The Persecution of Hazaras
L. Ali Khan
“Persecution of human beings shall be forbidden.” Article 29, Afghanistan Constitution (2004)
In January 2021, Deash (Islamic State) marked the new year by murdering eleven Hazara coal miners in Quetta, Pakistan. The world press covered the story ruminating that the murders sprout from the Shia-Sunni schism because the Hazaras are Shia and Daesh is Sunni. However, the persecution of Hazaras, the original inhabitants of Khorasan, the historical name of a region including Afghanistan, is much older and complicated. Daesh, the newest slayers of the Hazaras, adores the name Khorasan as it resonates with the nostalgia of converting the people of this region to Islam in the 7th century.
As explained below, atrocities against the Hazaras of Khorasan, comprised of killings, ethnic cleansing, land confiscation, enslavement, underdevelopment, and forced exile, are not new. The Hazaras have been suffering persecution for centuries. Presently, there are more than 8 million Hazaras, but only half of them live in Afghanistan. To escape persecution, the other half migrated to other countries, including Pakistan, Iran, Europe, and Australia. In Pakistan and Iran, the Hazaras face degrading treatment as a refugee ethnic group while Daesh and Taliban slaughter them in Quetta and other parts of Baluchistan, Pakistan.
Almost always, the persecutors rely on perception (caricature) rather than reality. Sometimes perception is mightier than reality, and sometimes there is no reality but perception. Ethnic groups perceived as outsiders within a country are rarely trusted and frequently accused of being traitors in times of war. (The internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II was an act of perception, not reality.) There has been a persistent perception in Afghanistan that the Hazaras are not loyal to the nation, and that they facilitate the enemies. Accordingly, this article focuses on how the rulers of Afghanistan and the Pashtuns, the largest tribe, perceive and persecute the Hazaras.
Persecution, involving ethnic groups considered outsiders, is primarily of two kinds. In one kind, known as settler colonialism, an ethnic/racial group occupies territory and persecutes the native population. The U.S., Canada, Australia, Israel, and Latin America fall into this category. In the second kind, known as nativism, the native population persecutes a “foreign” ethnic group living in the country, sometimes for centuries. Gypsies in Europe, Rohingyas in Myanmar, and Hazaras in Afghanistan belong to this category. Each form of persecution is lethal and persists for centuries.
For at least seven centuries, the Hazaras have been concentrated in a mountainous area of 80,000 square miles, called Hazarajat, in the center of Afghanistan. The Hazaras are the progenies of the soldiers of Genghis Khan (d. 1227) and Tamerlane (d. 1405) who invaded Khorasan. In the 19th century, some oriental scholars argued that the Hazaras, despite their Turku-Mongol features, had been inhabiting the area from the time of Alexander the Great. This view is no longer favored, particularly in Afghanistan, where the Hazaras are readily distinguishable in terms of ethnicity, dialect, and religious sect.
Hazarajat, as the name of the central region of Khorasan, did not come into being until the 16th century when Mughal Emperor Babur popularized it in his biography, Babarnama. The current official map of Afghanistan, consisting of 34 provinces, does not mention Hazarajat as a geographical area. However, Article 4 of the Afghanistan constitution (2004) recognizes the Hazaras as a tribe among 13 other named tribes. Culturally and historically, most ethnic groups, including the Pashtuns, the largest tribe, see the Hazaras as “outsiders,” the descendants of the invading armies.
The Hazaras speak Hazaragi, a fusion dialect of Farsi and Mongolian. In addition to the two official national languages of Afghanistan, Pashto and Dari, Article 16 of the constitution recognizes six tribal languages, but not Hazaragi. Thus, the Hazaras must learn one of the recognized national or tribal languages to conduct legal relations and find jobs in the government. Hazaragi would likely face extinction if the trend of exclusion intensifies.
