Dr. Omar Sharifi in an Exclusive Interview with Sheesha Media

interviewer: Ferdaws Kawish 

Thanks to everyone who is listening and watching us. In this episode of “At Sheesha” podcast, we have an exclusive interview with Dr. Omar Sharifi. Dr. Sharifi is a scholar anthropologist. He is one of the few Afghan anthropologists who was born, grown and remained in the country until the fall of the republic. In this interview, we will discuss the evolution and trends of Afghanistan studies in general and the current crisis. 

Sheesha Media: Dr. Sharifi, first of all, I would like to ask you where and in which family you were born and where you started and finished your education. Hearing this, will we move on to the following questions?

Sharifi: I was born in Kabul, grew up there, went to school and later to University in Kabul. Later, I came to the United States to continue my studies. My university major is in anthropology, although I know that anthropology got a very bad name  because of Ashraf Ghani, but I love it.  My MA and PhD is on the anthropology of Afghanistan. I became interested in anthropology in order to understand the complex socio-cultural realities of Afghanistan in the age of globalization.

During my studies, I realized that many still continue to view Afghanistan as it was seen and understood  in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A view that  was heavily influenced by the colonial discourse. One can say it was a classic view of Afghanistan, which ignored the diversity and complex sociopolitical evolution of the country as a nation and as a state. It failed to reflect the massive changes that occurred after the fall of the monarchy, the tumultuous period of the first republic and the Jihad/Taliban period.

In my opinion, the events after the fall of the monarchy fundamentally  changed all aspects of Afghanistan’s political, social, culturalو, and economic life. During the Cold War, Afghanistan was one of the few Islamic countries that became  the center of global politics and ideological rivalries between the major powers. This in turn significantly transformed Afghanistan and the Afghans.  In my doctoral thesis, I studied and researched these issues and tried to understand these changes. The main question of my doctoral thesis was how Afghanistan, despite being a very diverse society in terms of language, culture, ethnicity, and social relations, and beside the bitter experience of war and major crises has never had a separatist movement. In fact, it remained the only Muslim country  from the Bengal to the Balkans, with a diverse population the war, migration, and ethnic conflicts, never witnessed separatist movement in an organized manner. In my thesis, I avoided asking open-ended questions such as “Who are we?” or “What is our identity?”. These questions were beyond the scope of my studies. Instead, I tried to focus on how  average Afghans see themselves and how they navigate their diverse social and political landscape. Furthermore, I tried to understand the role of religion and how Islam gradually transformed from being a faith into an ideology during the 1980s. And, how this transition changed Afghans as a people.

In the post 2001 era, and as the first indigenous scholar in decades, I wanted to reflect the experience of my generation, the people who remained in Afghanistan during the Jihad and civil war, witnessed all those momentous changes first hand. I tried to capture  their thoughts and views of the new Afghanistan and how they imagined it to be.

Colonial Knowledge

Sheesha Media: Very well. We will discuss the content of the Afghan studies in the following questions. There is a general impression that Afghanistan studies have had three waves: the first wave is the books written by the officials and missionaries of the East India Company and then British India, which reflects their experience of dealing with the kings of Kabul too. Those books or the knowledge produced in them were about the territory and people of Afghanistan based on orientalist views and assumptions. The second wave of Afghanistan studies emerged during the Cold War, when Afghanistan, according to you, was at the center of international politics and the competition between the two East and West blocks. The third wave is the studies and knowledge after September 11, 2001, when Afghanistan studies became a grave necessity that attracted various circles in the universities and academies of the world. Do you agree with this categorization, or is it different from your point of view?

Sharifi: In general, Yes. Afghanistan studies in the West and also within the country have been shaped by colonial literature and perceptions.   For my research it was important to understand how people view and imagine their own country and history. Before the 1980s, we had very  limited contact with the Western academia. Very few Afghans, mostly from the elite class of society, went to study abroad. Those who returned were later purged during the communist regime. Many were killed and the rest had to leave the country. 

