Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


‘More than just a national treasure’: Afghanistan’s non-Muslim communities in the diaspora

Magnus Marsden

The return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan in August 2021 shed a renewed spotlight on the fate of the country’s ethno-religious minorities. In September and October of 2021, the two remaining Jews living in Afghanistan left Kabul. By January 2023, all but a handful of Sikhs and Hindus living in the country had either fled or been evacuated. Media reports depicted these events as marking the ‘decline’ and ‘end game’ both of these ‘minority’ communities in Afghanistan, and the country’s little recognised history of religious pluralism.

Often depicted as miniscule communities isolated from their co-religionists, Afghanistan’s non-Muslim communities played critical roles in the territories currently making up the country and the wider region in which it is located.  Until the second half of the twentieth century, Afghanistan’s major urban centres and many of provincial hinterlands of these were home to sizeable non-Muslim communities. From at least the seventeenth century, Hindus and Sikhs were active in the trade in commodities between the territories currently forming Afghanistan, and commercial hubs in South Asia, Central Asia and Russia. Hindus and Sikhs traded cloth between India and Central Asia. Often referred to historically as Hindkis in Afghanistan, this ‘community of bankers, merchants, and traders active in Afghanistan with social origins in and economic connections to various localities in India’ also provided loans to Muslim traders and farmers.

Jews have lived in Afghanistan since at least the 7TH century CE. In more recent times, they have been a feature of life in the historic cities of Herat and Kabul from at least the eighteenth century. Jewish merchants from Herat travelled far and wide across the territories making up modern day Afghanistan, especially to towns and villages in the north, where they bought for export skins, furs and carpets. Herati Jews also traded in the great commercial cities of Central Asia (Bukhara, Samarqand, Merv and Tashkent), as well as beyond in Russia, Iran, China, and, in the twentieth century, Great Britain. Jews from Herat did not only deal in commodities. As with Hindkis, they provided loans to landowners that helped to finance cotton production in Central Asia.

The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 eventually resulted in the closure of the border between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan; by the 1930s trade between Central and South Asia was severely curtailed. King Amanullah’s frustrated attempts between 1919 and 1929 to create a modern nation state encouraged both Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the country to identify themselves as ‘Afghan’. Ties of kin, commerce and religion between Afghanistan and the Soviet Republics of Central Asia gradually weakened. National boundaries and imperial competition between Russia and Great Britain did not lead to Afghanistan becoming an Asian backwater, however. New commercial geographies and connections emerged and non-Muslim merchant communities played a critical role in forging these. Traders from Afghanistan conducted business in India and Southeast Asia, and increasingly too in Europe and North America.

Nativist economic policies in Afghanistan in the 1940s marginalised the economic activities of the country’s non-Muslims, especially its Jews. Combined with the pull of resettlement to Palestine, economic decline resulted in wealthy Jews from Herat purchasing land and building homes in Jerusalem. The government of Afghanistan legalised Jewish migration to Israel in 1951, resulting in most Herati Jews leaving the country. Houses built in the 1930s now became homes for Jewish families arriving on risky overland routes from Afghanistan. In the newly created state of Israel, Herati Jews often settled first in Jerusalem’s Bukharim (Bukharan) neighbourhood. Populated by Jews from Afghanistan and Central Asia who lived in homes with shared courtyards and gardens resembling those they had left behind in Herat, the Bukharim was also the site of synagogues and bakeries established by ‘Afghan Jews’.

Not all of Afghanistan’s Jews left the country in the 1950s. Several hundred remained, mostly moving from Herat to the modern surroundings of Kabul’s Shahr-e Naw, or new city; they enjoyed a better life from the mid-1960s onwards in the context of fewer government restrictions and a growing economy. Jews in Kabul dealt in foreign currency exchange, built ties with banks in the US that provided credit lines to Muslim importers, and exported carpets, suede jackets, and antiques to Europe, North America and beyond.

By contrast, most of Afghanistan’s Hindkis remained in the country throughout the twentieth century. They played a critical role in the country’s import and export trade. Travelling across South and East Asia, Hindki merchants dealt in cloth, medicines, electronic goods, and dried fruits. Sikhs were renowned in Afghanistan as practitioners of the local Yunani medical tradition – a field of expertise that saw them earning status in cities and small towns across the country. From the 1920s, Hindus and Sikhs increasingly enrolled in state education, often in the fields of medicine and pharmacy – areas in which their historic repute as traditional healers served them well as they secured government employment and established modern businesses.

Afghanistan’s transformation from a locus of imperial contestation between Britain and Russia to a hot site of the Cold War created pressures that neither the country’s sizeable Hindki communities nor the handful of Jewish families living in Kabul could withstand. By the early 1980s, Kabul’s small yet wealthy Jewish community had mostly dispersed to Israel and the USA. A scattering of Jewish families from Afghanistan settled in London, Milan and Singapore. Afghanistan’s Jews gradually shifted their business activities away from trade between Afghanistan and the world to the international gemstone trade and, in later years, real estate.

