Sunday, March 1, 2009

About this blog

This blog is addressed to my students in HIST 3805, History of Islamic Civilization, at Nipissing University in winter term 2009. Anyone is free to read it and comment on the material, especially if you are named David B. Edwards.

The purpose of the blog is to help students write the best possible paper in their final assignment for the course. The assignment is an essay based on Edwards' Before Taliban, and I expect it to be quite a challenge, even for those who have done reasonably well in the first two essays.

I know from long experience that only a very few people will come up to me in class to ask for help getting a handle on this material. So I have used this forum as method of dumping ideas and questions that students may want to consider when picking their topic or approach. Comments are welcome and will not show up immediately -- I will be moderating them. So you can write a comment that you don't want posted, though an e-mail message might be better in that case. If you would share your questions however they may help somebody else.

I posted these entries as I read the book a second time -- you might consider going to the end of the blog and reading in chronological order.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Taliban version of "village morality" and the real thing

Edwards, page 299-300:
In their zeal to overcome the abuses of the previous 20 years and to create a new foundation for the country, the Taliban have instituted an uncompromising moral severity and inflexibility that, abuses aside, does not mesh well with Afghan sensibilities, especially the valorization of individual autonomy that is shared across the ethnic and regional spectrum. Afghans rejected the Marxist regime principally because they came to believe that Taraki, Amin, and laterKarmal were intent on imposing a foreign moral code on the country, and now [in the 1990s] many feel that the Taliban are trying to do the same thing -- this time instituting under the cover of "village morality" religious mores that are more parochial and conservative than those of the vast majority of Afghans, including most Afghans from rural areas. Ironically, the Qandahari villages that Mulla Omar and the other top Taliban officials come from are famous throughout Afghanistan for the enjoyment of music, dancing, games of various sorts. One comes to the conclusion that the Taliban call for a return to "village morality" has as little connection to real villages as the Khalqi valorization of "downtrodden peasants" did to the struggles of actual people. One also suspects that just as the isolation of Kabul-based Marxist leaders from the life of the rural poor led them to formulate unrealistic social programs, so the cloistered society of the all-male madrasa has led the Taliban to create an idealized vision of Afghan villages unmoderated by the domestic influence of women, families, elders, and the everyday realities of tilling fields, tending flocks, and raising children.

Taliban origins

Edwards (page 292) gives some background on the rise of the Taliban (madrasa student) movement:
... religious education once again [in the 1980s and 90s] became an important avenue of social mobility, especially for young male Afghan refugees. On the frontier, at the turn of thelast century, becoming a taleb was one of the few ways an individual could improve his life fortunes, gain social respect, and escape the -- for some -- claustrophobic world of the tribe and the village. In Afghanistan prior to the war, the government sponsored tribal boarding schools, and many of the brightest and most ambitious young men from the border areas attended the schools with the hope of landing a government job after graduation. However, this possibility ended for most Afghans when the war began. Between three and four million people fled to Pakistan, the vast majority ended up in refugee camps scattered up and down the frontier. most of the camps had primary schools, and a few secondary schools were set up especially for Afghan refugees. But the schools had more to do with social control than with education, and few who attended them had their life chances expanded as a result. The same was not the case, however, for those who attended the madrasas. As in the 19th century, religious education once again became the surest avenue to social advancement. In the years before the war, madrasa graduates generally ended up in menial positions teaching children and taking care of village mosques, but in Pakistan, with the resistance parties in the hands of religious leaders, madrasa graduates had more numerous and lucrative options than ever before. The madrasas were also more vibrant and lively than secular schools and more connected to the world outside because of the war, which defined people's lives, was seen as a religious struggle and those who graduated from the madrasas were considered more likely to play significant roles in that struggle.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Read the epilogue first?

It has been suggested to me that you might try reading the Epilogue of Before Taliban before you start on the beginning of the book. This may not work, but it would have the advantage of showing connections between events and Afghanistan before 2001 and after. And as you read, you would have a sense of direction -- you'd know what the end of the story was.

Speaking of connections, Juan Cole in his recent post on possible negotiations in Afghanistan identifies the various groups that are sloppily labeled as Taliban today. Once you start into the book you will find that some of the people discussed in it are still around. The diversity of the anti-coalition forces is also reported on in somewhat less detail in this video report from Al Jazeera.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Afghanistan chronology, updated

Edwards' book does not follow a strict chronological order, and even the second time through I've been finding it difficult. Here is my first attempt at a resource to help you keep track of things. It is a list of important dates and events since 1919, extracted from Wikipedia. Later I will be adding other dates from Edwards' book, the ones that were important to his subjects.