However, among the general population, there was a sense of understanding about themselves and their world primarily based on the uninterrupted knowledge of the classical texts that shaped the Central Asian world during the last thousand years. That is, the general public had a native perception of Afghanistan, and there was little to no trace of the Western academia’s perceptions and influence in their imagination. The reason was that Afghanistan, unlike other South Asian and Central Asian countries, had never experienced direct colonization. Because of this, the disconnection with indigenous knowledge never occurred in the minds of ordinary people. The colonial powers directly occupied Central and South Asia and changed the people’s way of thinking and production of knowledge. This shift did not occur in Afghanistan. Thus, the historical-traditional vision and the methods of acquiring knowledge remained in the indigenous form, which you can call Khorasani-Islamic or Islamic-Persian tradition. It remained so, at least until the 1980s.

Islam in Afghanistan remained a faith, based on history, culture, literature and traditions. It remained distinct in its shape, form and beliefs from a more ideological/political version of Islam that emerged in South Asia during the colonial rule. It was also very different from the Middle Eastern version of it that took shape after the World War II. Of course, it doesn’t mean that no one was familiar with the  different perspectives on Islam in the region. Since 1950, a number of Afghans, both Sunni and Shia, have become acquainted with different Islamist ideologies, common  in the Middle East and South Asia.   Some of them adopted these ideologies. Yet,  they were not successful in  spreading their thoughts  among the public, and the imagination and opinions of the ordinary people about religion, society, and the government continued to be based on traditional interpretation of Islam, rooted in the Persian classical works. 

During  the 1980s, the situation changed. The Islamist and orientalist assumptions became part of the mainstream understanding of Afghans and Afghanistan. Migration of millions of Afghans to Pakistan and Iran also introduced them to a new worlds and different interpretations of Islam. These exposures greatly transformed Afghanistan but not completely altered its understanding of itself. Yet, the same cannot be said about the world’s view of Afghanistan. This period is also marked by very limited academic studies of Afghanistan. A fact that perpetuated the misperceptions even further. 

I came of age intellectually in the post-2001 era, shaped by the international community’s interventions in my society. I witnessed the profound lack of understanding of Afghan history and culture amongst those Western policy makers, diplomats, and military officers who were in charge of dispersing billions of dollars in the name of helping Afghanistan. Drawing  on Afghanistan’s unique history as an uncolonized state, in my work, I tried understand the place of religion in politics beyond that of rigid ideology and to introduce the reader to forms of democratic deliberation and self-fashioning that might otherwise go unattended. While a great many books have been written about America’s longest war and the so-called war on terror, my work offers a kind of corrective to that literature, which has consistently centered around Western interveners, their projects, and ideas at the expense of the local experience. 

In 2001, very few people in Afghanistan knew how to speak English. Those who studied abroad, as I mentioned before, were either purged by the communist and Islamist regimes in the 1980s or migrated to the West. Given the difficulties of life in the West, very few if any were able to produce any noticeable work. There was only a little academic work before the war by the Western trained Afghan scholars. Namely the work by Dr. Mohammad Hasan Kakar, Dr. Mohammad Nazif Shahrani, Dr. Sayed Askar Mousavi, and a few others.

Afghanistan became the center of global rivalry at the later stages of the Cold War.  Given the circumstances, one would expect quality  research about the country and its people, both by the Afghans and international scholars. But, this was not the case, except the few notable examples, we did not witness a concerted effort to understand Afghanistan as a country and Afghans as a people. What we got was reproduction of the orientalist and colonial literature on Afghanistan. By the 90s and the end of the Cold War, interest in Afghanistan faded rapidly. It continued in one form or another until 9/11. Even after the international intervention and the collapse of the first Taliban emirate, the need to study and understand Afghanistan remained, at best, a peripheral issue for many policy makers and the prevalence of the classic and orientalist perspectives in understanding Afghanistan continued. In the late 2000s some Afghan students managed to get into the Western academic institutions for higher education but the process was interrupted by the collapse of the Afghan republic. 

During the height of the international presence in Afghanistan in the late 2000s, many international researchers came to Afghanistan. Except for a few cases, most of their research was based on projects designed by the donor community and, unfortunately, plagued by orientalist prejudices. It is ironic because Afghanistan never experienced direct colonial rule, thus, cannot be categorized as a post-colonial space, from a theoretical perspective. This contradiction resulted in enormous confusion over understanding the internal dynamics of the country and specifically the Taliban insurgency. That is why the Westerners had tremendous difficulties in understanding the Taliban phenomenon, while for us, the indigenous Afghans, it was not an impossible task to understand and present a realistic view of Talibanism. 

