Afghanistan - Religion
The constitution and other laws and policies expressly restrict religious freedom. Full and effective enforcement of the 2004 constitution is a continuing challenge due to its potentially contradictory commitments and the lack of a tradition of judicial review. The constitution explicitly states followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.” However, the constitution also declares that Islam is the official “religion of the state,” that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam,” and that “the provisions of adherence to the fundamentals of the sacred religion of Islam and the regime of the Islamic Republic cannot be amended.”
Today, approximately 99 percent of Afghans are Muslims. Eighty-five percent are Sunni of the Hanafi School; the rest are Shia, the majority of whom are Imami along with smaller numbers of Ismailis. There is also a strong influence of Sufism among both Sunni and Shia communities. Nuristanis, a small but distinct ethno-linguistic group living in a mountainous eastern region, practiced an ancient polytheistic religion until they converted to Islam in the late 19th century. Some non-Muslim religious practices survive today as folk customs.
In the 20th century, small communities of Baha’is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Sikhs lived in the country, although most members of these communities emigrated during the civil war and Taliban rule. By 2001, non-Muslim populations had been virtually eliminated except for a small population of native Hindus and Sikhs. Since the fall of the Taliban, some members of religious minorities have returned, but others have since left Kabul due to economic hardship and discrimination.
The population is fragmented into myriad ethnic, linguistic, religious, kin based, and regional groupings. One of the few commonalities in this diverse country is Islam. Even in the matter of religion, however, sectarian differences and differences over Quranic and legal interpretations divide Afghans. In addition, minorities of Hindus and Sikhs (originally traders from India) and Jews have lived in the country for generations. Islam, however, appears to be one of the few factors crosscutting virtually all other groups.
Arab armies carrying the banner of Islam reached the Afghan area in AD 642. On the western periphery, the princes of Herat and Seistan gave way to rule by Arab governors, but in the east cities submitted only to rise in revolt and the hastily converted returned to their old beliefs once the armies passed. Later, in the 9th century, Yaqub ibn Layth Saffari, founder of the local Saffarid dynasty in the Seistan, swept through the Afghan area conquering in the name of Islam; in the north the Islamic dynasty of the Samanids ruling from Bokhara took Balkh in AD 900 and extended their realm as far as Kandahar. Meanwhile a Turkish slave general who had been dismissed by the Samanids conquered Ghazni. A successor, the great Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (998-1030), conducted numerous iconoclastic campaigns into India and returned laden with rich booty. Ghazni, until then an insignificant fort-town, became one of the most brilliant capitals of the Islamic world.
The Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence was founded by Abu Hanifa, one of the earliest Muslim scholar-interpreters to seek new ways of applying Islamic tenets to everyday life. He died in Iraq in AD 767. Abu Hanifa's interpretation of Muslim law was extremely tolerant of differences within Muslim communities. He also separated belief from practice, elevating belief over practice. Sunni are found throughout Afghanistan.
Afghan society, with its fragmented groupings, has often been composed of a congeries of warring factions. Although themes common to the many groups resident in the country (such as honor or family loyalty) ramify throughout the country, these more easily serve to divide than to unite Afghans into multitribal and multiethnic groups. Islam, however, represents a common and potentially unifying symbolic system. The potency of Islam as a unifying factor lies partly in the essence of Islam itself, partly in the meaning of Islam to Afghans, and partly in the fact that religion is one of the few shared symbolic systems in the society.
In the 1980 all resistance groups striving for a pan Afghan constituency appealed to Afghans on the basis of their common Muslim identity. Indeed, the term used for the resistance fighters, mujahidiin, translates as "those waging jihad." Jihad is a duty of Muslims and refers to the struggle for the predominance of God's will, both within oneself and between people. Islam had been a most effective rallying point.
Today, tesidual effects of years of civil strife, Taliban rule, and popular suspicion regarding outside influence and the motivations of foreigners led to negative societal opinion of international community efforts and donor projects. These were often incorrectly associated with Christianity and proselytism. Within the majority Muslim population, relations among the different sects continued to be difficult.
Non-Muslim minority groups, particularly Christian, Hindu, and Sikh groups, continued to be targets of persecution and discrimination. Conversion from Islam was interpreted by Shia and Sunni Islamic clergy, as well as many citizens, to contravene the tenets of Islam. Conversion, considered an act of apostasy and a crime against Islam, could be punishable by death if the convert did not recant. Local Hindu and Sikh populations, although allowed to practice publicly, continued to encounter problems obtaining land for cremation. They also continued to face discrimination when seeking government jobs and harassment during major celebrations. Most local Baha’is and Christians did not publicly state their beliefs or gather openly to worship, out of fear of discrimination, persecution, detention, or death.
Although the constitution expressly protects free exercise of faith for non-Muslims, in situations where the constitution and penal code are silent, including apostasy and blasphemy, courts relied on interpretations of Islamic law, some of which conflict with the country’s international commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
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