In addition to ethnicity, the Hazaras are perceived as outsiders because of their Shia faith. Before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century, many in Khorasan followed the teachings of the Buddha. Bamyan, where the World’s two tallest statues of the Buddha were carved in the mountain, is a province in Hazarajat. However, by the time the Hazaras arrived and proliferated as a tribe, Khorasan had turned Islamic, with a strong Sufi orientation. (Rumi, the greatest Sufi poet, was born in Khorasan.) Deviating from the Buddhist legends, the Hazara folklore identifies the statues with the ill-fated love of a couple petrified in stone, one more reason, among many others, why the previous Afghan governments attempted, and the Taliban succeeded in destroying the statues out of existence.
Khorasan has been under the Iranian influence for centuries. The Arabs brought Islam to the region, but the Persians furnished the culture. The Persian influence is evident in the Afghan ethos, cuisines, literature, and languages. The Hazaras, too, could not escape the Persian influence in their tribal customs and language, with some residual Mongolian practices. What sets them apart, however, is the fact that the Hazaras adopted Shia Islam while most other tribes, despite the Persian influence, continued to subscribe to Sunni Islam. The Hazaras also celebrate the Iranian New Year, Nowroz. The adoption of Shia Islam might have brought the Hazaras closer to Iran but alienated them from other Afghan tribes, reinforcing the perception of them being the outsiders.
Underdevelopment of a persecuted group is the most effective but soundless weapon that harms numerous successive generations. The infliction of poverty is the highest form of persecution. Allocating the fewest resources for education, health, the standard of living, and skills cultivation has been part of the persecution script. The Hazaras are the poorest of the poorest in Afghanistan. When the Hazaras travel to big cities, such as Kabul, in search of jobs they are abducted for ransom. Illiteracy is widespread, and the only jobs available are the menial jobs in Pashtun families, who call the Hazaras “donkeys” for doing drudgery.
Over the decades if not centuries, the Afghan governments have willfully neglected the Hazarajat region for development. During the American invasion, the government has been misappropriating international development funds earmarked for the Hazaras. Very few Hazaras are in the legislature, judiciary, and the executive branch. Joining a government that does not sit well with the Taliban is a death warrant. The historical stigma of being traitors forces the Hazaras not to seek jobs in government or the military.
The Hazaras are frequently condemned as collaborators who side with the enemies of Afghanistan. They allegedly supported the Russians against the Brits in the three Anglo-Afghan wars (1839-1842; 1878-1880; 1919). The Brits launched these wars from their Indian empire to counter the Russian influence in Afghanistan and to install pro-Brit Afghan rulers. In the 1990s, the Hazaras grouped with the Northern Alliance (1996-2001) fighting the Taliban. During the American invasion of Afghanistan (2001-present), the Hazaras are accused of working and spying for the Americans.
Amir Abdul Rahman (1880-1901), one of the more durable rulers of Afghanistan, fought the Hazaras in a civil war. In his autobiography, Rahman states that the Hazaras “were always ready to join the first foreign aggressor who attacked Afghanistan, as they believed that every Afghan was an infidel (Sunni).” Rahman also argues that the Mongols planted the Hazaras in the heart of Afghanistan to control the country. He paints the Hazaras as thieves and highway robbers, but also as menial servants doing the dirtiest jobs in the “Afghan households,” brashly distinguishing Hazaras from Afghans. It is no secret that the Brits of India brought Rahman from exile to rule Afghanistan, helped him to stay in power for ousting the Russian influence, and translated and published his autobiography in English in 1900.
Playing both sides of the fence, the Brits also recruited the Hazaras as scouts and spies. Later, in 1904, the Brits raised eight companies of Hazara Pioneers stationed in Quetta. In 1919, in the third Anglo-Afghan war, the Afghans were fighting for independence while the Brits were drafting the Hazaras in the Indian army.
To escape persecution under the Rahman rule (1880-1901), thousands of Hazara families migrated to Pakistan and Iran. The second wave of Hazara refugees took place under the Taliban persecution in the 1990s. In Pakistan, close to a million Hazaras live in and around Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan. In Iran, nearly half a million Hazaras are concentrated in Mashhad. In Pakistan, despite having lived there for more than a century, the Hazaras stand out as “foreigners” because of their ethnicity. Even though Iran and the Hazaras share the Shia creed, the Iranians see the Hazaras as outsiders. Nonetheless, Iran recruits soldiers from the Hazaras to fight Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
In the 1990s, the Taliban, while fighting for the control of Afghanistan, faced opposition from what is known as the Northern Alliance, a coalition of militias recruited from the non-Pashtun tribes, including the Hazaras. The wrath of the Taliban on the Hazaras, carrying the historical burden of being traitors, was severe and vindictive. This conflict was less a Shia-Sunni conflict and more a battle of seeking the control of the government. Note that the Northern Alliance was also predominantly Sunni, except for the Hazaras.
