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Fiction of Ethnicity

By Sofya Voloshina
Published 2019-02-09

Over the last few decades, debates surrounding peacebuilding and effective development in post-conflict countries have ensued. The questions regarding the nature of human development and the policies that should be put in place to ensure them has been at the forefront of many governments’ and non-government organizations’ agendas. One crucial aspect that is often overlooked in the discourse of development is culture. Understanding cultural context, such as relationships between different ethnic groups, is crucial if one is striving to create change and assist people living in precarious conditions in developing countries. Therefore, the significance of ethnicity in peacebuilding and development processes should not be understated. This article focuses on ethnic conflict and its role in developing nations, with ethnicity meaning a fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common, national, or cultural tradition. The case study that this paper will examine is that of the Hazara community in Afghanistan, a group that has long suffered human rights violations from state as well as non-state actors.

In Afghanistan, the ethnicity of the Hazara minority has served as an instrument to deny it the rights to peacefully live on their land. Additionally, the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization, has been persecuting this minority group on the basis of their ethnicity and Muslim Shia faith, and this has been met with government inaction. Therefore, the first part of this article intends to demonstrate how the Hazara have been disempowered in the Afghan state through persecution, displacement and politics of exclusion. As for the second part, I will delve into the influence of outside powers in constructing ethnicity and exacerbating persecution by radical Islamist groups.

To begin the case analysis, the notion of identity warrants a brief analysis. Looking at the status of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, Jobair Alam analyzes what constitutes minority identity. Minority groups are said to possess a common sense of identity, which includes distinct cultural and physical traits, as well as a common feeling of shared burdens. The formation of minority identity is different in many societies, but it is almost always influenced by characteristics distinctive to the minority groups, such as race, ethnicity, religion, region and class. In the case of Hazara people in Afghanistan, their cultural traditions, dialect, as well as distinct physical features play a role in fostering their shared sense of community. When a dominant cultural group is faced with another one, that is “unlike” them and seeks to change some of their traits, Benedict Anderson identifies such groups as “imagined communities.” These imagined communities are based on a symbolic binary separating “us” from “others.” In Afghanistan, this has been manifested by the oppressive dominance of the Pashtun ethnic group, as well as the tyranny of terrorist groups. The burdens they have imposed on the Hazara can be considered a significant factor in creating their shared sense of minority identity.

In order to facilitate the understanding of this case study, it is imperative to provide a general overview of Afghanistan’s social mosaic. Afghanistan, a landlocked country of Southeast Asia, is majoritarily Islamic and one of the six poorest states on the UN poverty index. It is composed of a number of ethnic micro-societies, divided along ethnic, tribal, clan and linguistic lines. The population in 2012 was estimated to be at 27 million, and the relative proportion of ethnic groups puts the Pashtuns at 44% of the population, while Tajiks, the Hazara, and the Uzbeks represent 25%, 10% and 8% respectively. However, other sources attribute to the Hazara group up to 20% of the Afghan population, comprising about 2.5 to 3 million of Afghanistan’s population. For the most part, they are concentrated in the region of Hazarajat in central Afghanistan, consisting of several provinces, with the main one being Bamiyan.

The Hazara are not a homogenous group, as a large majority of them are Twelve-Imami Shi’ites, while some are Ismaili Shi’ites. A small number of them belong to the Sunni sect of Islam, which is practiced by some 80% of the Afghan population. Therefore, the majority of them belong to the overall Shi’ite domain that makes up about 15–20% of the Afghan population. Therefore, the Hazaras constitute a minority in Afghanistan in terms of their religious affiliation. Other than variations in religious faith, rural-urban, as well as literacy dichotomies take place within Afghan ethnic groups.

The economic inequality in Afghanistan also has ethnic dimensions. On average, 36% of the population were living under the poverty line between 2008 and 2012, with the poverty severity index, measuring the depth of poverty, increasing from 2.5 to 2.9%. The Gini index, the measure of countries’ inequality, has also increased from 2.29 to 2.31 during the same period of time. According to the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment, the intensity of poverty in Afghanistan varies across regions, with the highest being in those regions populated by the Hazara people. In those areas, up to 50% of the population is living under the poverty line. These staggering numbers indicate that the economic growth that has recently taken place has not been distributed equally across ethnic groups, with the Hazara being the most disadvantaged.

Overall, in spite of great differences, Afghan ethnic groups’ experience of living together in one state is said to have been one of coexistence and pride in diversity, but also of unequal opportunities and conflict. The brunt of the unjust treatment has mostly been toward the Hazara, historically considered outsiders in Afghanistan. Different interpretations of the Hazara ethnicity have been used to implement policies of exclusion, ostracizing this ethnic group from enjoying the same liberties as the dominant Pashtun group. The Hazara people have long been considered outsiders in the Afghan state, not only for their adherance to the Shia branch of Islam, but also for their allegedly distinctive origins, with this divisiveness often being justified by their physical features. The Pashtun majority, however, are considered to be “native” to Afghanistan, as the very name “Afghan” was originally used as an ethnonym for the Pashtuns . Moreover, “Afghan” is still commonly used by non-Pashtun groups to denote Pashtuns. In contrast, the Hazara are said to be descendants of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol empire, as well as the Mongol soldiers who were present in the region in the 13th century. The Hazara people’s Asiatic physical features are contrasted against the features of the predominant ethnic Pashtuns, further setting them apart and deepening the divide.

