Saturday, March 15, 2008

Afghan values

I am currently reading David Edwards' Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad, which seeks to understand the politics of Afghanistan in the 1970s through 90s by following a number of individuals and analyzing how they expressed themselves and how effective their language was. I still haven't made up my mind about this book, but it has already given me much to think about.

Note Edwards' discussion of communist efforts to rally poor farmers and workers to the cause through marches and demonstrations (p. 70):

...when recalling marches at which people were encouraged to shout such phrases as "Death to the Feudals" and "Death to American Imperialism," one should keep in mind the difference between the rhetoric of Marxist opposition and the dynamics of tribal opposition that heretofore had held sway through much of Afghanistan. In tribal culture, to boast that you intend to kill someone places you under the burden of that claim. Utterances have consequences, and for one to publicly promise to do that which one does not intend ultimately to do or which cannot be done makes one appear foolish and dishonorable. That is to say, if people do not realize that words have weight and use them carelessly, then they cannot be trusted, for they are clearly unaware of the implications of honor and, as such, are a danger to themselves and others.

Edwards, p. 71:

Another issue to consider is the government rallies themselves as a form of public performance... Most newspaper photographs of these events show groups of newly enfranchised farmers carrying shiny shovels and slogan-covered placards while standing or marching in parade-ground formation. However the government intended these performances to be perceived, local people generally viewed them as an embarrassment and a disgrace...such stock performance devices as the unison shouting of praise for the revolutionary party while marching in formation were viewed by people as acts of public humiliation that violated their sense of individual initiative and control.


Reading this material in the week when the Canadian parliament renewed its commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, this not only made me more pessimistic about that mission, but made me wonder if there is going to be an Afghan mission to the rest of the world to spread some Afghan values. Any informed person can recite a list of unappealing aspects of Afghan society, but on some issues they may have a thing or two to teach others.

Further, this book makes the rinky-dink communist movement of the 1970s look contemptible and ridiculous (see photo on p. 73 and the accompanying explanation), except of course for all the damage it did. In the last quarter of the 20th century, poor countries around the world were afflicted with movements and egomaniacal leaders like Afghanistan's Tariki and Amin, all determined to make the population march with shiny shovels and chant in unison, and who was better off for it all? How long was the casualty list?

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