Dr Arif Sahar
11 February 2023
This blog sheds light on some of the aspects of the Hazara community’s struggle for justice in Afghanistan.
The Hazara community in Afghanistan has long struggled for justice and life with dignity. In this blog, I apply the concept of epistemic justice to demonstrate how the Hazara community’s struggle responds to the historical injustices they experience. The British philosopher, Miranda Fricker, views epistemic injustice as a social construct, stating that social inequalities are the root of epistemic injustices, whereas these inequalities come into play because men engage in epistemic practices as socially situated epistemic agents. The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice (2017) defines epistemic injustice as an injustice related to knowledge. It includes (a) exclusion and silencing, (b) systematic distortion or misrepresentation of one’s meanings or contributions, (c) undervaluing of one’s status or standing in communicative practices, (d) unfair distinctions in authority, and (e) unwarranted distrust. Thus, epistemic injustice results in damaging a given group’s ability to speak and be heard, and thus, members of oppressed groups are silenced by virtue of group membership. An epistemic justice lens helps us understand, as Fricker has suggested when injustices structurally affect what is included in a collective pool of knowledge and the way it leads to an underrepresentation of the experiences of marginalised individuals and groups, in turn affecting their ability to make sense of their experiences. This inability to debate, understand, and relate to one’s experiences is an injustice. The lack of epistemic justice unfairly advantages those driving and monopolising power, and enables the powerful to have an unfair advantage in structuring collective social understandings, and interactions, and shaping discourses and perspectives.
Afghanistan came into existence as a political identity in 1747 and evolved into a state with delineated boundaries only in 1880, drawn by the British Empire to safeguard its interests from the Tsarist Empire in Russia. These borders only represented elite consensus based on a great deal of bloodshed and are themselves part of the problem/violence that has engulfed the country for over a century. These processes of territorialising countries for the interest of oppressive empires often discounted the experiences of ethnic and social groups/minorities, who were displaced or suffered genocide as a result of setting up boundaries, which often benefitted the dominant ethnic/ cultural groups in society. Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country with the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks (Sunni religion) and the Hazaras (predominantly Shi’a with significant proportions of Sunnis and Ismailis) comprising the major ethnic groups. While there has not been any valid and accepted census in the country, it is estimated that the Hazara peoples constitute 20-25% of the population in Afghanistan. Historically, the Pashtun ethnic group has dominated political, military, cultural and use of resources to establish and perpetuate its ethnic hegemony, by inflicting persistent violence on other ethnic and social groups.
Since the concept of the state of Afghanistan does not have its roots in a social consensus and a social contract, it lacks the social legitimacy required to bind all the ethnic groups around a set of values and cultures that these groups would aspire and cherish. Hence, the inter-group relationships have often been unsettling and violent, owing to different groups’ struggles or attempts to win power, exacerbated by external interventions and retreats e.g., British invasions (1838–1842, 1878–1880), Soviet invasion (1979), and the American invasion (2001). The social spaces and the political ecosystem in Afghanistan are fluid, characterised by competing identities, comprising different actors caught in asymmetrical power relationships.
Whilst many of the ethnic and social groups have suffered violence attributed to the nation-building/state-building efforts, the Hazara peoples have borne the brunt of the violence over the course of history. It is not unfair to say that the magnitude of the violence the Hazara peoples have endured is exceptional and unparalleled in the region’s history. The Hazara people are alienated, marginalised, and suffer double violence – first on the ground of ethnicity and second, on the ground of their religion.
Following the formation of current Afghanistan (1880), Abdul Rehman Khan [Pashtun King] in his attempt to build a Pashtun state, sought to disintegrate the traditional social and political structures. The Hazara peoples had large territories and governed themselves independently. Khan demanded the Hazaras dismantle their social structures and assimilate within his visionary state. In response, the Hazara people while making some compromises such as paying taxes refused to accept the unconditional integration into the central government. In response, Khan declared the Hazaras as ‘infidels’ and ‘rebels’, justifying their suppression, both religiously and politically. Khan started a war on the Hazara people in 1889 that concluded with the defeat of the Hazaras in September 1893. During and after the war, around 62 per cent of the Hazara population was killed. Additionally, Khan subjected the Hazara peoples to acts of genocide such as usurping land and rewarding it to the Pashtun tribes that participated in the war and forcing the survivors into exodus, primarily in the Indian sub-continent, Central Asia, and Iran.
