Minority religious communities in Afghanistan have suffered “a rapid decline” and now face “near extinction” since the Aug. 15 capture of Kabul by the hardline Islamist Taliban movement, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s chairwoman said Wednesday.
The USCIRF session on Wednesday was one of the first public assessments of the state of civil liberties and religious freedoms in Afghanistan under the new Taliban regime. Many of the new leaders of Afghanistan were part of the previous Taliban government in the late 1990s which imposed a harsh form of Islamic Shariah law on the population.
“The outlook for Afghan religious minorities as well as all Afghans who do not agree with the Taliban‘s interpretation of Islam is alarming,” said Nadine Maenza, USCIRF chairwoman, during an online “conversation” the group held on religious liberty’s prospects in the Central Asian nation.
Among the hardest-hit communities are the Hazara, who comprise approximately 9% of Afghanistan’s population. Their largely Shi’a Islamic practice is at odds with the majority Sunni population of Afghanistan and with the Taliban, which reportedly promised to respect the group’s civil rights. However, criminal acts against Hazaras have been documented throughout 2021 as the Taliban offensive gathered force, including a May school bombing that killed dozens of female Hazara high school students.
On Tuesday, Amnesty International reported that “Taliban forces unlawfully killed 13 ethnic Hazaras, including a 17-year-old girl, in Afghanistan’s Daykundi province after members of the security forces of the former government surrendered.” The group said “killings happened in Kahor village of Khidir district” on August 30.
“The Taliban‘s imposition of their harsh and strict interpretation of Islam poses a grave threat to all Afghans who have different interpretations and other faiths or beliefs,” Ms. Maenza said. “Last month, the Taliban reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which includes a notoriously violent, hardline Islamic policing system which was disbanded in 2001,” she added.
USCIRF Commissioner Frederick A. Davie told the online audience that “the Taliban‘s harsh enforcement of its religious interpretation on all Afghans violates the freedom of religion or belief of women, members of the LGBT community, and Afghans who follow no religion.”
However, observers said the United States has some leverage over the Islamist rebels who seized power during the chaotic collapse of the U.S.-supported government of now-exiled President Ashraf Ghani.
“I think two of the most important levers we can pull at the moment are the power of the purse and of diplomatic pressure or recognition,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. She added the Biden administration should withhold financial aid to the Taliban until they comply with the group’s previously stated declaration that they will adopt more tolerant policies regarding women and minority religions.
The United States and its allies should band together to hold the Taliban to their pre-takeover promises of reform and to respect individual and minority rights, Palwasha Kakar, interim director of Religion and Inclusive Societies for the United States Institute of Peace, told Wednesday’s virtual session.
“I think the Taliban are seeking international legitimacy very clearly. And also, the economy of Afghanistan is really in dire straits, and they need international support,” she said.
Ms. Kakar said “equal rights need to be given to all those religious minorities in Afghanistan,” saying groups such as the Hazaras, Sikhs, and Christians “want to be allowed to work, to go to school, and have equal rights as all Afghans in Afghanistan.” She said women’s education, which is now restricted under the Taliban, is another marker of human rights progress.