Afghanistan Chronology

1919-1929 -- King Amanullah

1929 -- Prince Mohammed Nadir Khan declared King Nadir Shah. He abandoned the reforms of Amanullah Khan in favour of a more gradual approach to modernisation.

1930s -- Taraki worked in Bombay.

1933 -- Nadir Khan was assassinated.

1933 to 1973 -- Mohammad Zahir Shah, Nadir Khan's son, succeeded to the throne

1946 -- Wakil (Sami'ullah Safi) and his family forced into internal exile.

1953 -- Mohammed Daoud Khan becomes Prime Minister; he was asked to resign in 1963.

1964 -- King Zahir Shah promulgated a liberal constitution

1965 -- PDPA (communist party) founded.

1967 -- The (communist) PDPA split into two major rival factions: the Khalq (Masses) faction headed by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin and supported by elements within the military, and the Parcham (Banner) faction led by Babrak Karmal.

1968 -- Wakil elected to Parliament.

1969 -- Muslim Youth Organization founded at University of Kabul

1972 -- Rabbani helps found Jamiati-i Islami (according to one story)

July 17, 1973 -- Former Prime Minister Mohammad Sardar Daoud Khan seized power in a military coup. Daoud abolished the monarchy, abrogated the 1964 constitution, and declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as its first President and Prime Minister.

1974 -- Qazi Amin, now a university graduate, began to teach outside of Kabul.

August 1975 -- After an unsuccessful revolt by the Islamic front, its unarrested leaders fled to Peshawar in Pakistan and started setting up party offices.

May 11, 1976 -- Qazi Amin elected amir of the united Islamic front, Hizb-i Islami Afghanistan. (This alliance, like others later, soon splits up.)

27 April 1978 -- The PDPA, led by Nur Mohammad Taraki, Babrak Karmal and Hafizullah Amin overthrew the regime of Mohammad Daoud. The PDPA invited the Soviet Union to assist in modernizing its economic infrastructure.

January 1979 -- Wakil left Kabul and joined the Pech valley tribal uprising.

March 1979 -- Hafizullah Amin took over as prime minister, retaining the position of field marshal and becoming vice-president of the Supreme Defence Council. Taraki remained President and in control of the Army.

April 1979 -- Kerala massacre leads to one of the earliest refugee movements to Pakistan.

September 14, 1979 -- Hafizullah Amin overthrew Taraki, who died or was killed.

December 25, 1979 -- the Soviet army entered Kabul.

Spring-summer 1980 -- Wakil and followers fled to Pakistan.

May 1980 -- A national jirga attempted to unify anti-Soviet forces.

1980 -- Sayyaf came to Peshawar, the first leader with a strong Arab connection.

February 11, 1988 -- editor Majrooh killed for his support of Zahir Khan as a national unity leader.

February 1989 -- The Soviet Union withdrew its troops in, but continued to aid the government, led by Mohammed Najibullah

1990 -- Wakil fled Peshawar to Norway

April 18, 1992 -- the Najibullah government was overthrown -- Islamic State of Afghanistan created.

The Taliban, a movement of religious scholars and former mujahideen, emerged from the southern province of Kandahar.

September, 1996 – Taliban took Kabul.

October 2001 -- US/coalition invasion

October 9, 2004 -- Karzai was elected as president of Afghanistan in the country's first ever presidential election.

More than one kind of Islamic radical -- 1970s

There is a lot of room for confusion in the tale of the growth of Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan. People with difficult names feud with each other and set up different political factions in opposition to each other. There are a few passages on pages 249 and 250 which may give you a clue as to some of the issues that divided people who all thought of themselves as fighting for an Islamic Afghanistan.