From the mid-1980s onwards, attacks by Islamists organisations on Hindki merchants and their temples and gurdwaras in Afghanistan resulted in Sikhs and Hindus fleeing provinces and moving to the relative safety of Kabul; in 1992, the year the pro-Soviet government collapsed and the mujahidin entered Kabul, approximately 60,000 Hindkis fled with their families to India, mostly in trucks that Pakistan’s government allowed to transit through its territory. A few thousand Hindkis continued to live in Afghanistan through the governments of the mujahidin, Taliban, and post-2001 periods. Maintaining religious institutions, practicing Yunani medicine, and engaging in trade, the community withstood repression by the mujahidin and the Taliban. The administrations of the post-2001 period offered support to Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus. Yet a Sikh from the country active in national politics in remarked to me in Kabul in 2019, ‘we are treated like a treasure. We are exhibited to outsiders to demonstrate Afghanistan’s cultural and historic richness but in little is practically done to support us.’ The return to power of the Taliban in August 2021 resulted in all but a handful of Sikhs and Hindus remaining in the country leaving – often with the assistance of Canada-based Sikh organisations and foundations.

Thinking about these departure of non-Muslims out of Afghanistan over the past century in terms of the ‘demise’ of these communities does not accurately reflect their communities’ own identity and activities, however.

Having assimilated over the past twenty years within Israeli society and US Jewry through participation in religious life, intermarriage, and work, Jews originating from Afghanistan have taken a keen interest in their past. Groups of friends have established websites and social media pages which act as vehicles for the expression of the collective cultural identity of Afghan Jewry. One Facebook group established by Jews from Afghanistan in Israel is entitled ‘We are Also Afghan’.  These activities have also channelled social relations between Jews and Muslims from Afghanistan – Muslims travelling to Israel and Palestine for work, pilgrimage and leisure have found websites helpful in their attempts to seek out their Jewish compatriots. Jewish individuals also travelled to Afghanistan in the 2010s with the aim of preserving sites of religious importance for the community, especially the cemetery in Herat. Meanwhile, Rabbis of Afghan ancestry travel between Israel and the USA as well as Milan, London and Singapore to transmit knowledge of religious practices specific to Afghan Jewry.

Sikhs and Hindus now living outside of Afghanistan (mostly in India, Russia, the UK, the EU, Canada and the USA) also publicly emphasise their ‘Afghan’ identity. They have established temples and gurdwaras for ‘Afghan’ communities – institutions that also play a role in verifying asylum claims of families and individuals seeking asylum. Narrow forms of autochthonous nationalism have come to dominate a great deal of debate in Afghanistan and its diasporas about national identity. In Afghanistan, Muslims often asked Sikhs and Hindus, ‘Why don’t you return to India, where you belong?’ In Europe and North America, however, Sikh Afghan tiktok stars often perform a type of hyper Afghanness, posting images of Afghanistan’s flag, and videos of themselves singing in Pashto and miming Farsi phrases set to the backdrop of text boxes proclaiming, ‘i am afghan sikh. Past present future my nationality Afghan always.’ These social media activities are widely followed and commented upon by Muslims from Afghanistan who often remark, ‘Afghanistan’s Sikhs are far more patriotic than the country’s Muslims’.

The history of residence by Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan marks their daily activities in the countries in which they now live. Making a livelihood and reputation through commerce is important for many Sikhs and Hindus living in London, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Moscow, and Delhi. In the markets in which they work, they share commercial spaces and do business with Muslims from Afghanistan. Young Sikh men who have been born and brought up in India, London or Moscow often speak Farsi and Pashto not because they have learned it in their homes (most though not all families speak Hindko, a variant of Punjabi) but during the course of interacting with Muslim traders and customers. The identities important to Sikh and Hindu interrelationships in the diaspora are also informed by their specific familial histories in Afghanistan. In London, for example, there are gurdwaras at which Sikhs from particular regions of Afghanistan congregate. Sikhs often refer to themselves as being either ‘Charikari’, ‘Khosti’, ‘Kabuli’, ‘Laghmani’, or ‘Jalalavadi’, each names of cities and regions in Afghanistan; more than just names, they say these different identities are materialised in varying types of behaviour and commercial skills.

In the midst of the painful yet varied and rich experiences Afghanistan by non-Muslim communities, they continually create multiple types of connections to the country and its Muslim peoples – connections that connected be defined narrowly as arising out of nostalgia. The sight of videos of turbaned Sikhs proudly asserting their “Afghaness” and Jewish websites proclaiming ‘We are also Afghan!’ recreates community identity and challenges assumptions within and beyond the country about centrality of Islamism to modern day Afghanistan. A Sikh woman from Afghanistan who was raised in India and has brought up her own family London told me how her closest friend in the city is a Muslim woman from Afghanistan, remarking ‘from the day we met, we just clicked’.

Beyond the Silk Roads by Magnus Marsden
Beyond the Silk Roads by Magnus Marsden

About The Author

Magnus Marsden

Magnus Marsden is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Asia Centre at the University of Sussex. His most recent book is Beyond the Silk Roads (Published by Cambridge Unive...

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