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

Preaching for Peace

Religious leaders have been learning how to promote and maintain Afghanistan’s new stability.
By Danish Karokhel

The residents of Mosahi village were deeply frustrated. The international peacekeeping force, ISAF, had built them a bridge across the Logar River - but the local mullah promptly issued a decree forbidding its use, because it had been constructed by what he described as infidels.

So they went to Maulavi Mohammadjan Fazali, the imam of Kabul’s Mandai mosque, who told them that the local mullah’s decree was “nonsense”.

Now, the villagers happily use the bridge without having to worry that they are committing a sin.

Fazali was one of 25 religious leaders in Kabul who last month took part in a peace workshop conducted by the Sanayee Development Foundation, an Afghan non-governmental organisation. At the workshop the mullahs and imams were given training in how they can promote peace and reconstruction through their preaching.

“I told them that the money spent on the bridge is part of the funds given to Afghanistan,” Fazali said, after he spoke to people in Mosahi. “And besides, even the Holy Prophet got help from non-Muslims during the wars.”

Ulema - religious scholars – such as Fazali are highly respected in Afghan society and people tend to look to them for guidance. The Sanayee programme, the Haj ministry and even the World Health Organisation, WHO, have begun engaging this influential groups of clerics to support progressive changes in the country.

Now, instead of preaching against political enemies and talking about abstruse theological points, the clerics are taking a more practical approach.

Workshop trainer Abdullah Kakaar told IWPR, “We taught them how to resolve disputes between people and how to bring peace instead.” The workshop participants also discussed how to end prejudices about ethnicity and language, as well as family problems.

Kakaar pointed out that the Islamic world had advanced systems of education in centuries past, “If the ulema preach education, then everyone will send their children to school, and when all the people are educated, peace and security can come to the country.”

Fazali said the instruction was very helpful, “It is a fact that if we don’t control a dispute within the mosque, it will grow to national proportions and may even extend to other countries. It was because of these disputes that our country was ruined.”

Since the workshop, Fazali says he has made his preaching more practical, and uses examples from real life “so that the people pay attention to their religion and to doing good to others”.

The Haj ministry has used the ulema to keep political unrest from spilling into the streets.

After the United States-led attack on Iraq, many mullahs condemned America and voiced support for the Iraqis in their Friday sermons. On April 2, the ministry gathered imams from 200 mosques in Kabul to advise them against this kind of rhetoric. “We told them that now that there is peace in Afghanistan, they should preach to make it last, and encourage people to live according to the law,” Sayed Ahmad Jamal Mubarez, the deputy minister responsible for mosques, told IWPR.

“Secondly, we told them that they should keep government policy in mind, because people give great value to speeches by the ulema.” The Karzai government has officially stated its support for the US move to depose Saddam Hussein.

Mubarez insisted that the ministry does not tell the mullahs and imams exactly what to preach, since “that would be contrary to democracy.… We just suggest to them the general topic of the Friday sermon”.

The ulema of Kabul tend to be more progressive than their rural counterparts, and have readily embraced the new approach.

Maulavi Karam Shah Zarif, the imam of Timorshahi mosque, said the sermons are designed to reassure people rather than rally them against an enemy “so that they are satisfied that the reconstruction is in progress and participate in it”. He said that exiled Afghans would be encouraged to return home as a result.

The message of peace is even getting support from Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami, a mujahedin faction which fought the Soviets in the 1980s, which supported the Taleban during its regime.

The party now supports the Karzai government, said its leader in Kabul province, Maulavi Siddiqullah. “We have told all the commanders and mujahedin in the country to end warfare and work for peace and reconstruction,” he said.

The ulema have had a vital role to play in Afghan politics because they may issue fatwa - decrees - against invaders or regimes. But the activities of the Taleban harmed the status of religious leaders in Afghanistan because most people associated the militia’s extremist actions with the mullahs.

At a more practical level, the ulema have also been called into service by the WHO to deliver the message that Afghans must be vaccinated against polio and tetanus.

WHO information assistant Samira Ayobi told IWPR that they have been asking mullahs to tell people about the benefits of hygiene. Nearly a third of the organisation’s basic public education is done through the ulema, Ayobi said.

Danish Karokhel is an IWPR editor/reporter.