Here is a passage based on Edwards's interview with a man named Maulavi Yunus Khales, who was prominent in the refugee community forming on the Pakistan border in the late 1970s:
Khales had long been known for his independence and idiosyncrasies, but apparently the principal factor in this decision to establish his own Hizb-i Islami [there was another one dominated by his opponents, the former university students] was his resentment at being subordinate to younger and less experienced men. Although he did not want to discuss the reasons for his split with Hizb in my interview with him, he did comment on Hekmatyar's lack of understanding of religious matters, a subject on which he had previously written a polemical pamphlet:
The Muslim Youth [the initial campus-based group] wanted to do demonstrations and talk about the government, but we wanted to work deeply and bring about the theological revolution. Our work was ripe, but the work of the Muslim Youth was unripe, like young people themselves. The Muslim Youth would make up slogans just like the communists. [They would chant,] "death to Zahir Shah," but they didn't know who would come after him if Zahir Shah was kicked out.
To Khales, Hekmatyar and his followers were "unripe", and he questioned how Hekmatyar could claim to lead an Islamic jihad when he had only rudimentary understanding of Islamic scripture. The term most commonly applied to Hekmatyar and the other erstwhile student revolutionaries by Khales and other older clerics was..."schoolboys" which reflects the fact that most of them were young and had gone to state schools rather than madrasas. Some clerics were willing to forgive [them] their lack of training because their hearts at least were with Islam, but increasingly that sympathy was strained as the political environment in Peshawar became more polarized.
The former university students had their own complaints including these (250):
The Hizbis also condemned the backwardness of the ulama who, in the words of reform, "just kept us busy with old philosophy."
If our brothers talked with the mullas about the scientific issues in the mosque, they would issue a fitwa of infidelity... against us... They were severely antiscience. Even when they traveled in cars and planes, they would say that these were magic and they would be destroyed once people hit them with swords. If we told them that America, the Soviet Union, and France had atomic bombs and could destroy the world, they would say that we were mad and told lies. If we told them there was poverty and illiteract in Afghanistan urged them to learn about contemporary affairs, they would say that we had turned away from Islam.
By contrast, Muslim Youth leaders were familiar with Western science and society, and, in the pamphlets they wrote and the speeches they delivered, interest scientific and social issues from an informed Islamic perspective that neither ignored or condemned the intellectual and technological advances of the West. They were aware of the way leftists made fun of the "backwardness" of Islamic scholars and were intent on showing the compatibility of religion and science.
You don't have to take either characterization as literal truth. See the book for more issues that divided the two groups.

Image: The only picture I could find of Mohammad Yunus Khales (Khalis).

Monday, February 23, 2009

The radical Islamic parties of Afghanistan as modern phenomena

One important point that Edwards makes in his book is that the Islam of the Taliban, or more accurately the Islamic radical parties that preceded the Taliban, represent in their organization and their appeal and their sources of support quite a different phenomenon than the traditional Afghan style of Islamic practice. A lot could be said about this, but at the moment I will take the easy way out and reprint here a blog entry from Muhlberger's Early History from the time I read the book the first time. It discusses the origins of radicalism of all varieties in the University of Kabul, the only advanced secular institution of learning in the country, a place where different kinds of young Afghans tried to come to grips with a diverse and impersonal and unfamiliar environment.

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.
Image: a picture of the university of unknown date.

Friday, February 20, 2009

For those of you who saw The Man Who Would Be King

Kafiristan, now known as Nuristan, features in part two of our book.

Image: The Hindu Kush region.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Islamism in Afghanistan: tradition or innovation?

In many places, Edwards shows that Afghans generally had a strong attachment to Islam, and that it represented more than simply religious beliefs and practices as we might narrowly define them.

As an example, take the story that Wakil told about his father denouncing the minister of defense while they argued in the prison courtyard(pp. 109-10):
My father raised his head, and Mohammed Aref said, "Enough!" He was thinking that certainly he had been convinced and would take the land. But my father said to him, "You are infidels! You're not Muslims!" What he meant was that they didn't have compassion. "Tell your men that they have injured my arm! My arm is broken!"
This respect for Islam however is not the same as the kind of Islamism familiar today in Afghanistan and other countries. Certainly religious leaders and holy men had a limited amount of clout back in the 60s and 70s. Edwards quotes Wakil as saying that government was not "the work of a mulla."
The mullas were fine for leading prayers or for giving a religious imprimatur to the results of tribal negotiations. However, their power was largely symbolic, and from the tribal perspective any group that sent such a representative to a national assembly would be admitting its weakness or declaring its disdain. (Edwards, page 118-9)

Elsewhere, Edwards shows an attachment to religious parties as one possible route for the deracinated to find a satisfying value system. More on this later, when I find the appropriate page numbers, but Edwards locates the new Islamist sentiment as coming from the University of Kabul, where it was in hot competition with Marxist ideology.

Update: Here is the text I was looking for, on p. 85.

