22 April 2024

Between Marginalization Politics and Realpolitik: The Taliban Ban Nawruz, Celebrate Chinese New Year

Following their assumption of power in August 2021, the Taliban imposed a ban on the celebration of Nawruz, the solar calendar new year, citing religious rationale. Nawruz, entrenched as a cherished tradition in Afghanistan for centuries, has persevered despite the Arab conquest and the spread of Islam, evolving into a secular commemoration heralding the advent of spring. However, the Taliban perceive Nawruz as a relic of Zoroastrianism, an ancient faith predating Islam and once prevalent in parts of Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia. Labeling it derogatorily Eid-e Majusi – referring to the Magi or priests of a Zoroastrian Persian religion –  the Taliban consider it a festivity associated with fire worshipers.

The Taliban's prohibition on Nawruz may be elucidated through the concept of symbolic boundaries as posited by cultural theorists. These boundaries serve as social demarcations, delineating groups and upholding power structures. In their endeavor to forge a distinct Sunni Islamic identity for Afghanistan, the Taliban regard Nawruz's pre-Islamic origins as a challenge to these boundaries.

Max Weber, in 1921, described human beings as engaged in a perpetual struggle over scarce resources. To mitigate competition, they discriminate against various groups based on cultural attributes such as lifestyle, language, education, race, or religion. Consequently, status groups emerge, defining their superiority vis-à-vis other groups, fostering a sense of honor, privileging relationships within the group, and delineating specific qualifications for group membership and interaction with lower-status outsiders. Cultural perceptions concerning status boundaries profoundly impact individuals' social standing and resource access.

Nawruz is observed across the region, with Iran hosting elaborate festivities spanning three official holidays. Meanwhile, Afghanistan, with its Sunni Muslim majority, emphasizes the onset of spring. During the period of the American-backed republic (2001-2021), Nawruz was designated "Farmers' Day." Notably, Nawruz celebrations are particularly extensive among Persian speakers, including Tajiks and Hazaras, while the Uzbeks participate actively in the Nawruz celebration in the North. Shiite communities, notably the Hazaras, accord Nawruz equal importance with the major Islamic holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, which are celebrated for three days.

Many Shiites in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran associate Nawruz with the day Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shia Imam (also revered by Sunnis as the fourth Caliph), assumed the caliphate following the demise of Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph. Annually, on Nawruz day, a banner-hosting ceremony (jahanda bala in Persian) was held in Kabul, and Mazar Sharif at the shrine, believed to have been visited by Ali, and which saw participation by thousands of people. In March 2023, the Taliban officially banned this ceremony and removed Nawruz from the country’s calender. 

Weber's conception of symbolic boundaries elucidates the Taliban's policies toward Persian speakers in general and the Hazaras in particular. Hailing predominantly from a Pashtun background, the Taliban have effectively marginalized the Hazaras from power and economic dispensation. By disallowing Nawruz they also symbolically downgrade the status of the Hazara community in the country, subsequently justifying their marginalization.

The ideological peer to the Taliban in Shiite-majority Iran, namely, the theocracy of the Wulayat Faqih, has preserved the tradition of Nawruz by attaching religious significance to it owing to the ascension of the first Shiite imam. In Tajikistan, meanwhile, Nawruz is also celebrated for its Persian roots and its association with the first day of spring.

While Nawruz's pre-Islamic origins may concern the Taliban Islamic Emirate, the ban on the festival also reflects the Taliban's nationalistic tendencies aiming to marginalize non-Pashtun ethnic groups from power and the economy and to distinguish Afghanistan from Iran and Tajikistan.

While the Taliban have strictly prohibited Nawruz celebrations, deeming them un-Islamic despite their long-standing observance in the country, they have shown openness to commemorating the Chinese New Year. On 10 February, the Confucius Institute at Kabul University, which is frequented by 200 students, celebrated the Chinese New Year in the presence of Taliban officials, as reported in a statement by the Institute's Facebook page. The speakers at the ceremony – both Taliban officials and Chinese – emphasized the role of Chinese language learning in strengthening the cultural relationship between the two countries. China has remained active in the education sector following the Taliban takeover of the country. In contrast, countries like India, which was one of the largest providers of scholarships to Afghanistan before the collapse of the government in 2021, ceased providing scholarships to students from Afghanistan after the collapse in August 2021; India has, however, continued scholarships for students who remained stranded in India after the Taliban takeover. On 18 March, the Chinese ambassador awarded 60 scholarships to students at Kabul University, enabling them to continue their education in Chinese universities. The Institute has also been celebrating "Confucius Institute Day," portraying a sense of normalcy under Taliban rule in the country. However, it's notable that the Taliban has banned female education above the sixth grade. Thus, in the photos shared by the Institute's Facebook page, no female students are visible.
This juxtaposition underscores the pragmatism and an eagerness to court favour on both the Taliban and Chinese side. The Taliban for their part, perceive the Chinese New Year as less of a threat and potentially offering economic advantages. It shows the willingness on the part of the Taliban to go to great lengths to attract Chinese favour for strategic interests. First, Chinese language learners can help the Taliban communicate with Chinese officials and businessmen who commute between China and Afghanistan. Second, establishing a strong relationship with China serves the Taliban's aim of seeking official legitimacy from a major power. Additionally, China's veto power at the UN Security Council could prove beneficial to the Taliban in the future, like how China and Russia veto UN Security Council rulings against the Iranian government.

The Taliban's Islamic Emirate shares similarities with many of the country's monarchies and governments since the formation of its current borders in the 1880s. Domestically, they tend to be oppressive, yet they often resort to appeasing foreign powers for survival.

About the Author: Rustam Ali Seerat is a research scholar at the South Asian University, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]