Universities closed after sectarian violence on ‘politicised’ campus

In an attempt to diffuse sectarian tension, the Afghan government has closed down the main state-run universities in the capital Kabul for 10 days after clashes at Kabul University that left one student dead and several others wounded.

Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry spokesperson Ghulam Siddique Siddiqui described the preemptive closure of four universities in the Afghan capital as a "precautionary measure", after sectarian clashes erupted on 24 November at a Kabul University dormitory during a ritual marking the Shi'ite Muslim festival of Ashura.

According to reports, the violence was centred on the university hostel for out-of-province students. Witnesses suggested a student was killed as he was pushed out of a window from the third floor. Several other students were injured.

The closure of the state-run institutions Kabul University, Kabul Polytechnic University, Kabul Medical University and Martyr Rabbani Education University was announced by the Ministry of Higher Education the same day.

In consultation with the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Higher Education suspended classes to control the situation and repair damaged parts of the university hostel, Siddiqui was quoted by the local Pajhwok news agency as saying.

The closures come at a difficult time for students, just ahead of examinations. However a higher education ministry spokesperson, Mohammad Azim Noor Bakhsh, told local media the decision was taken to prevent further clashes.

“The university is an academic institution and such violence should not happen; a university is not a place for politics,” Bakhsh is quoted as saying.

The Ashura ceremony, in which men beat their chests and self-flagellate their backs with sharp blades, has long been a magnet for sectarian attacks. This year it was interrupted by hard-line Sunni students. Kabul University students attacked one another with sticks and rocks.

"It seems the clash between some Sunni and Shiite students erupted when Shiite students wanted to perform the Ashura mourning ceremony in a dormitory mosque," said Mohammad Zaher, head of Kabul's Criminal Investigation Department.

Kabul University officials evacuated the campus and cancelled classes for 10 days. But the closure of other universities highlights the important role of campuses in fanning political and sectarian unrest in Afghanistan, despite a government ban on political parties rallying or recruiting on campus.

The Ministry of Higher Education has also said disciplinary measures would be used, including transferring any lecturer found to be politically active on campus to another province.

"Universities have long played a central role in Afghan politics. From the 1960s onwards, professors and students formed leftist and Islamist circles and parties, and fought out their ideological differences on campus," according to an April report on Campus politics published on the Afghanistan Today website.

During the Soviet invasion, communist parties controlled the campus, while during the Mujahiddin era, religious parties were dominant.

Nangarhar University in Jalalabad, a traditional stronghold of Hizb-e Islami and other parties, has long been a hotbed of political protest driven by party rivalries, the strong influence of militants and proximity to Pakistan. It has been dubbed ‘Al-Qaeda University' by Afghans.

Closures of individual universities are not uncommon, with some institutions closed whenever students stage protests. Students and academics complain that frequent closures affect their studies.

Mohammad Ewaz from Ghazni City, a geology student at Kabul University, was quoted by Pajhwok news as saying “I am unhappy with the decision (to close Kabul Unversity) because classes have been suspended ahead of exams. I have no alternative accommodation in Kabul, so I have to go home.”

To safeguard the performance of higher education institutions, Nazar Mohammad Halim of Kabul University’s faculty of science called for a better implementation of laws to free universities from political activity.

"The frequent closures of universities in response to demonstrations and protest marches disrupt the education process and affect academic standards," Halim told University World News.