Afghanistan's Shiites

Confident Reformers

Afghanistan's new draft marriage law unleashed a wave of international protest, but the impression that the country's Shiites have become radical Islamists is deceptive, leading to false conclusions. Martin Gerner reports from Kabul

Photo: Martin Gerner
The Ketab Institute, a private university in Kabul, is run by secular Shiites

​​"This text describes the terms of a marriage in which the husband fulfils his responsibilities toward his wife and respects her. Under the marriage agreement, the man agrees to his wife's right to seek further education. He helps her with the housekeeping. [...] And in the case of a divorce, their property will be divided proportionately between them. [...] In this book, the conditions for a successful marriage will be listed."

This is an extract from a small publication shelved in the library at the Ketab Institute in Kabul, a Shiite-dominated private university. Almost everything contained in the pamphlet clearly contradicts the negative press attracted in recent weeks by Afghanistan's Shiites and the controversial marriage bill.

Sociology and philosophy instead of Sharia

The West has an all too simplistic view of things, assuming that a group of radical clerics stands for a whole country and what are, in all probability, the most advanced sections of the population.

Photo: Martin Gerner
Thus far and no further: this book from the library of the Ketab Institute explains how to lead a successful Islamic married life

​​The situation is, in fact, very different. Afghanistan's Shiites, of whom the majority belong to the Hazara ethnic group, hold relatively open views on issues of social morality. The Ketab Institute, founded a year ago, could be seen as the spearhead of secular-orientated Shiites in Afghanistan.

In its library, books on civil law stand next to works by Nietzsche. Its 700 students attend lectures in sociology, political science and philosophy as well as Islamic studies and law. Sharia law and its interpretation are notably absent from the curriculum.

The Shiite fight for interpretative authority

"Afghan Shiites are a dynamic group, and we cannot allow our image to be distorted by this new marriage law", Mohammad Ahmadi politely asserts. As president of the Ketab Institute, he describes the university as one of the most important players in the current disagreement surrounding the marriage law. He and his colleagues attempted to get the controversial passages moderated several months ago. The parliament, ministry of justice and the presidential palace were all included in the discussions.

The library at the Ketab Institute (photo: Martin Gerner)
Nietzsche in Kabul: the Shiite Ketab Institute has a broad collection of books in its library

​​A slightly more moderate version of the bill, explicitly allowing the wife the right to leave the house independently, has not to date been published in the official journal.

"Karsai is afraid of a conflict with the conservatives," Ahmadi explains. "He also has poor advisors. And he has clearly underestimated the scale of this issue." He says that Karsai's compromise approach towards conservative mullahs, both Sunni and Shiite, is also the reason the Taliban have become stronger again.

Tehran's influence

The foil to the secular Kateb Institute is the Khatam Al Nabi'in Institute, a few hundred metres away. The imposing building with its blue, tiled dome, rising high above the entire parliamentary district is allegedly financed entirely with Iranian money. Ayatollah Mosheni, who calls himself the leader of Afghanistan's Shiites, calls the shots here. He doesn't enjoy the widespread support of the public, according to knowledgeable sources in Kabul at any rate.

"The majority of Afghan Shiites reject Mosheni's leadership claim," says, for instance, Ali Karimi, lecturer at Kabul University. "He is known to have been a Mujahed fighter and he is a Pashtun. Like president Karsai, he is from Kandahar. Most Shiites are Hazara and do not trust him."

Ali Amiri from the Kateb Institute shares this view: "Mosheni stands for a political and ideological interpretation of Islam similar to that practiced in Iran. He spent twenty years in exile there."

"Reforms will be made"

The Khatam Al Nabi'in Seminar (photo: Martin Gerner)
Influenced by its Western neighbours? The Khatam Al Nabi'in Institute in Kabul is apparently funded by Iran

​​Amiri and his colleagues are confident that the bill will be moderated by next month. "The way things are looking, reforms will be made. We are sure of it." Initial talks with influential politicians, the arbitration commission and the justice minister back this up; ten articles are to be dropped from the bill, including the controversial passages, and a further twenty articles are to be reworked.

Alongside the points that have caused international outrage, the Ketab Institute is also campaigning hard for the wife's right to choose her husband freely without having to ask her father's permission.

Toward a new form of Shia Islam

The lecturers at the Kateb Institute all favour a modern, rational interpretation of Islam. "Young people have many questions surrounding Islam and their personal beliefs," says Amri. "We have to convince them with arguments, not with traditions and rituals."

"The Koran says, be good to your wife," notes institute leader Mohammad Ahmadi, quoting the holy book on which his rivals also base their arguments. It seems that the debate about a new form of Shia Islam in Afghanistan is only just beginning.

Martin Gerner

© 2009

Martin Gerner is a freelance journalist who specializes in Afghanistan. He reports for a number of German media including Deutschlandfunk, WDR and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

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Comments for this article: Confident Reformers

Strange how it talks about the fact that other countries ("the West") have a distorted view of Afghanistan, specifically about Shiites appearing to be 'radical Muslims'... In my experience, the Sunnis have the reputation of being radical (especially on being 'conservative' in religion)... Either way, I do not understand what you would expect someone to believe when all they see is President Karzai signing off on this document as Law.
(Many non-Muslims do not even know the difference between Sunni and Shia sects, if they even know those words in the first place, so you would have to start there, to be honest.)

Even the 200 women that protested was not enough to effect any change, was it?
What else can be done to stop the people in power in Afghanistan from making laws that do not reflect the ideas of the people, if this is the case?
Many of the people that leave Afghanistan due to lack of local education opportunities and disagreement with the government could also help if they stayed, but don't they also have a right to live somewhere where they can live as they choose? It is a difficult question I think... having to choose between your love of your homeland and the option to emigrate to a country that may offer things that you can't do or have in the current Afghanistan. The Afghans that I talk to want to bring their children back one day to Afghanistan, for many reasons, but not until they are older. They do not see themselves moving back to live in Afghanistan permanently at this time.

Ketab Jameel21.04.2012 | 12:18 Uhr