This idea relates to the Hamitic hypothesis, a factor largely driving horrific violence against Tutsi population in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. The hypothesis, originally conceived in the 19th century, claimed that all civilised institutions in central Africa were the result of an invasion by Hamites from Europe. European colonialists believed that every civilization had to originate from Europe; therefore, the Tutsi aristocracy and their supposedly “European-like” facial traits in pre-colonial Rwanda were attributed to the European civilisation. Villia Jefremovas has called these interpretations of the origins of ethnicity in Rwanda “fictions of ethnicity,” meaning the creation and recreation of ideas about ethnicity by powerful political actors; it also implies creating imaginary boundaries, and entails the imposition of identity categories. These “fictions of ethnicity” played a significant role in encouraging the dominant Hutu population to commit the atrocities of the genocide. In a frighteningly similar fashion, the fictions about the Hazara ethnicity have served to imply that they are foreigners in the state, and to drive violence and discrimination against them.

Since the establishment of the Afghan state in 1747, the Pashtun leaders have ruled Afghanistan, with the exceptions being: Tajik rule in 1929, the mujaheddin's, (‘holy fighters’) dominance while resisting Soviet occupation, control of Kabul in 1992–96 and the present, post-Taliban era. Throughout this time, the implemented policies have been mostly favouring the dominant Pashtuns, causing resentment among Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups. These previously discussed “fictions of ethnicity” have been reflected in the policies of annihilation of the Hazara, implemented in the second half of the 19th century.

The repressive rule of Abdur Rahman Khan, from 1880 to 1901, was especially brutal for the Hazara people. When the Second Anglo-Afghan War ended in 1880, Abdur Rahman decided to bring two regions, Hazarajat and Kafiristan, under his control to complete state centralisation. Under the guise of ensuring better security, his government strategically displaced some disruptive Pashtun tribes to northern areas populated by the Uzbek and Tajik, where they would spy on non-Pashtun ethnic groups and seek out the ruler’s opponents. These Pashtun tribesmen worked to repress Hazara resistance to the government, by appropriating their land, looting homes and killing Hazaras. This marked the beginning of a gradual institutionalisation of discrimination and implementation of policies of exclusion against Hazaras and Shi'ites. The policy of employing Pashtuns to repress the Hazara resistance was characterized as a “divide-and-rule policy,” and it provoked great revolts of some Hazara tribes against the rule of Abdur Rahman in favor of another leader, Sher Ali Khan. As a result, 60% of their population have been killed and displaced from their ancestral lands, in what has been characterized as Hazara ethnic cleansing. According to Syed Askar Mousavi, a Hazara author of The Hazaras of Afghanistan: A Historical, Cultural, Economic and Political Study, thousands of Hazara men, women, and children were sold as slaves in the markets of Kabul and Qandahar. Moreover, numerous towers of the defeated rebels’ heads were set up by Abdur Rahman’s men in order to prevent others from potentially challenging his rule. This violent past of displacement and persecution has shaped the legacy of extensive land disputes that undermine the Hazara’s claims to their land to this day.

As time went on, policies of Hazara exclusion from economic and social domains were frequently institutionalised. The Pashtun clans started dominating the political and military leadership, and the Tajiks provided mostly the intelligentsia and administrators, excluding the Hazara from positions of influence and power. The Hazaras had to occupy the service sector in order to survive, consequently making them the majority makeup of the service class. This belief that the Hazaras’ rightful position in Afghan society is a lower class one has lived on for more than a century, and perpetuated the invisibility of their struggles. Melissa Chiovenda, an anthropology doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut, reveals that even open-minded, non-Hazara people with a high degree of education have admitted that they feel a certain discomfort when they encounter Hazaras in certain positions of authority in Afghanistan. The expectation that the Hazara must occupy positions of servitude and labour persists to this day.

The status of the Hazara is said to have improved in the decades following Abdur Rahman Khan’s rule until the 1970s. For example, although they mostly occupied the service sector, more Hazaras could access professional and business positions. Although many of them remained deprived of opportunities to participate in national affairs and to promote their identity and culture, they were less constrained to become politically, socially, and economically active. Under the communist rule of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, supported by the Soviet Union, the Hazara formed their own Shi'ite resistance groups against the Soviet occupation. They also created alliances and counter-alliances with various Islamic mujahideen groups, to fight or support the post-Communist mujahideen governments after the Soviet withdrawal. Therefore, one can argue that the Hazara people exercised certain degree of agency during those decades.

According to Sven Gunner Simonsen, a significant impact of the Soviet-Afghan war has been an increasing differentiation of identities in Afghanistan, particularly ethnic ones. During the years of struggle between the guerilla mujahideen fighters and the Soviet troops, the different forces insisted that they were united in their mission against foreign occupation, despite their ethnic differences. However, this was precisely the period when the trend towards increased emphasis on ethnicity began.

