosques in Kabul and designated officials to protect ceremonies for the Shi’ite month of Muharram. Since then, they have broken promises granting the Shi’ite community freedom to observe their religion.
Last month, the Taliban stopped Shi’a from celebrating an important festival, Eid al-Ghadir, a day that marks when Prophet Muhammad declared Ali, a cousin, his successor. In Sunni belief, this day is when Abu Bakr, the first Muslim caliph, became the successor to Prophet Muhammad. This is the main ideological difference between the two sects. The Taliban has also restricted Shi’a teachings at universities and in February announced an edict banning marriages between Shi’a and Sunnis in Badakhshan province, in northern Afghanistan.
Sikhs and Hindus also face harsh restrictions on their appearance and have been banned from celebrating religious holidays in public to the point where many have fled. Fari Kaur, one of the last Sikhs remaining in Kabul describes that she “cannot go anywhere” and is forced to “dress like a Muslim” so that nobody will identify her as Sikh.
Kaur’s father was killed in a suicide attack targeting Sikhs and Hindus at a temple in Jalalabad five years ago, in eastern Afghanistan. After that attack, some 1,500 Sikhs left Afghansitan, including Kaur’s remaining family. In 2020, 25 worshippers were killed when IS-K militants attacked a Sikh temple in Kabul. Kaur says “we have very few community members left behind in Afghanistan. We cannot even look after our temples.”
Historically, the Taliban has been intolerant of public expressions and displays of the Sikh and Hindu, Shi’ite and other religious minorities. The Taliban has often forced to impose their interpretation of Islam and Islamic laws on all Afghans, and especially on religious minorities who are not Muslim and Sunni.
The ban on observing religious holidays goes “against the spirit of Islamic brotherhood and national unity,” said Seyyed Mohammad Hossein Rizwani, a scholar at Shi’a Ulema Council of Afghanistan. The de facto authorities are attempting to institute their “distorted view of Islam,” leaving minority groups vulnerable to other religious extremists in the region, whose presence has increased since 2021.
The situation in Afghanistan worsens as political extremist factions claiming to represent Islam rise to power throughout the region. According to Niala Mohammed, director of policy and strategy at the nonprofit Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, “this exodus of diverse religious groups has left a void in the country’s social fabric.”
RFE/RL 07/17/2023; RFE/RL 08/252/2023