Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The 60s and 70s at Kabul University and elsewhere

I am still reading David B. Edwards' Before Taliban and am more impressed all the time. Particularly I like the fact that Edwards goes into specifically Afghan phenomena in great detail yet does not push the reader towards a false Orientalism, a conviction that this distant country is impossibly exotic, beyond "Western" understanding. I was struck by this explanation of how the environment of Kabul University in the late 60s and early 70s helped create both Marxist factions and Islamic parties. From pp. 220-1:

Kabul University offered a context for youthful political zeal different from any that had existed before; it is probably not an exaggeration to state that at no other time or place was such a diverse group of young Afghans able to meet together and formulate its own ideas, rules of order, and plans for the future without any interference from those older than themselves. Some of the senior members of the Muslim Youth did have connections with faculty mentors [but those faculty were reticent because they were afraid to lose their jobs]. This reticence severely restricted their influence and also meant that as the confrontations on campus heated up, no moderating influence was available to push compromise or reconciliation. In certain respects, this was a liberating one, and it alllowed new winds to blow into the ossified culture of Afghan politics. However, unhinged from traditional patterns of association, the student political parties were ultimately a disaster for Afghanistan, for as they were cut off from the past, living entirely in the cauldron of compus provocations and assaults, student radicals developed a political culture of self-righteous militancy untempered by crosscutting ties of kinship, cooperation, and respect that elsewhere kept political animosities in check.

The Muslim Youth, like their contemporaries in the leftist parties, abandoned (at least for a time) the ancient allegiances of tribe, ethnicity, language and sect on which Afghan politics perennially had rested. In their place, young people took on new allegiances, professing adherence to ideological principles they had encountered only weeks or months before and swearing oaths of undying fealty to students a year or two older than themselves. These loyalties were kept alive through a paranoid fear of subversion. Only other members could be trusted; every other person was a potential spy, an enemy out to destroy the one true party of the faithful. Marxists and Muslims were tied together in ways they did not recognize at the time. Sworn enemies, they also needed -- and ultimately came to be mirror images of -- one another, linked together by their tactics, their fears, their confrontations, and their self-righteousness. Each believed that their enemies were wrong, that they alone held the key to Afghanistan's future. Each side also believed that violence in advancement and defense of a cause such as theirs was appropriate and ultimately necessary.
I was an undergraduate in North America at this same time, and though there were big differences, and I was never a campus radical, I recognize a lot of this. It wasn't just Afghanistan that then saw a wave of young students flood into newly expanded universities during a time of crisis, all of them wanting to belong to something. It's hard to imagine a country of that period that didn't have these things, actually.

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