Ipso’s ongoing work takes place in a number of areas of Afghanistan inhabited by members of the Ismaili community, a sect of the Shia faith who live primarily in parts of the central highlands and north-east of Afghanistan, where the majority of people adhere to mainstream Shiism or the Sunni faith. By contrast, the Wakhi who live in the Wakhan Corridor (as well as areas of northern Pakistan over the frontier) are mainly Ismaili. Overall, Afghan Ismailis are believed to number up to half a million people, a significant proportion of whom have also settled in urban centres, where they tend to live together in specific neighbourhoods.
Ali, an Ismaili who is 33 and originally from Zibak district in Badakhshan province has long lived in the provincial capital of Faizabad, most of whose population are Tajiks who follow the Sunni faith. He says: “We Ismailis are taught at home from an early age to be tolerant and not be prejudiced towards those of other faiths. This despite the fact that we often face derision or even discrimination due to our belief. Often, we have to resort to the practice of taqiya (or shield) whereby a believer is able to deny his or her actual faith as a means of self-protection, while continuing to worship in private). Living in Faizabad, I’ve been to university with and even now do business with Sunnis and others, but I’ve found ways to be inconspicuous and learnt about other religious practices so as to be seen to fit in so as to feel safe. For example, I’m able to pray in the manner of Sunnis and twelver Shias among whom I live and work so as not to draw attention to my faith. It’s not ideal for me, and I pray that our children will be able to live their lives without having to conceal their true belief in this way.”
Ali feels that there has been greater interaction between the Ismaili community and others, explaining: “As we started to move from villages to urban areas and there was more tourism to Pamir and Wakhan, non-Ismailis came to know us better. This has in many cases led to lasting friendships between individuals and families, as well as a degree of curiosity to understand each other’s culture. This trend is particularly evident among young people who often study together. For example, most of my close friends in Faizabad are Sunni Tajiks, who accept that I am an Ismaili and are not prejudiced or judgmental. This is not always the case however, and some people disapprove of our friendship. I’m aware of a non-Ismaili family who find subtle ways to avoid contact with me and other Ismailis. I understand that it may be hard for them to challenge such prejudice from within their community but am confident that this will change over time.”
The long conflict in the country has, if anything, hardened attitudes between Afghans of different faiths, to the extent that Ismailis are perceived by some as heretics. Ali puts this sense of divisiveness well when he explains: “There is no single way to arrive at truth, and to accept this is an important step towards tolerance between our faiths. I believe that we should engage with each other, whatever our beliefs, as we’re more similar than different. We need one another. Here in Badakhshan, many Ismailis marry into Sunni families, which helps to foster trust and understanding between the communities. I hope that this will contribute to changing the attitudes and prejudices that now divide us, and drive the conflict”.