Taliban Targeting of Islamic Scholars - A Vicious Campaign to Control Religious Narrative
TOGH-BAIRDI, Afghanistan — A lone grave, its dirt mound shaded under the drooping branches of a mulberry tree and kept adorned with flowers, has become a daily stop for seminary students and staff members near Togh-Bairdi, in northern Afghanistan.
It is the burial site of Mawlawi Shah Agha Hanafi, a revered religious scholar who founded the seminary about two decades ago and helped it grow into a thriving school for 1,300 students, including 160 girls. This month, the Taliban planted a bomb that killed him as he conducted a discussion about the Prophet Muhammad’s traditions, and his grave, at a corner of the seminary grounds, has become a gathering place for prayer and grief.
“When I come to work, the first thing I do is recite a verse of the Quran at his grave,” said Jan Agha, the headmaster of the seminary, in Parwan Province. “Then I weep, and then I go to my office.”
The scholars have long been targets, of one kind or another, in Afghanistan. Their words carry weight across many parts of society, and they are assiduously courted for their support — and frequently killed for their criticism.
Hundreds are believed to have been killed over the past 16 years of war, and not always by the Taliban. But there has been a definite uptick in the targeted killing of scholars — widely known as ulema — as the Taliban have intensified their offensives in the past two years, officials say.
It is being taken as a clear reminder of the weight the insurgents give not just to military victories but also to religious influence in their campaign to disrupt the government and seize territory.
“The reason the Taliban resort to such acts is that they want to make sure their legitimacy is not questioned by the sermons of these ulema,” said Mohammad Moheq, a noted Afghan scholar of religion who also serves as an adviser to President Ashraf Ghani.
“The only thing that undermines their legitimacy is the ability and power of these ulema if they preach and argue against them,” Mr. Moheq continued. “Only they can challenge the Taliban’s ideology, not the liberal scholars or others, and the Taliban understand that.”
The exact toll of the war on scholars who preach Islam, but just not the kind the Taliban prefer, is hard to gauge. If rough numbers from multiple provinces are any indication, it is enormous, and it has sown fear among preachers who know that their words at the pulpit could cost them their lives.
In Kandahar Province alone, the Taliban movement’s original power base, about 300 preachers have been killed since 2004, according to Mawlawi Obaidullah Faizani, the head of the provincial Ulema Council there. In Badakhshan, 20 were killed in just the past year, out of a 16-year total of 110, said Abdul Wali Arshad, director of the province’s department of religious affairs. In Logar Province last week, the deputy head of the province’s Ulema Council was gunned down on his way home from dawn prayer, one of the bullets striking his upper lip.
“The reason these ulema are getting targeted is because they tell the truth — and the truth is that the ongoing fighting is just for power,” said Mawlawi Khudai Nazar Mohammedi, head of the Ulema Council of Helmand.