[Actions of the Khalqi government] helped to define the ensuing conflict in Islamic terms. In retrospect, this seems almost inevitable, but at the time of the coup d'etat, Islam appeared to be moving in the direction of many Western religions: it was becoming a matter of personal belief rather than of social or political consequence. We know now what we didn't know then -- namely, political Islam, marching in competitive lockstep with Marxism, had been gaining a constituency in the schools and military, and radical Muslim parties had been making their own plans to take power for some time before the Marxist revolution. However, these efforts, like those of the Marxist parties, were confined to interstitial institutions such as schools and the military and were not widespread in society at large.
Image: Young mullahs graduating, Kabul, 2008.


In part one of Before Taliban, Edwards discusses the career of the self presentation of Taraki, the Khalqi ( communist) leader of Afghanistan in 1978-9. More than once, Edwards used the term "deracinated" to describe either Taraki or his followers.

Useful exercise: look up the word " deracinated."

Edwards claims and documents that Taraki and his followers and collaborators found it impossible to convince most Afghans that the new definitions of justice and oppression, derived from foreign (specifically Marxist) ideas, were relevant to their way of life. Edwards discusses and illustrates this lack of understanding or agreement pretty convincingly, but he does seem to fall into a presentation that makes it seem only natural that Afghans should stick to traditional ideas.

However, it might be worth thinking about the fact that there were quite a few "deracinated Afghans" who were willing to try something new, who in fact seem to have had strong feelings that they should try something new. Edwards shows us these people himself. Not only is there Taraki, there is Aqcha Poor, the agricultural extension agent that Edwards met in Balkh on his first trip to Afghanistan (pp. 14-16), the fictional boys Naim and Jabar (pp. 11-) in the movie of that name, the education students who fell under Amin's influence, the other university students who joined Islamist and Marxist parties, the military officers who made possible the coup that put Taraki in power, etc. My own feeling is that these "deracinated Afghans" represent something bigger than merely a phenomenon in Afghan history, they are part of a worldwide phenomenon which it might be worth coming to grips with.

And what about modernizing rulers? Edwards shows us that Taraki was not the first of these. Are they "deracinated" too?

Some maps of Afghanistan - 1

A selection of political/military maps from PBS.

(Click on the map above for a larger version.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Afghan values

Here I am reprinting, as my first substantial post, something I wrote for Muhlberger's Early History some months ago when I was first reading Before Taliban:

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?

The assignment, more or less

I will be issuing a formal assignment soon, but here is some guidance for early readers.

This is what I wrote at the beginning of the assignment sheet for our last paper:

Daughter of Persia is the story of a woman who grew up in an aristocratic Iranian family with progressive ideals but also traditional expectations of their daughters, who nevertheless grew up to be something of a mover and shaker in her own right. Your assignment is to find something interesting in the thoughts or experience of this woman, write about what have learned from her book, and convincingly put your own analysis or point of view across to your reader.

In that book, you had the advantage of having reasonably close contact with one version of the author's thoughts, since this was an autobiography. Before Taliban is different. We are not so much interested in David Edwards' thoughts as we are in understanding the three Afghan men that he has written about, and whose experience he has reconstructed. My suggestion is that you will focus on one of the three, without forgetting about the other two entirely. Otherwise I can't think of anything better to say than what I did above -- find something interesting about experience of one of the three Afghans and write a convincing analysis or commentary of that material. More later.


This blog is addressed to my students in HIST 3805, History of Islamic Civilization, at Nipissing University in winter term 2009. Anyone is free to read it and comment on the material, especially if you are named David B. Edwards.

The purpose of the blog is to help students write the best possible paper in their final assignment for the course. The assignment is an essay based on Edwards' Before Taliban, and I expect it to be quite a challenge, even for those who have done reasonably well in the first two essays.

I know from long experience that only a very few people will come up to me in class to ask for help getting a handle on this material. A few will write me an e-mail. Some may even come to my office during office hours. Except for the last one, none of these settings are particularly conducive any in-depth commentary. Even if I give a brilliant answer well suited to a student's particular needs, a student may find it hard to remember the insight gained as she or he rushes off to other work.

So I am going to use this forum as method of dumping ideas and questions that students may want to consider when picking their topic or approach. Comments are welcome and will not show up immediately -- I will be moderating them. So you can write a comment that you don't want posted, though an e-mail message might be better in that case. If you would share your questions however they may help somebody else.