Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's Farah province.

Afghan Cleric Rescinds ‘Holy War’ Fatwa Against Journalists

The imam charged that journalists ignore Islamic law while promoting Western culture

Afghanistan, already a dangerous place for journalists after decades of war and religious fundamentalism, just got more perilous for members of the press. This happened when Fazlur Rahman Ansari, a prominent Afghan imam, declared jihad, or holy war, earlier this month against journalists and media professionals working in the country.

But after pressure from government officials, the cleric reportedly rescinded the fatwa in recent days, stating that his words were misquoted and distorted by “hypocrites and oppressors.” Restating his position in a speech last week, Ansari said that “Afghani journalists are working faithfully and we should protect their lives and property as well.”

Ansari gave the initial declaration along with a “fatwa” (an Islamic religious decree) enforcing it during a sermon in the western city of Herat, known for its ancient buildings and minarets. He was reportedly speaking at the Great Mosque of Herat, though it was unclear if Ansari is an official cleric at the mosque.

In the past, hardline clerics in the war-torn country issued fatwas against media channels airing programs they deemed un-Islamic or modeled on Western shows. In this respect, during his sermon Ansari declared that Afghan media professionals and journalist do not work under the guidelines of Sharia (Islamic law). Instead, he charged, they aim to promote Western culture, thereby requiring an “obligatory jihad” or “holy war” against them.

“The person who kills any journalist or media worker will be rewarded a “ghazi,’” he announced, using the term for an Islamic award given to a Muslim who conquers or kills non-Muslims.

The cleric made clear that Rula Ghani, Afghanistan’s First Lady, is also guilty of systematically promoting Western culture with the aim of eliminating the Islamic identity of the Afghan people.

Ansari also reportedly lashed out at other Islamic scholars, who, he said, “have kept their eyes closed regarding the un-Islamic media and journalists in the country.” He added that he had remained silent on the issue for a long time, but gave into his conscience to speak out. “Anyone who does not accept this fatwa is not loyal to Islam,” Ansari declared.

The cleric added that the media in Afghanistan is also part of an “anti-Orientalist program,” created by the West with the intent of destroying Islamic culture. To fight it, he added, “other scholars must issue more fatwas and declare jihad against it.”

Soon after the cleric issued the fatwa, Faiq Herwi, a reporter at a local newspaper, told The Media Line that he is deeply concerned about continuing his job. “My family is much disturbed and worried after Ansari’s declaration of jihad against us,” Herwi told The Media Line.

A number of other journalists in the area also called security officials to gauge the gravity of the threat, Herwi revealed.

Salim Moghimi, a Herat-based journalist with the state-run news agency Ariana, called Ansari’s statements “regrettable.”

“Afghan security officials are looking into this very serious issue. With our society already full of bloodshed, we cannot afford such heinous announcements,” Moghimi told The Media Line.

Hashem Faryaabi, a local journalist, told The Media Line that after pressure from religious and government authorities Ansari rescinded his fatwa. Officials at the Ministry of Religious and Hajj Affairs had also contacted the cleric. The ministry maintains administrative control over all the mosques and shrines in the Herat Province, in addition to handling the financial affairs of these institutions.

“So, Ansari would not be able to retain his role if he would not have given in to pressure from high officials in the ministry, Faryaabi said.

In the days following Ansari’s fatwa, the Herat Journalists Safety Committee called an emergency meeting to discuss the consequences of cleric’s actions

After the meeting, the deputy spokesperson of the committee, Ms. Hassan Zadeh, told local reporters that she is referring the case to the higher authorities in the capital Kabul for immediate and stern action to prevent such incidents in the future.

Mohammad Qasim Halimi, the spokesman of the Afghanistan Islamic Scholars (Ulema) Council, the highest religious body in the country, told The Media Line that only its most senior members, along with the head of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, can issue such fatwas. These members, who meet regularly with Afghanistan’s president, provide him with advice on moral, ethical, and legal questions.

“In the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, nobody else has the right to impose a decree of Jihad against other countrymen,” Halimi said, adding that the council and government “is very much concerned about the safety of all citizens as well as of members of the press.”

Abu Mujahid Haseeb, a former senior Afghan journalist who now lives in exile, told The Media Line that ever since U.S.-led forces toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban regime 17 years ago, Afghani journalists have been victims of violence and reprisals.

“This is an extremely dangerous occupation, and many have been killed and still more threatened with violence, but they persist in doing their work,” Haseeb said.

He explained that this not the first time such a fatwa was issued in the country. In 2014, the Taliban declared a fatwa against media outlets and civil society organizations working with them. Once the fatwa was issued, Taliban fighters used any possible means of targeting these people, including suicide attacks.

“When the Taliban had captured Kunduz city [in northern Afghanistan] in 2015, they killed one journalist and burned four media centers,” Haseeb said. The group even searched house-to-house in pursuit of media workers who went into hiding, he added.

It was at this point that Haseeb, 56, fled the area with his family, leaving his parents behind.

Zulmai Hassan, another Afghan journalist, told The Media Line that it is a bitter reality that local warlords have become so powerful, while the government’s power has been weakened.  “Where the rule of law is weak and where violence speaks at maximum volume, the reporting of uncomfortable truths is often met with painful and dire consequences,” Hassan stressed.

According to the organization Reporters without Borders, Afghanistan was ranked 118th out of 180 countries in terms of safety for journalists. Just last year, 20 journalists and media workers were killed in the country.

In 2018, among the 26 journalists killed worldwide, 11 have been killed in Afghanistan, making it the “bloodiest reporting period” ever for journalists in the country, the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, a local watchdog, revealed in a report this month.

The International Federation of Journalists and its affiliate, the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, said at least 73 journalists and media workers were killed in Afghanistan from 1994 to 2017.

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