In September 2010, the New York Times illustrated an article about the complex interrelationships among corruption, education, custom, and gender in Afghanistan with a bruising anecdote:
Hundreds of children would gather on the iconic Nader Khan Hill in the capital, Kabul, on a gorgeous Friday in September and fly kites emblazoned with slogans lauding the rule of law and equality for women. The kites, along with copies of the Afghan Constitution and justice-themed comic books, would be gifts of the United States, part of a $35 million effort “to promote the use of Afghanistan’s formal justice system.”
Afghan policemen hijacked the event, stealing dozens of kites for themselves and beating children with sticks when they crowded too close to the kite distribution tent.
Most bore messages about the importance of gender equality, but there was hardly a girl with a kite, although plenty of girls were around. One DPK staff member pushed through the crowd to give 10-year-old Shaqila Nabi a kite; her sister Farzana, 8, had wanted one, too, but a policeman had just swung at her with a stick and she had darted out of harm’s way, and out of sight.
Shaqila raced back to her father, Gul Nabi, a horse wrangler peddling rides. He promptly took the kite and gave it to a boy.
“He is my son and he should get the kite,” he said.
It’s intended to come across as painful, I’m sure, and that’s why the author led with it: the anecdote is full of abject rhetorical appeals to pathos carefully chosen to communicate the challenges the author sees as facing Afghanistan. Still, those appeals to pathos don’t make the article’s representations any less true, and as I’ve processed through the various stations of this CONUS Replacement Center in preparation to go over there, they’ve been on my mind.
There’s corruption in the anecdote, American money and Afghan police; there are concepts of justice and constitutionality and the rule of law, inverted; there are adults and children, fathers, sons and (implicitly of more concern to the article’s emotional tenor) daughters; violence, committed by men with weapons against innocents; and — in the abstract — there are women.
But the anecdote doesn’t mention Islam, and neither does the rest of the article. From all that I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to, though, it’s nearly impossible to think about the place of ethics and morality in Afghan culture — whether in relation to corruption or to the role of women — without talking about religion, and for that reason, I’m eager to be over there, to see and learn for my self, rather than relying on all this secondhand knowledge.
On the one hand, there are organizations like RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who pursue a secular and democratic agenda and promote secular and democratic practices for the broader Afghan culture. They’ve found support with some American audiences, and for what I think many would say are good reasons: they condemn the extension of brutally misogynist Taliban practices and violence against women by regimes that replaced them, such as the one in Herat; they are deeply critical of the US for the terrible casualties inflicted on the civilian population; and they condemn the accomodationist approach of Hamid Karzai’s political coalition-building that permits discriminatory treatment against women to continue. Yet, as strong as their anti-fundamentalist rhetoric is, it seems somewhat buckshot in nature. Certainly, their positions are strong, strident, even over-the-top — but when so much of what they say is apparently true, how can they not be over-the-top in their approach?
I don’t know. The circumstances they describe are horrific. The solutions they propose seem unattainable. Today, Afghanistan is formally known as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; from 1978 to 1989, the attempts to modernize the country by legislatively mandated secularization failed abjectly, resulting in the deaths of a million Afghan civilians. You can’t legislate culture wholesale, and it seems like U.S. foreign policy has started to recognize that lately. An obvious smaller-scale approach to these interwoven challenges of corruption, violence, custom, and gender would be to work toward education in secular virtues as well as religious, and in fact the ethical code of the institution where I’m going to teach lays its foundation on the bedrock of Islam. Consider the explanatory conclusion Margaret Mills offers
(Mills, Margaret. Rhetorics and Politics in Afghan Traditional Storytelling. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.)
following her transcription of an Afghan storyteller’s oral performance: “The whole ground of the Akhond’s rejection of the Jew’s claim to communal virtue, is a cryptic counterstatement to Marxists who intended to bring uncorrupted (e.g., non-bribe-taking) administration to the hinterlands: What good is virtue, the Akhond asks, without God?” It’s a fair and necessary question: in a deeply religious culture, can one have morality or ethics without religion?
Nicholas Kristof describes a school founded by Greg Mortenson’s organization that “survives because it is run by the imam of the mosque, and he overcomes Taliban protests by framing it as a madrassa, not a school” and another instance where te organization is “beginning to pay imams to hold classes for girls in their mosques […, which] puts a divine stamp on girls’ education.” For all the rightful and righteous secular outrage that RAWA puts out, Mortenson’s approach toward the religious aspects of the challenges of corruption, violence, education, custom, and gender seem to be enjoying more popular support.
So that’s perhaps at least a toehold, a start on a way of trying to get my head around some of the complexities toward which I’ll soon be traveling. It completely ignores, though, the problem of money, about which I’ll try to have something to say soon.