by Susan Crabtree
Two months ago, explosions and gunfire tore through a Sikh house of worship in Kabul, Afghanistan. Seven attackers, reportedly part of ISIS-K, the Afghanistan affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, tried to storm the temple on a Saturday morning, throwing grenades at security guards standing at the entrance. One gunman began firing on those worshipping inside; another attacker detonated a vehicle parked outside the temple.
The attack killed at least two people, according to Kabul police, and injured several others.
Before Kabul fell to the Taliban, there were approximately 700 Sikh and Hindu Afghans, small religious minorities in a country dominated by Sunni Muslims. Many Sikhs have fled since the Taliban takeover last year, and an unknown number remain.
“It’s important to remember not all can escape, and those who remain are now living under the rule of the Taliban and must rely on the group for protection,” said Joseph Azam, board chair of the Afghan American Foundation, during a Wednesday hearing held by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
While the Taliban has publicly condemned the attack on the Sikh temple, the words offer little reassurance. As Azam recalled, during its first rise to power in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Taliban ordered Hindu and Sikh Afghans to carry yellow badges that would distinguish them from the Muslim majority, ignominiously replicating Nazi Germany’s early persecution of Jews.
Earlier this month, during Ashura, one of the holiest days for Shia Muslims around the world, three deadly attacks in four days targeted Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan. The last of these attacks was a bombing near a religious gathering that killed many worshippers, including women and children.
In July 2021, as the Taliban marched through the country before seizing control of Kabul, the same group was responsible for the brutal mutilation and murder of six Hazara men, according to Amnesty International. Hazaras are a mainly Shia ethnic Afghan population of nearly 8 million, residing primarily in central Afghanistan but also scattered across the country. They have a long history of persecution.
There are similar accounts of attacks on other religious minorities in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, members of the Bahai, Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist faiths, as well as non-Sunni Afghan Muslims (Shia, Sufi and Ahmadiyya) live in constant fear of Taliban targeting. Most now practice their religion secretly in hiding.
One year after the return of Taliban control, “Religious freedom does not exist in Afghanistan anymore,” Fereshta Abbasi, a researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told the panel on Wednesday.
The Taliban retook control of Kabul in August 2021 as the U.S. military and NATO forces withdrew, prompting the fall of the Western-backed government in Kabul. Their return to power has rolled back pro-democracy reforms the U.S. and NATO allies worked to build in the country, including its parliamentary government, judicial system, as well as women’s rights to attend school, hold jobs and elected office – even to travel and appear in public without a husband or male chaperone.
Tolerance for practicing different religions outside of a strict brand of Sunni Islam that relies on Shariah law, a legal system based on a strict interpretation of the Koran, is another casualty of the Taliban’s return to power. USCIRF officials released a report earlier this week detailing a severe decline in freedom of belief under Taliban rule and its failure to protect the safety and security of religious minorities against attacks from other militant and jihadist groups.
“The Taliban’s harsh enforcement of its religious interpretation violates the religious freedom of minorities, women, members of the [LGBTQ] community, Afghans with differing interpretations of Islam and Afghans who follow no religion,” the report found.
Abbasi argued that the Sunni Taliban’s exceptionally narrow interpretation of Shariah “cannot be found in any other country with Islamic populations.” She and others stressed that the Taliban’s ban on secondary education for girls violates parts of the Koran that call on believers to continue to pursue knowledge throughout their lives. When the Taliban returned to power last year, its leaders promised to uphold women’s rights, but quickly reneged, banning girls from attending secondary school, ordering women to stay home and requiring women’s bodies to be completely covered outside the home.
“These restrictions also violate the rights of Afghans to live according to their own conception of their religious beliefs,” Abbasi said.
Ann Richard, a former U.S. State Department official who now heads Afghanistan policy at Freedom House, a human rights group, has been working with other international groups and diplomats to recommend steps to hold the Taliban accountable for these human rights violations “in accordance with international standards.”
“It is essential that we continue to pay very close attention to the rights of religious minorities and religious reform in Afghanistan as this will be central to reducing violence there and restoring the rights and freedom of the Afghan people,” she said.
In July, the United States and the European Union sponsored a conference on the protection of religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan that took place on the sidelines of the 50th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Several human rights advocates and leaders of Afghan religious and ethnic minority groups asserted that condemnation is not enough – that more resources are needed to document and investigate allegations of attacks and persecution, and more must be done to relocate those at greatest risk.
Because the Taliban has broken so many of its early promises and agreements with the West, it’s critically important that the U.S. doesn’t recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government, Richard said. She called for extending and expanding a travel ban on Taliban leaders and urged the Biden administration to accept more Afghan refugees, especially those from high-risk communities and those who worked closely with Americans and allied forces over the past two decades. Tens of thousands of these Afghan allies have had their Special Immigration Visa, or SIV, applications stuck in a vast, bureaucratic backlog.
A basic first step, Richard and other advocates argued, would be the passage of the Afghanistan Adjustment Act. The bipartisan measure would allow Afghans already in the United States with temporary visa status who agree to additional vetting the opportunity to apply for permanent legal residency. The bill would also improve and expand the SIV process by broadening the group of Afghans who can apply for it to include those who worked alongside American forces, such as the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command and the Female Tactical Teams of Afghanistan.
Several panelists echoed USCIRF’s previous call for the State Department to return Afghanistan to its list of “Countries of Particular Concern,” a special watchlist for countries that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
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Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.
Photo “Muslims” by Timur Weber.