Imams Get Out the Vote in Afghanistan

Rahim Sarwan

The people of Afghanistan vote Thursday in presidential and provincial elections. Throughout the country, which is officially known as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, leaders of the Muslim clergy, imams, are doing their part to urge people to vote.

Worshippers at the Chaknori Mosque in Jalalabad, capital of Nangahar Province, are listening to a mix of religion and politics. In an officially Islamic country, there is nothing at all unusual about this. In fact, 156 imams are travelling throughout the country with the specific mission of talking to people about Thursday's election.

"We have paid special attention to the fact that religious and tribal leaders are very influential in our society and we appointed many of these people to encourage people to get involved in the political campaign and it has been quite successful," said Dr. Akhtar Mohammad, director of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission in Nangarhar Province.

Many of the imams are working in rural areas, where people are mostly illiterate and have little access to information. Imam Mawlawi Wali Ahmad and other civic educators have come to this village to talk with people about the importance of the election and the need to learn as much as they can about the candidates.

The imam combines practical information with religious references and he tells them that their vote is their voice. Hebelieves it is good for religious scholars like himself to take on this role because imams are respected leaders in society. But he does not tell people who to vote for.

"You should vote for the person that you like and that you think will serve the people. That person can be anyone you choose. We are not supposed to tell you whom to vote for as this is not our policy," he said.

At the end of the meeting, materials are passed out to the villagers to share with others in their communities. They explain the voting process in illustrations that are clear to people who cannot read, so they will know what procedures to expect on election day.

According to Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, the main objective of its public outreach is to educate voters of all ethnicities and levels of education about the electoral process, and to "spread the culture" of free and fair elections. The commission says impartiality is one of its main principles, and that its activities do not favor any particular organization, person or group.

And the advice imams offer is both needed and welcomed, according to this Kuchi elder. "What the religious leaders say about the elections is very important. People respect them and listen to what they say. Most people in the villages don't know where to go and how to vote and thus their instructions are very useful," he said.

The imams say they are not only explaining the voting process to the people of Afghanistan. They are also doing something else that to them is equally important: They are showing that, in a democracy, religion and government can support each other. 

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