Toward Afghanistan, Part 2

In a bit of curious synchronicity, I picked up a copy of Greg Mortenson’s Stones into Schools from the free book table. I’ll fit it into the bag somehow. In my last post, I started to talk about how the topic of religion seems curiously diminished in many of the conversations going on today about the interrelated challenges of corruption, violence, education, custom, and gender relations in Afghanistan. Mortenson’s project plays direcly into those conversations, given that his organization’s mission is “[t]o promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.” One view that seems to predominate in Western conversations about Afghanistan is that education can serve as at least part of a solution to the persistent problems of misogyny, violence, and corruption, but I haven’t registered many westerners as talking about how Afghanistan’s religious culture might contribute toward that solution, as well: in fact, I more frequently hear Islam rhetorically positioned as a significant component of those problems rather than as an inextricable part of Afghan culture that those who would seek to help Afghanistan move towards some form of self-sustaining democratic modernity might embrace.

Nicholas Kristof’s argument strikes me as usefully representative here:

The conventional wisdom is that education and development are impossible in insecure parts of Afghanistan that the Taliban control. That view is wrong.

An organization set up by Mr. Mortenson and a number of others are showing that it is quite possible to run schools in Taliban-controlled areas. I visited some of Mr. Mortenson’s schools, literacy centers and vocational training centers, and they survive the Taliban not because of military protection (which they eschew) but because local people feel “ownership” rather than “occupation.”

“Aid can be done anywhere, including where Taliban are,” Mr. Mortenson said. “But it’s imperative the elders are consulted, and that the development staff is all local, with no foreigners.”

I haven’t read Mortenson’s book yet, but the stricture against foreigners is both expected — most development literature points toward the need for self-determination, and that’s the end the Army is working toward in Afghanistan, as well — and interesting, because of the problem of what constitutes development, and where it comes from.

In the most crass equivalency, many perspectives equate development with money, and in Afghanistan, foreigners bring money. So what constitutes “ownership” (are those Kristof’s scare quotes or direct quotations from Mortenson?) when if comes to foreign development money? If corruption occurs more frequently (1) in less egalitarian cultures where there are large gaps in wealth and (2) in environments where there’s an abundance of cash (examples: Prohibition, Enron, the drug trade, Wall Street, et cetera), then Afghanistan would currently seem to be an environment conducive to corruption — and in fact, the U.S. presence may actually be part of the problem. This isn’t in any way to say that the U.S brought corruption to the region, which sat at the intersection of trade routes starting centuries ago, not long after which various groups of bandits first started each putting their own chains across the roads and charging tolls.

It does make matters somewhat problematic, though, when Kristof uncritically repeats Mortenson’s assertion “that $243 million is needed to fund all higher education in Afghanistan this year. [Mortenson] suggests that America hold a press conference here in Kabul and put just 243 of our 100,000 soldiers (each costing $1 million per year) on planes home. Then the U.S. could take the savings and hand over a check to pay for Afghanistan’s universities.” Yeah: not so fast, pardner. In a corruption-rich environment, you don’t just throw money at problems, and thinking that there’s a one-to-one equivalency between funding military peacekeeping and sustainment activities and funding education strikes me as naïve at best.

I’m not attempting to contradict Kristof’s assertions that “American troops in Afghanistan are among the strongest advocates of investing more in schools there because they see firsthand that education fights extremism far more effectively than bombs. And here’s the trade-off: For the cost of one American soldier in Afghanistan for one year, you could build about 20 schools.” I believe he’s absolutely right. But I don’t hear much from Kristof about what form that education ought to take, and I don’t yet know enough about what Mortenson’s organization does to talk about it in any specific way. In trying to get my head around the shape of these debates over corruption, violence, education, ethics, and gender, though, I do get the sense that the western perspective favors a secular approach, and I wonder if such a perspective problematically looks past the fact that “One of the main stated ideological goals of Afghan Marxists at that time [in the mid to late 1970s] was to demonstrate that ethics in government are not dependent on religious affiliation” (Mills 126). The Soviet influence of the time overlooked the possible problems with attempting to erase tradition — especially religious tradition — in favor of the secular rule of law, and the informal characterizations I’ve heard of Afghan culture almost unanimously describe it as privileging tradition as the opposite of rules and laws.

The few histories I’ve read of Afghanistan describe a culture where women are in many ways subordinated to men. Part of that comes historically from Islam, and part of it comes from the Pashtunwali adaptation of the tradition of purdah, though I don’t know enough about either to be able to grasp the ways in which they diverge or converge. That tradition was forcibly changed in one way in the 1970s with the mandated gender equality of the Marxist regime, but perhaps (I can only hypothesize; I don’t know) swung further back in the other direction with rise of the Taliban and their ideology and their importation of Wahhabi influences.

