KABUL -- The Taliban's campaign to assassinate Afghan religious scholars who deem the militants' fight as illegitimate is part of an ongoing effort to squash dissent from the very segment of society the Taliban needs to justify its so-called "jihad".
In the latest instance, militants killed Mawlawi Samiullah Rashed, a religious scholar, on his way to a funeral in Logar on June 12.
The Taliban stopped Rashed's vehicle and shot him, Hasibullah Stanikzai, chairman of the Logar provincial council, told reporters on June 13.
Earlier, on June 3, gunmen fatally shot Mawlawi Mohammad Kababyani, deputy chairman of the Ulema Council of the western region in Injil district, Herat province, as he was walking home from a mosque.
On March 3, gunmen assassinated Mawlawi Faiz Mohammad Fayez, a lecturer at Kabul Arabic Dar Ul Olom (Academy) and former chairman of the Kunduz Ulema Council, in Kabul.
On February 2, Mohammad Atif, chairman of the Jamiat-e-Eslah Central Council, was killed in an explosion in Kabul.
With no exact figures available, estimates of the number of scholars killed in attacks vary.
The Afghan National Security Council said in a statement on April 9 that 28 religious scholars had been assassinated by the Taliban in the past year in 14 provinces.
However, Mawlawi Abdul Salam Abid, an Afghan religious scholar, stated on June 4 that 1,200 religious scholars were killed over the past 18 months.
The Taliban target various scholars for different reasons, according to Mohammad Salem Hasani, a religious scholar and adviser to President Ashraf Ghani.
"The first group is scholars who operate within the system and the government. They are the primary target since they elevate the legitimacy of the government," he said.
"The second group is scholars who do not operate within the government but live under its banner and work as imams and professors. They are the easy targets," Hasani said.
"The third group is the scholars who neither support nor oppose the Taliban," he added. "They target these scholars too to scare them off and force them to distance themselves from the government."
Silencing religious scholars
The Taliban are trying to silence the voice of truth and justice by targeting scholars, say Afghans.
"In many cases when an Afghan National Army soldier or civilians are martyred, scholars condemn [the Taliban's actions]," Hasani said. "This causes the Taliban to care what scholars say.
The killing of religious scholars is "forbidden since they are enlightened and guide people to the right path", said Waliullah Labib, a religious scholar in Kabul.
"Those who kill scholars either do not believe in Islam or are deceived and brainwashed," he said.
"If you sit in an Islamic gathering, no one can prove that the war in Afghanistan is an Islamic jihad; therefore, whoever raises his voice is targeted by the group's militants," Labib said.
The Taliban target scholars who try to tell Taliban militants not to be deceived by their leaders and to end fratricide, said Mariam Mohammadi, a resident of Herat province.
"Kababyani, for example, was a religious scholar who always encouraged the public to do good and encouraged anti-government elements to seek peace," she said, referring to the Herat province cleric assassinated on June 3.
"He opposed the continuation of the war and fratricide in Afghanistan," she said.
"I think armed anti-government elements are behind this because they don't want to make peace and do not want scholars to talk about their illegitimate war," Mohammadi said.
"The Taliban, unfortunately, target any religious scholar who dares to reject this group's false jihad," said Jalil Noori, a private university student in Kabul.
He mentioned Mawlawi Ayaz Niazi and Mawlawi Azizullah Mufleh, who were killed in explosions in mosques in Kabul last year.
Both scholars "had repeatedly called the ongoing war in Afghanistan illegitimate and denounced suicide attacks", he said. "As a result, showing great disregard for Islam, the Taliban killed them inside mosques."
"The majority of scholars know that the Taliban's war is illegitimate, and they explicitly declared this in the historic jirga held in Kabul in 2019," said Zabiullah Akbari, 35, a resident of Kabul city and a government employee.
"Since then, the Taliban have been watching the activities of scholars and target any scholar who raises the voice of truth," he added.