Documenting Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic makeup would seem like an innocent enough endeavor, but a recent attempt has left a team of academics facing possible criminal charges.
The source of the problem is the innocuously named “Ethnographic Atlas of Non-Pashtun Ethnic Groups of Afghanistan,” published in June by the government-appointed Academy of Sciences Afghanistan.
Certain passages have Afghanistan’s Hazara minority seeing red.
“The Hazaras are liars, dishonest, and unreliable people,” reads one passage cited by the “Daily Outlook Afghanistan” newspaper. “[The] bodies of their women are hairless except on the head. The Hazaras are the sons of Mongol Khans living in the mountains of Afghanistan. These people [know] nothing except fighting.”
The newspaper goes on to report that the book, which RFE/RL was unable to independently obtain, describes the Hazaras as “rafizi” — worse than infidels.
The resulting outcry from Hazara politicians was enough to prompt President Hamid Karzai to step in. In mid-June, Karzai banned the atlas, dismissed four academics from the Academy of Sciences, and ordered an investigation into their reasons for publishing the comments.
The four now face possible criminal charges for stoking ethnic tensions, pending the findings of a lengthy questionnaire they have been asked to fill out.
‘Face The Force Of Law’
Deputy Attorney General Enayatullah Kamal, who is overseeing the investigation, has said that if it is determined that the insults were intentional, the academics will have to answer for their actions.
“Fanning differences among the ethnic groups of Afghanistan is forbidden,” Kamal said. “Anybody violating this has to face the force of law.”
Karzai has described the contents of the book as “grossly offensive” and “an insult to all the resident ethnicities and thus the entire Afghan population.”
Sayed Amin Mujahid, the author of the atlas, has defended the book, in part by claiming that most of the contested passages were based on the writings of a Hazara historian, Fayz Muhammad Kateb.
Mujahid says everything he wrote was clearly referenced and that the contents are being distorted for political reasons.
“An academic and scholarly issue has now being turned into a political one,” he says. “I am saying this because in cases people are only told about the first half of a sentence, but they are being kept away from the second half.”
The Academy of Sciences Afghanistan is no stranger to controversy when it comes to the Hazaras. In late 2011, leaders of the predominantly Shi’a-minority group took umbrage at what they considered lowball estimates of the Hazara population that were contained in an almanac published by the academy.
The reference listed the Hazaras as making up 9 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated population of 26 million. They claimed the figures were heavily biased in favor of the Pashtuns, who were listed as comprising 60 percent of the population.
Hazara politicians widely cite the figure of 20 percent in estimating the minority’s share of Afghanistan’s population.
Exact figures are unavailable, largely due to the fact that no accurate census has ever been taken in Afghanistan. The last attempt, in the late 1970s, was never completed. Calls for a new census following decades of war have never been realized.
Generally accepted figures cited in UN documents and by other international bodies list the Pashtun population at just over 40 percent, followed by Tajiks at less than 30 percent, and Hazaras and Uzbeks at around 10 percent. Various smaller minorities account for the rest of the population.
Such statistics are an important issue among minorities, who can use greater numbers to argue for greater political influence. Observers say politicians commonly exaggerate the population of their tribes or ethnic groups.
Hussain Yasa, a Hazara and editor of the “Daily Outlook Afghanistan” in Kabul, says the latest controversy does not augur well for the future of a country preparing to maintain security on its own.
He says it will not be easy to end discord over Afghanistan’s ethnic makeup but that a comprehensive population census would be a good place to start.
“This is not only about which community is larger than the other community,” Yasa says. “The census is one of the very important things for our development and even for our security.”