In 1999, the Taliban struck an agreement with the Hazara chiefs that they would not fight each other and nor would the Hazara militias enter the areas controlled by the Taliban, and vice versa. For nearly two decades (1999-2018), including the period of the American invasion, the chiefs of both tribes honored the agreement. However, the Taliban claimed that in 2018, the Hazara chiefs reneged the agreement and accused them of collaborating with the Americans. For example, the Americans recruited a Hazara chief, Hakim Shujae, to head the Afghan police. The Taliban accused Shujae of perpetrating crimes against the Pashtun families. Invoking betrayal, the Taliban have resumed the attacks on the Hazara community with vengeance, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Many analysts argue that the Hazaras in both Afghanistan and Pakistan are targeted because of their Shia creed. However, this line of analysis must be contextualized in the geopolitical conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. For centuries, the Shia and Sunni populations have lived peacefully in almost all Muslim countries. The Shia-Sunni schism received prominence after the 1979 Iranian revolution brought about by the Shia clergy. The revolutionary rhetoric wished to extend the “Islamic revolution” to other countries. This rhetoric rattled various non-democratic governments in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.
Consequently, to counter the Iranian influence in the region, the Saudis launched a movement to introduce the teachings of Abdul Wahab, the spiritual founder of Saudi Arabia. The millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion were trained in an anti-Shia theology. The Taliban were the products of such training. Even Pakistani religious schools receiving Saudi funds promoted anti-Iran and anti-Shia curriculum. Shia and Sunni militant organizations sprouted to defend their respective theologies. The Shia-Sunni conflict receives more tracking than the Iran-Saudi conflict in various predominantly Sunni countries, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The argument that the Hazaras were killed because they are Shia, though cursorily accurate, lacks analytical depth. Shia Muslims constitute 20% (more than 20 million) of Pakistan’s population. Why did Daesh select the Hazaras to kill? They are a lot of non-Hazara Shias living in Quetta. The Hazaras are killed because they are perceived to support Iran.
Daesh, a predominantly Arab outfit, does not engage in theological disputes between Shia and Sunni Islam. Daesh does not debate Shariah or fiqh. It murders communities that support Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It kills the Hazaras to sow dissension among Afghan tribes so that Daesh can establish a foothold for regional adventures. The Hazaras in Pakistan are killed not because they are Shia but because their chiefs in Afghanistan support Iran. If Daesh were just after killing the Shias, plenty of targets are available in the Gulf states.
The US, though it has reduced its military presence in Afghanistan, bears some responsibility for the attacks on the Hazaras. Whenever the CIA/Pentagon selects a Hazara chief to betray the Taliban or spy on Pashtun villages, the Taliban’s retaliation against the Hazara population follows — a consequence that has little to do with the Shia-Sunni schism. Relatedly, if the Taliban are serious about installing an internationally recognizable government in Afghanistan, they cannot massacre the ordinary Hazaras just because their chiefs collaborate with the Americans.
The ethnic atlases underneath geographical atlases constitute the secrets of persecution. There are three strikes against the Hazaras of Khorasan. First, they are viewed as settlers, not natives. Second, they practice Shia Islam in the predominantly Sunni nation and identify with Iran. Third, they are viewed as traitors siding with the invaders of Afghanistan and enemies of the Pashtuns.
Whether an ethnic group living in a country for centuries is native or outsider is disputable. Whether an ethnic group is loyal to a nation is also debatable. However, whether a certain group practices Shia or Sunni Islam is a fact, easily determinable. Injudicious analysis reduces the complex reality of persecution to a popular denominator. Concerning the Shia-Sunni schism, one must not ignore the fact that the geopolitical battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the driving force of killings rather than the centuries-old theology.