Notes from the Field

Afghanistan’s Religious Institutions among Most Trusted

November 16, 2011

Religious leaders received the highest vote of confidence and optimism of the Afghan people among local governance institutions, according to The Asia Foundation’s 2011 Survey of the Afghan People. Seventy percent of respondents say that there should be regular consultation with religious leaders about problems in their area, while 74 percent rank religious leaders as one of the three most trusted institutions. This trend is the highest since 2006, when 61 percent of respondents said there should be regular consultation with religious leaders.

In Afghanistan’s history, the only consistent, “24-7″ local governance institution available to the public has been the religious leaders, known as mullahs or imams. They are positioned in the heart of each village and community in the Masjid (mosque) which exists in every village and even in some larger houses. In fact, one cannot find a single village and community in the country where there is no Masjid. As such, religious leaders have played a critical role in all stages of an Afghan’s life – from childhood to adult. When a child is first born, her first move from the cradle is to see an imam who recites the words of Azan into the child’s ears. When a child is 2-3 years old, she starts going regularly to the Masjid to learn the Quran and other faith-related books from religious leaders. A new marriage is not complete until the imam confirms the marriage contract between the bride and groom. Religious leaders also read letters from far-flung family members for people who can’t read. Finally, an imam is the last one to speak at a funeral ceremony.

In additional to their religious studies, imams, many of whom have also taken courses in traditional medicine, play the role as community physicians. Some of them have other vocational skills such as carpentry and watch repair, and help community members with these needs as well. In many cases, they serve as psychiatrists, where these types of services are otherwise unavailable in Afghanistan’s rural villages. When there is a domestic disagreement in the middle of the night, for example, a family calls their local imam, known locally as the “family secret keepers,” first to help solve it: over half of the survey respondents said religious institutions are the most important institution for solving disputes, including family conflicts (13%), tribal problems (9%), legal disputes (8%), and disputes over land (25%).Three times more respondents also say they get their news and information from religious leaders in 2010 and 2011 than in previous years. It’s important to note that the religious leaders do this service without any additional stipend. They do not seek bribes; instead, they work to gain people’s confidence and trust.

Perhaps the most important insight into the increase of public confidence and optimism in religious leaders is what it says about the level of political stability in Afghanistan. Historically, confidence in religious leaders increases as Afghans begin to lose trust in other governance and public institutions. This occurs when other public institutions are corrupt and not transparent and when access to official state-related institutions – such as courts and municipalities and district- and provincial-level departments – is perceived as difficult. This trend will only increase if people become more afraid to approach other state and non-state institutions due to insecurity and lack of trust.

In the coming months and years, improvements in security, transparency, and reductions in corruption will be critical to encouraging the Afghan people to trust their state institutions. In the meantime, religious leaders will be there as they have always been to support their communities through a country in great transition.

Mohammad Osman Tariq is The Asia Foundation’s director of Islam & Development and author of the Survey of the Afghan People. He can be reached at tosman@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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