Afghanistan’s anti-Iranian syndrome: denying the Hazaras’ political agency

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Talking in favor of nationalism brings up scorn from fellow academics and scholars at a university setting. Prioritizing one’s ethnicity or group’s security and well-being above others as contemptible and scornful. However, the pitfall of such a blanket dislike of nationalism is that academics and scholars fall short of differentiating between different forms of nationalism, maybe due to humanistic tendencies prevalent in academia.

Discussing nationalism in a multi-ethnic country like Afghanistan is even more challenging. In Afghanistan, the official narrative for the nation goes something like “our country has a 5000 years old civilization, and it is the graveyard of empires”. But sometimes, we also define our nationalism based on the anti-Pakistani or anti-Iranian fervent, thus labeling those who do not share the official line as Pakistani or Iranian puppets, denying the agency of Afghani citizens in politics or its articulations. Particularly the Hazaras in Afghanistan suffer from the anti-Iranian syndrome prevailing in the country.

Since the 1978 Iranian revolution when Wilayat Faqih, a Shiite theocratic state, took power in that country, the Hazara Shiites in Afghanistan are seen as pawns and puppets of the Iranian government. When the Hazaras raise a demand, the state apparatus is quick to call them Iranian puppets, who undermine the national interest in favor of the Iranian agenda, whatever it may be, as if the Hazaras, who make a quarter of the population, do not have an agency of their own, or the Afghan government is fully functioning, and any complaint is baseless. In the last few years, Alipoor, a Hazara commander who took arms and proved successful in preventing the Taliban from capturing Behsud and Sarchishma regions in Wardak province, the Ashraf Ghani government began seeing him as a rival defying its authority. Last week, Ashraf Ghani’s government dispatched over 1000 troops to kill or capture him, which caused an uproar among the Hazaras opposing it. However, the Afghan government spokespersons, state-run TVs and radios, newspapers, and social media operatives, including Commanding General 215 Maiwand Afghan Army Corps, went as far as saying, “the security forces will hunt down Alipoor, his followers and supporters like mad dogs in Behsud, Kabul and throughout the country.” Sami Sadat earlier indicated that Alipoor is supported by Iran. President Ghani too publicly swore to punish Alipoor. Following the government’s harsh tone and rhetoric, the Afghan social media was overwhelmed with racist comments, hate speeches targeting Hazaras. The like of which was witnessed during the 2019 Delhi riots against Indian Muslims.

What is more concerning is that, unlike India, Afghanistan lacks the sheer number of liberals, leftists, and moderates who would step in to counter hate speeches. Few left-wing academics often found themselves implicitly siding with social media users and government operatives who perpetuate hate speech against the Hazaras. The Afghan lefts often argue that Hazara ethnic nationalism should be done away with; we should all stand for the poor and abandon all forms of ethnic affiliations. On the surface, this line of argument looks pretty revolutionary; however, it ignores the fact that due to long historical discrimination, the Hazaras are the poorest ethnic group, which almost all agree, including the academic left. Additionally, by turning the edge of their scorns and dislikes towards the Hazara, the leftists unintentionally become part of the state propaganda in suppressing the Hazaras voicing their demands. The logic of Afghan academic right and moderates is simple and could be summarized as follows; the Afghan state is legitimate, whatever it does is fair, and raising any ethnic-related issue undermines the state is condemnable and serves the interests of neighboring countries, hence should be put down at all costs.

The underlying concern against Hazara’s ethnic nationalism maybe the apprehensions that it is too rigid and will push other ethnic groups in Afghanistan to turn into aggressive nationalism of their own, which would divide the country further along the ethnic lines. That may be the case. However, the Hazaras nationalism lacks any component of a rigid nationalism which excludes all or some of the other ethnic groups in the country. There is no agreement among the Hazaras on the origin of their ancestors. Some of them consider themselves decedents of Mongols who conquered Central Asia in the thirteenth century. Another portion of them emphasizes their shared Turkic roots with Uzbeks, Turkmens, Imaqs, and Qizilbash. In contrast, another section of the Hazaras sees themselves as original inhabitants of Hazarajat who lived since ancient times, a characteristic shared with the majority of Pashtuns. Other segments of Hazaras, like the two other most prominent ethnic groups of the country, Tajiks and Pashtuns, define an Aryan origin for themselves. The Hazara ethnic group is diverse in their religious beliefs consisting of Shiites, Sunni Hazaras, and Ismaili Hazaras. The Hazaras speak a fading dialect of Persian, the lingua franca of Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. Therefore, understanding Hazara nationalism as a rigid nationalism is misleading. No indication of claims of racial or cultural superiority exists among the Hazaras. Instead, what brings different tribes of the Hazaras together is long and historical discrimination against them by the state and shared victimhood — an outcome of discriminatory state policies throughout the 20th century.

The Alipoor phenomenon is nothing but a symptom of government failure to secure the highway between Kabul and Behsud, where hundreds of Hazaras have been killed by the Taliban. Alipoor and his men have stopped the Taliban’s advance into Behsud and Bamiyan, filling the gap left by the government. Apparently, for the Afghanistan government, the enemy of its enemy is also its enemy.

PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s articulation on Indian Muslims immediately in the aftermath of the India-Pakistan partition comes in handy as a lesson to Afghan government officials. PM Nehru wrote in the letter dated 15 October 1947, “…we have got to deal with the minority [muslisms] in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State.” The Hazaras in Afghanistan want nothing more than security and citizenship rights under a democratic state. Since 2001, the Hazaras supported Afghanistan’s state through democratic participation; it’s the Afghan state that continuously ignored and alienated them. Unlike what officials in the Afghan government seem to believe, the Hazaras are far from disloyal to the country, but if those in power demand more Loyalty from the Hazaras, as the then PM wrote, “Loyalty is not produced to order or by fear. It comes as a natural growth from circumstances which make Loyalty not only a sentiment which appeals to one but also profitable in the long run.”

Rustam Ali Seerat is a research scholar at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University New Delhi.

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