The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (Afic) has cancelled its planned online forum that was due to include two senior Taliban representatives, after it faced heavy criticism from within the Muslim and Afghan communities.
“I genuinely thought it was a joke,” said Mariam Veiszadeh, a lawyer and community rights advocate from the Afghan-Australian community.
“I think Afic has been out of touch with the broader Australia Muslim community for a very long time, and this just cements that further.”
In a statement released on Thursday morning, Afic said it decided to cancel the event “in response to community concerns”, with Afic president Dr Rateb Jneid saying the event was not intended to “legitimise any group”:
“This event was not convened to legitimise any group or to offend any group ... in view of developments, I have taken the executive decision to cancel the event.”
The statement said “discussion” had taken place with “officials in Australia” during the planning for the event.
Afic chief executive Keysar Trad told ABC Radio on Thursday that the event was an opportunity to “obtain assurances about the rights of minorities and women, and to also dissuade and discourage any young people from going to that region.”
But Veiszadeh said the event reflected a “lack of judgment” by Afic, and questioned the leadership at the organisation.
“I don’t think that the current leadership of Afic has the judgment or experience to be able to know how to advocate on behalf of the community.”
“They should be elevating and taking the lead from Afghanistan Australians, and asking them how they can help, rather than seeking to frame the narrative in a way that benefits them personally.”
“It’s just a slap in the face that instead of platforming and elevating the voices of the victims, they’ve thought to elevate the voices of the perpetrator.”
Veiszadeh, along with a number of Afghan-Australian and Muslim community leaders, joined the Afghanistan-Australian Advocacy Network (AAAN) in condemning the event, and calling for an apology from Afic.
The AAAN’s Arif Hussein said there was “no justification” for an event like that to be held.
“There is no justification for giving a public platform to members of the Taliban at a time when they continue to repress the rights of women and minorities such as the Hazaras in Afghanistan. This event clearly demonstrates a clear lack of judgment and empathy on Afic’s part.”
Lawyer Atika Hussain, a member of Australia’s Afghan-Hazara community, said while the cancellation of the event was welcomed, she feared there would be retribution for the cancellation against Hazaras in Afghanistan.
In an online discussion on Afic’s facebook page, the Afic account said opposition to the forum had come from Australia’s Hazara community.
“Some people are trying to censor a 58-year-old Muslim body and stop it from addressing concerns that are being raised in many parts of the nation. It just so happens that many of these objections are led by people identifying as Hazara,” Afic said. “This looks like someone does not want Afghanistan to move forward from its crippling past sectarian conflicts. Shame indeed.”
Hussain said at a time when the Taliban was seeking to establish international legitimacy, to have a public forum suddenly cancelled – and that cancellation attributed to the Hazara community – carried real and significant risk of harm for Hazaras in Afghanistan.
“My friends in Afghanistan said to me: ‘What if they cancel it? The blame is already there, it has already been put on the Hazara. So we can expect a negative response from the Taliban, we can expect retribution’.
“And it is not true. The opposition to the event was not only from Hazaras, it was from the broader Afghan community, from Pashtun, from Tajik, just targeting Hazara is irresponsible and wrong.”
Hussain said Hazara in Afghanistan feared retribution.
“Taliban are looking for platforms, legitimacy, and they are now being told it is the Hazaras who stopped it. This event has created fear, instead of creating unity, it has damaged our community.”
The ethnic and religious minority Hazara have faced generations of violent persecution at the hands of the Taliban and other Sunni extremist groups.
A Shia mosque mainly attended by Hazara was attacked in Kunduz last Friday, in an attack claimed by an Islamic state affiliate. Thousands of Hazaras have also been driven from their homes by the Taliban in Daikundi province.
The cancellation also comes after the New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, released a statement, saying the NSW government had asked Afic to cancel the event.
“The NSW community is currently opening its arms to refugees and Australian repatriates from Afghanistan.”
“We join Muslim community leaders in NSW, and especially Afghan community leaders, in condemning events of this kind.”
Afic has been approached for comment.