Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mullahs Back Elections in Southeastern Afghan Province

In contrast to previous years, clerics are now encouraging people to vote.
By Ahmad Shah

Khost resident Qiamoddin smiled in surprise as he left the mosque following Friday prayers.

To his astonishment, the preacher had used his sermon to encourage people to participate in the April 5 presidential and provincial council elections.

“In previous elections, the same preacher said not to vote because the government was owned by the Americans. How come he’s changed his mind now?” he asked

Qiamoddin said that many people – himself included – would be taking part in the ballot out of respect for the mullahs.

Muslim leaders have always played an important role in Afghanistan, and many rejected the democratic process introduced after the United States-led invasion that toppled the Taleban in 2001, arguing that the Afghan people should not participate in elections as long as foreign troops were on their soil.

However, the Kabul government has increasingly been trying to court the clerics ahead of the planned exit of NATO-led forces later this year, and their attitudes appear to be softening.

Khalifa Abdul Rashid, a well-known Islamic scholar in Khost, said that in the past, the government failed to engage with clerics and this had alienated them from politics. It had now come to the realisation that they needed to be more closely involved in affairs of state.

“The government now invites them [to discuss] all kinds of national, local and political issues, it listens to what they say and acts on it. The mullahs, too, want to have a close relationship with government,” he said.

The withdrawal of foreign troops also seems to have made clerics more trustful of Kabul.

Another Muslim scholar, Nasrullah Qasemi, said that since some of the foreign soldiers had already left, their presence was no longer such a source of resentment.

In previous elections, many preachers in the southern province of Khost urged their congregations to boycott elections. This was now changing, Qasemi added.

“I am not only interested in taking part in these elections, I am also encouraging other people to participate,” he said. “We must determine our country’s destiny ourselves and prevent interference by foreigners.”

Political analyst Amir Shah Kargar said he had noticed the shift towards supporting the elections. He linked this to the unexpected decision by insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – who had previously opposed the democratic process - to urge his followers to take part on April 5. Hizb-e Islami leader has event endorsed a former associate, Qutbuddin Hilal, as a presidential candidate. (See Afghan Warlord in Election Turnaround .)

Kargar argues that increased engagement with the Taleban through peace talks has also encouraged religious leaders to support the political process.

In contrast to Hekmatyar’s change of position, the Taleban remain firmly opposed to the April 5 elections. They have released a statement condemning the vote as an American conspiracy, and continue to level threats against anyone who takes part.

Despite this, Maulavi Shah Mohammad, the head of the council of religious scholars in Khost, said he was not afraid of being attacked.

“Voting is martyrdom. If one regrets martyrdom, one becomes an infidel,” he said, adding that the public had realised the Taleban were responsible for killing fellow-Afghans and no longer feared them.

“We have told religious scholars to encourage people through the radio, TV, mosques and other forums to participate in elections,” he continued, adding that the Koran and the hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, supported the concept of elections.

“Voting for a qualified person, not selling one’s vote, not misusing one’s vote, and not remaining silent are the highest responsibilities of any Muslim,” he added.

Maulavi Mohammad said he and his fellow-scholars were now satisfied that the Kabul administration was an Islamic government, and that the insurgents were stoking conflict for their own ends rather than to defend the faith.

Another religious scholar, Abdullah, pointed to the many Islamic countries where elections were held.

“Why should we not vote? Why should we not transfer power peacefully to one another to stop warfare and bloodshed? God hates bloodshed,” he said.

Abdullah said he wanted to encourage people to vote for the most able contender.

“We know that many of the candidates are bad people,” he said. “If we don’t stop them by voting, they will get into power again. We must prevent them.”

Local officials and civil society activists in Khost agreed that the mullahs were now actively campaigning for electoral participation, in marked contrast to previous polls.

A civil society activist in Khost, Faruq Jan Zadran, said many clerics had begun participating in election awareness programmes, reflecting a growing feeling that the Taleban were enemies of Islam.

“The religious scholars understand very well what the value of peace and elections is in Islam. They are therefore backing the electoral process.”

Shafiq Ahmad Wafa, head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) in Khost, said that many religious scholars had approached him about the elections. Some were now involved in roles such as election monitoring.

“Their role… is very important because people accept whatever they say,” he said.

Many Khost residents said they had faith in the decisions of their religious leaders and would follow their lead.

“The mullah in our village told us not to vote in previous elections. I didn’t vote. Now, he tells us to vote. We will do whatever the mullah says, because he knows the path of God and the Prophet,” Rahmanullah said.

Ahmad Shah is an IWPR-trained reporter in Khost province, Afghanistan.