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33: Campus Ashura fury

Sunni and Shiite students clash on the night of Ashura at the University of Kabul, turning an erudite campus into a backyard battlefield and paralyzing exam preparations. Zafar Rouyee reports.
26.11.2012  |  Kabul
Kabul University saw protests in the past, but the Ashura clashes have shaken up students and the wider public. (Photo: Rouyee)
Kabul University saw protests in the past, but the Ashura clashes have shaken up students and the wider public. (Photo: Rouyee)

What should be a place of knowledge and learning turned into the site of violent clashes on the night of November 24, when an altercation escalated between Sunni and Shiite students over access to a dormitory mosque on campus at Kabul University.

One student was killed and 23 injured, local police said in a statement. 

The eruption began  when a group of Shiite students wanted to celebrate Ashura, the religious date which commemorates the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson Hussain Ibn Ali in 680, at the mosque of the dormitory of Kabul University. However, some Sunni students came out in opposition.

Bloodshed in the dorm

According to witnesses, students threw stones and wooden stakes at each other for several hours, tarnishing the reputation of a site that avoided deadly clashes in the past. Both factions blamed each other for starting the violence.

Qudratullah, a student at Kabul Medical University who opposed the celebration at the mosque, says the escalation began when a group of Shiite students wanted to mark Ashura over the wishes of other residents.

“There are different ethnic and religious groups in the dormitories of Kabul University, but there are three mosques at the dormitory which all belong to the Sunnis. Shiite students wanted to celebrate Ashura at one of these mosques," said Qudratullah. "But mosques are where people offer their prayers for God and his prophet, not where Ashura is celebrated."  

The date, while observed by both Sunnis and Shiites, can result in frictions over different interpretations and rites. The often bloody performance of the Shiite custom of mourning with self-flagellation can be especially inflammatory.

"The night before Ashura, they slapped their chests and caused damage to the mosque - there was blood in there," said Qudratullah. "Sunni students objected and the clashes began."

A student attends class at Kabul university.Students will shortly sit exams, but their campuses in Kabul have been closed down as a result of the unrest. (Photo: Alizada)

But Mohammad Juma, a Shiite student, recalls things differently.  “We were supposed to be given the mosque for the celebration of Ashura, but unfortunately Sunni students opposed it and did not allow us use," said Juma, an archeology student and one of the organisers hoping to use the mosque in the university's sleeping quarters. 

Minister of Higher Education Obaidullah Obaid put in a personal plea for the students to treat each other as brothers, recalls Juma. "But it didn't work. The clashes began at 3pm and continued until 6pm. The majority of the Shiite students were outside the dormitory and those who were inside were hand-cuffed with their legs tied and thrown out of the windows of the fourth and third floors by Sunni students. Before one o’clock, they took rocks into the dormitory and threw them at us. I think it was an already planned action,” said the student.

Mohammed Saleem Alizada, another Shiite at the university, also said the students had been granted permission to celebrate from the seventh of Muharram, one of the days of Ashura, at a dormitory mosques.

Versions for all sides

According to Alizada, a group of students were on their way to the mosque, but were barred from entering by Sunni students. Following the incident, some MPs and Muslim scholars came and told the Shiites that they could mark Ashura at one o’clock on the tenth of Muharram at the one of the dormitory mosques.

"Those who were inside were hand-cuffed with their legs tied and thrown out of the windows of the fourth and third floors by Sunni students." Mohammed Juma, a Shiite student.

"Groups of Shiite students who were celebrating Ashura were insulted and called infidels. Then the clashes began,” he said.

Qudratullah disagrees. “They (Shiite students) wanted to campaign under the pretext of celebrating Ashura," insisted the medical student in one of many opposing accounts circulating .

Stoking the flames

Some commentators have suggested that fundamentalist groups on campus at the governmental universities provoked students in order to stoke ethnic and religious tensions.

While not the country's most radical, Kabul University has been the centre of religiously-fired demonstrations in the past. Most recently, hundreds of students protested the release of the controversial film Innocence of Muslims.

Another student, who opposed the celebration of Ashura at the dormitory mosque and wished to remain anonymous, added: “We respect Imam Hussain - those who want to mourn him should go to their own takyakhanas (mosques) and this is not possible everywhere they'd like," said the student.  He added the choice of venue, rather than the nature of the worshipping act, "led to clashes."

Police eventually intervened and cleared the dormitory on Saturday night, sealing off the area and preventing access to all students.

Students await news outside Kabul UniversityStudents face uncertain times after Kabul's four government universities were shut down following violent clashes. More than 28,000 students have been affected. (Photo: Rouyee)

Both parties continued to blame each other. Officials at the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE), who refused to provide details about the clashes and their treatment of the instigators, say all issues will be addressed at a press conference in the near future.

Campus shut down, exams suspended

Whatever the cause of the violence, it has had some immediate damaging effects in academic life. The Ministry of Higher Education reacted to the violence by temporarily shutting down the four government universities in Kabul, causing major disruptions before final examinations.

“To avoid unpleasant events and provide safety for the universities and dormitories, the Ministry of Higher Education of Afghanistan has decided to close down Kabul University, Kabul Polytechnic University, Kabul Medical University and Kabul Education University for ten days," the MoHE said in a statement.

Students had originally been scheduled to begin their end of year examinations next week. According to statistics on the MoHE's website, 28,925 students at the four closed universities are affected.

Meanwhile, Qudratullah says the clashes planted seeds for further unrest. "Now they (Shiite students) want to take their revenge on us and we (Sunni students) want to take our revenge on them.”