The violence against the Hazara people in Afghanistan continues, taking multiple forms including structural and cultural violence. The Norwegian sociologist, John Galtung, identifies structural violence as a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Relatedly, cultural violence is any aspect of a culture that can be used to legitimise violence in its direct or structural form. Different state and non-state actors have subjected the Hazara people to systematic political, economic, and socio-cultural marginalisation and repression throughout history. Even during the international community’s presence (2001 – 2021), the Hazara peoples’ agency was undermined to affect their meaningful political participation by the state. Also, they were subjected to complex violent attacks (e.g., suicide attacks on mosques, hospitals, education centres, transports, and rallies) by the insurgent/terrorist groups (e.g., Taliban, al-Qaeda, Islamic State – ISIS) resulting in large-scale killings and maiming of men, women, and children.
Amid all these injustices, the Hazara people’s struggles for justice in Afghanistan continue, both at the grassroots and political levels. Politically, the Hazaras have demanded justice by both protesting, and participating in the political processes. One of these struggles against oppression in the 1980s/90s involved the resistance led by the Hezb-e-Wahdat Party which was led by the charismatic leader, Abdul Ali Mazari (d. 1995). The Wahdat Party galvanised a narrative of fairness and just participation of all social groups in national politics to ensure equitable distribution of resources and their representation in public institutions. The Party’s struggles to establish a fair and just society were aimed at remedying epistemic injustice and systematically creating the conditions that enabled both individuals and/or institutions to tackle epistemic (dis)advantages, which re/produced socioeconomic inequalities and political exclusion/discrimination. The Party utilised a wide range of discursive and non-discursive tools/ approaches, including arts, literature, education, and social movements to address the issue of epistemic injustice.
At the grassroots level too, the Hazaras participated actively to protect their rights. One of the first such grassroots responses was the ‘Tabassum Movement’ (Farsi : Junbesh-e Tabasum) to oppose the execution of nine-year-old Shukria Tabassum and six other Hazaras around by the Taliban militias on 9 November 2015. People were mobilised in protests in Kabul and other cities in mid-November 2015. People from different ethnic groups displayed solidarity and the movement was largely led by women. A similar protest called the ‘Enlightenment Movement’ was organised to resist the government’s decision to re-route an electricity transmission project from a predominantly Hazara-populated region. The movement soon gathered large support within the Hazara community, and beyond and large protests were held across the country, as well as abroad. On 23 July 2016, the movement organised a large mass demonstration in which, an estimated one million Hazara men, women, and youth participated. As the protesters were marching their way to the capital’s centre, multiple bombings hit the rally, killing at least 97 people, and injuring 260. Whilst the Islamic State claimed the responsibility, the perpetrators were never identified, and the movement’s supporters blamed the government to have carried out or failed to have prevented the bombings.
The Hazara resistance in the diaspora is an important aspect of the Hazara movement. For instance, the Hazara civil activists and youth took to the digital space—Twitter—to protest the killings of 60+ Hazara students in Kabul on 30 September 2022, mostly teenage girls. The activists ran the #StopHazaraGenocide hashtag, which yielded over 16 million tweets over a period of 10 days. The activists are still running daily debates on Twitter with rights activists, lead feminists, academics, and politicians to raise public awareness and campaign for Hazara rights. Similarly, the Hazara Encyclopaedia is another bold attempt at resistance from the diaspora, directly addressing the issue of epistemic injustice. The encyclopaedia covers a wide range of issues related to the Hazara people, including language, religion, tradition, customs, media, literature, arts, geography, environment, and sport. This is an important response, as it provides a cornerstone for producing knowledge that can work towards reducing injustices. The encyclopaedia, besides opening a window of dialogue with other social groups, breaks the monopoly of knowledge production and redresses the Hazara peoples’ underrepresentation and misrepresentation within the public domains and popular consciousness that has a historic epistemic impact upon the community.
The struggles for justice in Afghanistan can also be viewed as aspirations to achieve ‘epistemic justice,’ enabling different ethnic communities to exercise their agency to shape their own future. The Hazara peoples’ struggle is one of those examples in which Afghanistan’s peaceful people-centric future can be imagined and it offers a unique lens to analyse the changing dynamics of violence and repression, as well as the social resilience that a community develops to continue fighting against injustices.
Arif Sahar has a PhD in the political economy of education in Afghanistan and currently works at the University of Sheffield Hallam as a researcher. Dr Sahar is a member of the Peace with Justice Network.
Image credit: @HakimMuzahir