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Afghanistan Weighs Justice And Tradition After Farkhunda's Lynching

Afghan women's rights activist group hold flowers as they gather at the grave of Farkhunda.
Afghan women's rights activist group hold flowers as they gather at the grave of Farkhunda.

The murder of Farkhunda, a 27-year-old woman who was lynched and beaten to death by an angry mob in the heart of Kabul last month, has exacerbated simmering tensions between Afghanistan's religious bodies and an emergent class of young, reform-minded civic activists.

Farkhunda, who has since been labeled a modernist, was attacked by a group of men after a verbal spat with a mullah at central Kabul's Shah-e Doshamshira shrine. The mullah had accused her of burning the Koran. Some religious authorities have refused to denounce her murder, spawning a clash between the country's traditionalists and civil society actors.

On March 22, three days after her death, a group of women carried Farkhunda's coffin to the cemetery. It was an unprecedented move, as local tradition prohibits women from performing this task. Activists also prohibited Muhammad Ayaz Niazi, who heads one of Kabul's most famous mosques, from participating in the funeral.

A day after Farkhunda was murdered, Niazi made a controversial plea for the release of the men arrested in connection with the lynching. "When the Koran, the holiest book of the people, is insulted, people do not have to ask whether the accused is sick," Niazi had said during Friday prayers. "It is a huge mistake. If you arrest people, they will revolt. It will be difficult to control them."

Niazi, one of Afghanistan's leading clerics, has since rescinded his statements and condemned Farkhunda's murder in a belated effort to defuse rising tensions in the streets. Gathering at the spot where Farkhunda was killed, a group of clerics demonstrated against the insulting of Islam by civic activists. They also accused the West of fomenting social tensions by using civil society to create an environment of distrust between the people and religious authorities.

Tensions between modernists and traditionalists in Afghanistan date back to the rule of King Amanullah, who faced staunch opposition while attempting to implement progressive reforms after the country gained independence in 1919. When Queen Soraya, his wife, emerged in Kabul without hijab after a trip to Europe and encouraged all Afghan women to follow her example, her action became a weapon in the hands of religious authorities who had broad public support.

Experts say Farkhunda's case reignites this nearly century-old dispute. In an editorial for the "Hasht-e Subh" daily, author Saleem Azad noted that some religious authorities equate opposition to Farkhunda’s murder to opposition to Islam. He advised modernists to heed the opinions of the Islamic clerics and scholars collectively called Ulema, who still wield significant political sway in Afghanistan.

Aslam Jawadi, another Afghan writer, editorialized in the "Jamay-e-Baz" daily that religion has lost its power to reform and enhance morality. Instead, it has become destructive. "History has shown that limiting religious authorities and institutions is possible in a society, but removing them is impossible," he continued. "The vacuum created by the absence of religious authorities and institutions would lead to an environment where secularism would flourish, with less impediment to development."

A People Divided

The growing polarization of the two camps is also evident in the public reactions to the actions of Niazi, the prominent Kabul cleric who stood up for Farkhunda's killers. Attacked by civic activists and vehemently defended by traditionalist social media users, Niazi has been avoiding public appearances and has been reluctant to address journalist queries about Farkhunda’s murder.

Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh Province, expressed his support for Niazi in a statement on his official Facebook page. He condemned the murder and urged civil society to "use wisdom instead of emotions and avoid being anti-Islamic for the sake of justice." He also warned that "if anti-Islamists use this opportunity to insult Islam, they should be aware there will be firm and wise reactions on the part of Muslims."

"Religious authorities want civility, but unfortunately, some civil society activists use certain pretexts to work against religious values," Enayatullah Baleegh, a member of the Ulema Council of Afghanistan and head of the Pul-e-Khishti Mosque in Kabul told Afghanistan Today. "We don't want civil society to be shut down, but we urge the government of Afghanistan to stop those who use civil society to work against religious values."

Meanwhile, Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan spy chief and head of the Afghan Green Movement, advised the Ulema not to label Muslims based on how they look.

"Afghan religious authorities should consider themselves part of civil society. It is not a foreign nongovernmental organization, an office, an individual person or a governmental official. It does not have a leader or an organizational structure. It is a name for anyone who uses civil means for justice when needed," Saleh noted.

"Religious authorities are civil society unless they unknowingly call themselves uncivil. It is important for them to think about this. They should not distance themselves from civility," he said.

Zafar Shah Rouyee is an Afghan journalist. These views are of the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.