August 2001

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Afghan Hindus and the Taleban Edict

By Suresh Jaura

Within a few weeks after disregarding the worldwide call for restraint and the wanton destruction of ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan, the Taleban have decided to DARE the world once again. This time the target is not the statues but human beings.

Afghanistan’s ruling Taleban said on May 22, they would require Hindus to wear identity labels on their clothing to distinguish them from Muslims.

The Taleban said the measure, which would also require Hindu women to be veiled, was aimed at keeping non-Muslims from being harassed by religious police enforcing Islamic law. Unlike Muslim women, Hindu women in Afghanistan, until now, have not been forced to wear the head-to-toe covering called a burqa.

The Taleban’s Bakhtar news agency said the latest measure was intended “to prevent disturbance to non-Muslim citizens” who might be stopped by the religious police.

Wali, the religious police minister, said Islam required the restrictions. “Religious minorities living in an Islamic state must be identified,” he said. “This is a tradition since the time of the holy Prophet Mohammad for non-Muslims for their safety and immunity,” said Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taleban ambassador to Pakistan.

“This order was issued on the demand of Hindus who were concerned all the time because the workers of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice would always ask them to grow a beard or go and offer prayers in the mosque,” said Mullah Abdulhanan Himat, a senior Information Ministry official.

The Taleban decree was the latest sign of its growing hostility to the outside world and an increasingly tough line in enforcing its austere version of Islam. The Taleban defend their plan as being consistent with sharia, the Islamic legal code.

The general secretary of Pakistan’s Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami praised the Taleban move. “Providing protection to religious minorities is a must in any Islamic country and this step seems in line with this concept,” said Munawaar Hasan.

Hindus and Sikhs first came from India to Afghanistan in 1747. They numbered some 50,000 in the 1970s, but most left after the Soviets sent troops into Afghanistan in 1979. Fighting in 1992 destroyed five of the seven temples used jointly by Hindus and Sikhs in Kabul. Till this time, Hindus in Afghanistan have not been the target of persecution and have been allowed to practice their religion without interference, even using music, which is otherwise banned. In a nation of 26 million Muslims, they number about 1700.

The Taleban’s decree conjures up horrible memories of Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s. They faced mounting international condemnation.

India denounced the order—which was aimed primarily at Hindus living in Afghanistan—as racist and called for international pressure on the Taleban. “We absolutely deplore such orders which patently discriminate against minorities,” Raminder Singh Jassal, an Indian foreign ministry spokesperson, said in New Delhi. “It is further evidence of the backward and unacceptable ideological underpinning of the Taleban.”

Pakistan publicly took a strong line on the Taleban’s decision to make the Hindus wear distinctive cloth badges. A statement by the ministry of foreign affairs said last Thursday that Pakistan deplored “all discrimination against religious or any other group or minority anywhere in the world.” 

The statement was issued four days after the Taleban ordered all Hindus to wear separate badges to become distinct from the Muslim population.

The carefully worded statement said that Pakistan was looking into the “veracity of the reports of the edict,” adding that “as a matter of policy Pakistan upholds the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights including the principle relating to religious tolerance and equal rights and opportunities for all.”

In an apparent reference to the controversial edict, the statement said: “We consider this against the spirit of Islam.”

This is the first time that Pakistan, which besides Saudi Arabia and the UAE is the only country in the world to have recognised the Taleban, has taken such a tough stand towards the government in Kabul. If countries like Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Pakistan severely condemn, the Taleban may back down.

A Pakistan Muslim League leader, Hamida Khuhro, has said this action smacked of crude barbarism and inhumanity and was a contravention of Islamic teachings, which went without saying. What was surprising, she added, was that Pakistan, which helped Afghanistan in its time of need, was not now using whatever clout it had to bring Afghanistan to its senses.

She claimed that Muslims were under siege both physically and intellectually everywhere in the world and such an action in Afghanistan would bring Muslims into further disrepute the world over. Hence, Hamida suggested, the government of Pakistan must condemn this step of the Taleban absolutely and do everything it could to prevent such acts.

In Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, the Foreign Ministry as “a reprehensible act, which defies all norms and universal principles of human rights”, denounced the Taleban edict.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, expressed dismay and appealed for the order not to go into force, saying it “recalls some of the most deplorable acts of discrimination in history.”

“Similar practices in the past—from Nazi Germany in the 1930s to Rwanda in the early 1990s—have led to the most horrible crimes,” Ms. Robinson said in a joint statement with UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura.

In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesman called the requirement “the latest in a long list of outrageous oppressions” by the Taleban.

“We want to make quite clear that forcing social groups to wear distinctive clothing or identifying marks stigmatizes and isolates those groups and can never, never be justified,” spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.

All European governments have deplored the edit and asked the Taleban to re-consider.

Canada joined the chorus of international anger. “We condemn what we’ve heard. These actions run against accepted norms of religious tolerance that are valued by all Canadians,” said Marie-Christine Lilkoff, a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

It is also a violation of the principle of freedom from discrimination in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.”

Canadian Alliance MP Deepak Obhrai called on Ottawa to push for a United Nations resolution condemning the Taleban. “The Taleban must be told in no uncertain terms its behaviour is unacceptable to the world community.”

“This is an edict that should be condemned by all who support religious freedom and the rights of minorities,” Keith Landy, national president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said in a statement. Landy urged the Canadian government to speak out against the edict, which he called “a chilling reminder” of the Nazi regime.

“We must help put maximum pressure on Afghanistan and stand at the ready to accept refugees if the need arises”, wrote Keith Landy in The Toronto Star.

Ian Stewart, a former correspondent, writing in the Globe and Mail, hits the nail on the head, “If we do not tell them (the Taleban) that enough is enough, we may regret a missed opportunity to pre-empt a massacre. Let’s act before the saffron-badged Hindus begin disappearing from the streets of Kabul and Afghanistan’s other cities.”

Canada opened its doors to the fleeing Asians from Idi Amin’s Uganda and at the time of Kenya’s Africanisation campaign. If the Taleban government implements the decree, Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s government should make arrangements through Pakistan’s help to move Hindus and Sikhs, who may wish to come here.

It is not a question of 1700 or so Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan. As Jim Karygiannis, MP (Scarborough-Agincourt) writes, “If this is let go unnoticed and unchallenged, other regimes might also get the same idea and start threatening minorities in their countries.”

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