One of the ways the Soviet occupation engendered the significance of ethnicity in Afghanistan was by introducing the identity-specific document system. This system, along with census statistics, annual reports, customary law and birth registration, is a known tool for constructing ethnicity. The Afghans' identity document, shaped by the Soviet influence, used to be a 16-page booklet called the tazkira; it has only recently been upgraded to an electronic ID card system to prevent counterfeiting, which was previously an easy practice. Apart from distinguishing individuals on the basis of their ethnicity, the ID cards also featured identification regarding religious affiliation. Since both ethnicity and religion were indicated on the issued ID, this motivated falsification. For instance, during the civil war, a Tajik could use a card identifying him as Pashtun if he needed to travel into traditionally Pashtun territories. However, distinct ethnic physical features could often prevent certain ethnic groups from using this option and exercising their mobility without negative consequences. Moreover, using illegal counterfeited identification documents could potentially contribute to minorities’ vulnerability, and to construct the binaries of “us” and “them” between the dominant and minority groups. This has been evident in Afghanistan, as the system served to reinforce the divisions between Afghan ethnic groups, as well as increase the Hazara’s vulnerability. Hazara people who wanted to gain more mobility and improve their limited status by modifying their document became even more vulnerable in the face of more powerful state actors.

Another reason why ethnicity became such an important factor in Afghanistan under the Soviet occupation stems from the United States’ decision to support certain groups and neglect others. As the Cold War was ongoing, the situation in Afghanistan served as another “proxy war” where the two ideologically opposed regimes were able to exercise their influence. As the government of the United States decided to get involved, the enmity with Iran meant that the mostly Shi’ite Hazaras in Afghanistan would not receive any support. Meanwhile, the radical Islamic and Pashtun supremacist, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, continued to pursue systemic violence against the Hazara people.

Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Afghanistan saw tumultuous years of the Taliban emergence to power. As the government broke into several factions, the debate ensued about how to transfer power to a new government. In the process, ethnicity became the main factor in the political leaders’ claims to legitimacy, and the conflict subsequently became ethnicised. As a consequence, when the fighting over Kabul in 1992 unfolded, the Hazara ethnicity became the targets of extreme violence. The participating actors in the civil war could be identified in ethnic terms: Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami (and later, the Taliban) as Pashtun; Rabbani's and Massoud's Jamiat-e-Islami as Tajik; Hezb-e-Wahdat as Hazara; and Dostum's Jumbesh-e-Melli Islami as Uzbek. Each of these actors is said to have exploited ethnic categories for their own gain, which further promoted ethnicised violence. The massacres of ethnic Hazaras started taking place in 1994, and the extreme violence and killing continued for years. The Hazaras were specifically targeted for being Shi’ites, whom the Jihadi Sunni Taliban regarded as ‘heretics.’ As ethnically-motivated violence continued, the Taliban not only savagely killed an important Hazara leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, but also took highly punitive measures against the Hazaras.

Throughout the 1998 Taliban mass killings, estimated to have taken between 2,000 and 5,000 civilian lives, the Hazaras in particular were sought out and executed. According to reports from K.J. Cooper, Taliban militiamen specifically searched houses for Hazara males of fighting age to shoot them, slit their throats and throw them into jails where they would be executed by firing squads. Other torture practices were reported as well: the militiamen crammed these ethnic minorities into tractor-trailers in conditions of unbearable heat, until most perished from suffocation or heat stroke. Afterwards, their bodies were hauled by trucks and dropped in the dessert.

In 2001, the United States intervened in the regime and worked to dismantle the rule of Taliban; however, the Hazara communities did not see significant improvement in their precarious living conditions, as the animosity towards them did not diminish. Some groups, such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, who fought the Taliban in the past, turned their guns on the Hazaras. Some suggest that the slaughter of Hazaras began in earnest after 9/11, as the Taliban started blaming Hazaras for supposedly siding with the Northern Alliance, a coalition of militias seeking to topple the Taliban rule. According to journalists Nicole Valentini and Basir Ahang, houses, schools, and buildings have been destroyed, and hundreds of civilians have been killed or kidnapped. Moreover, the attacks have caused massive internal displacement, with the Ghazni and Bamiyan districts being unable to take in more people. In spite of the killings taking place in regions populated by the Hazara to this day, the government remains slow to effective response. As violence has been ongoing in Afghanistan for several decades, the international community also remains passive to the Hazara’s plight, and this inaction perpetuates the invisibility of their struggles.

To conclude, it is worth noting the importance of taking into account the culture of the region one intends to bring positive change to. The way an ethnicity is interpreted by the government and the dominant ethnic group of the state, as well as non-state actors, can prevent ethnic minorities from enjoying the benefits of economic and social development, and receiving fair treatment. It is undeniably difficult to tackle the Taliban violence, but the Hazaras’ status could nonetheless be improved by efficient response from the international community and aid organizations. At the micro level, more authority could potentially be given to the local community councils to allocate aid budget and other resources efficiently. At the macro level, however, it is indisputable that the international community must act to stop enabling a regime that neglects the Hazara people’s right to live in peace.


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