Some of the tales Margaret Mills describes in Rhetorics and Politics in Afghan Traditional Storytelling show women as possessing or embodying characteristics / positions of “powerlessness, captivity, and rape,” wherein “No hint of feminine acceptance or enjoyment of sex appears” and “Male sexuality is portrayed as pure aggression” (180). This, certainly, is what education ought to work against, yet it isn’t — as RAWA might have it — a necessarily secular goal. Many of the other tales Mills relates told to her by village people around Herat emphasize complicated attitudes toward women: they demonstrate “the value of loyalty and wisdom in women” and emphasize “female solidarity” (148): women helping women, certainly within the sphere of purdah, but perhaps without as well, as Mortenson’s project seems to work toward.

What one doesn’t see in the accounts and tales Mills offers, though, is a female counterpart to the characteristic male role “of the private individual who bears witness to what he has experienced in order to bring authority figures around to more just action, and whose personal moral development is implicated in his acquisition of insight” (243). That voicing of witnessed experience and that “personal moral development” seem as well to have links to ends RAWA pursues and to Mortenson’s project. However, what strikes me as problematic is Mills’s assertion that “If one takes the stories [she relates] together, they all assert the primacy of private visions of justice, whether their effects are felt in private or in public institutional transactions” (303). I wonder if these “private visions of justice” are what we see in the Taliban’s publicly staged soccer-stadium executions and its public stonings for what Westerners would in many cases consider essentially private trespasses: is this where the privileging of individually experienced and communally shared traditions over abstract notions of law and justice see their most problematic end? Does a predominantly oral culture and a felt metaphysics of presence point toward a sense of government as a fundamentally private rather than public institution; toward notions of justice more individual and empathetic than abstract and principle-based?

By definition, religious faith is necessarily private. Negotiation, however, is not; argument is not. Friends who’ve deployed to Afghanistan have described to me the remarkable oratorical skill they perceived across broad swaths of (male) Afghan culture. So, too, in Mills, multiple interlocutors and tale-tellers emphasize repeatedly that “everything is in the tongue” (381), a reminder of the Afghan folk saying that the tongue is mightier than the sword. The tongue negotiates.

Kalam (الكلام‎), the often-maligned (and frequently characterized as heretical) counterpart of Sharia (شريعة), is dialectic; Islam understood as knowledge through doing, through negotiation; as opposed to the disorganized and inconsistently applied debates over reliable sources and selective quotation that constitute the literature-based corpus of Sharia. I wonder what Afghan students might make of the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter; of Cicero’s empathetically expressed unease before Caesar in the Pro Ligario.

Last semester, I asked students to read and write about the al-Qaeda magazine Inspire in conjunction with other readings about justice, government, faith, and the rights of individuals, in an attempt to set up some dissonance to work through. (I can’t link to Inspire here, because it’s got recipes for bombs in it, but if you’re interested, it’s not terribly difficult to seek out. It’s a lot of different things: horrific in the actions it promotes, remarkable in its rhetorical facility, polished in its presentation, but more than anything else, it demands attention.) The Army as an institution tends to foster uniformity of belief, as well it should, given its mission. But I’m pretty certain that students who can set themselves — in the sense that Peter Elbow’s believing game asks for — in ambiguity and dissonance and still work their way through will be stronger for it. That’s a worldview that doesn’t take things on faith, and I’m worried that as such, it might not fly well in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. It’s also something that I don’t feel comfortable in setting aside: freedom of conscience, as an aspect of democratic culture, seems absolutely essential to me. That’s perhaps the opposition RAWA is working with, as well. So is a democratic worldview problematically teleological? Does democracy see itself as the ideal?

I don’t know. It’s not an end-state, certainly. Islam, in some of its embodiments, seems to provide a morality versed in certainty, particularly the more extreme Wahhabist forms. But religious morality is not necessarily the opposite of secular morality: there can be multiple religious moralities, as demonstrated by the role of the truth-teller in the stories Mills reports, and demonstrated even more by the apparent moral flexibility of the religious figures in those stories. At this writing, Mills’s study is over twenty years old, and so I wonder: how might the stories that Afghan women tell start to illuminate these questions about corruption, violence, education, custom, and gender?

Certainly, I won’t be the one to investigate such stories. But I wonder if somebody has, or might.

Mills, Margaret. Rhetorics and Politics in Afghan Traditional Storytelling. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Toward Afghanistan, Part 2