Sheesha Media: You said that at the height of the international community’s presence, many donor countries had limited knowledge of Afghanistan studies, primarily based on the information written in the books of the British who ruled India in the 19th century. I read an article by Jilani Popal, the Former Minister of Finance and head of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG). He wrote that the diplomats and officials of many countries who helped Afghanistan had their knowledge of Afghanistan limited to the same three clichéd propositions: A) Afghanistan is a tribal land that has always been at war within the tribes.; B) There has been no effective government in Afghanistan; and C) All laws, procedures, and government bills must be rewritten.

This point confirms your statements. At the same time, in the 1980s and after, as you mentioned, a few scientific research studies were produced about Afghanistan. For example, the book written by Mr. Thomas J. Barfield about Afghanistan (Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History) was published in 2013. Although this book and similar research on the culture, anthropology, and history of Afghanistan are few, they clearly show that Afghanistan has a tradition of governance. 

For example, the Musaheban dynasty was stable and lasted for almost fifty years. Even though very few studies reflect the reality of Afghanistan, the question is why these findings did not reach the policy-making bodies of Western countries. Why did the heads of some Western countries, even in the 21st century, think that Afghanistan today is still the same country that the writers of the colonial era of the nineteenth century have described in their books?

Sharifi: This is an important question. Thomas Barfield’s book is one of the most important books on Afghanistan in the post 2001 era. Despite some criticism, it is the first academic publication of its kind to present an analytical framework  to understand Afghanistan. It connects the  people, economy, culture, and politics by analyzing historical evolution of the country through an anthropological as well as historical lens. Thomas Barfield introduces readers to the bewildering diversity of tribal and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, explaining what unites them as Afghans despite the regional, cultural, and political differences that divide them.

The book provides the readers with an academic analysis in an era where a massive amount of information was produced by different think tanks, journalists and researchers, but very few credible academic work.

We had many research institutions in Afghanistan before the fall of Kabul.  Organizations such as  the  AAN, AREU, and others,  collected enormous amounts of information and produced interesting reports.Their research was mostly based and driven by the donor community’s objectives and for limited purposes.  Despite these works,  the orientalist view espoused by some Western policy makers and researchers on Afghanistan continued and I believe it is still the case.

Anyway, arranging the relationship between the information and analyzing it based on a particular theoretical approach or discourse requires time and academic research. One of the last twenty years’ achievements was the collection of significant amounts of data  by research organizations such as the  AAN or AREU. They produced  some of the best reports on Afghanistan. But reports are different from academic research.   It is only through solid and consistent academic work that we can formulate a discourse and shape policy in the long term.

Let’s remember that our interaction with the Western policy makers was a “top-down” relationship. By “we”, I mean the indigenous Afghans who were not dual citizens.   Before 2001, we had little knowledge of the English language and Western mentality. There were no Afghan immigrants to the West prior to the 1980s. Only during the Soviet War did several thousand Afghans immigrate to the West. Furthermore the average Afghan does not have an inferiority complex vis a vis the Westerners. In a stark contrast to some people in the region who experienced direct colonialism, Afghans never thought of themselves as inferior to White Europeans. It never even occurred to us that someone is better than us based on their skin color. The reason behind such thinking is that we never experienced colonialism directly. Nevertheless, we were also not literate in the vocabulary of the interveners. We were as  unfamiliar with their thoughts as much as their lack of understanding of the Afghans.  In short, we were separated by a huge gap of understanding and mutual respect.  

This gap was partially filled by the Afghan diaspora. By diaspora I mean the Afghans who have dual citizenship and lived in the West for years.  They returned with the interveners and positioned themselves as a kind of a bridge between “the natives” and the modern world. Many of the diaspora, certainly burdened by years of difficult life and identity crisis in the West, suddenly found themselves in the position of power and authority. We gradually found out, very painfully, that for many of them, being a bridge was not an easy task. The confusion over the definition of belonging to a country, tribe, ethnicity, their Western lifestyle and accommodating the complex realities of Afghanistan was too much burden to bear. In other words, they were neither counted as Afghans nor Westerners. Thus, tribalism, ethnocentrism, regionalism and corruption further complicated the relationship with the Westerners.

On the other hand, Western intervention in Afghanistan despite its huge resource and human costs was mostly shaped by the larger policy of War against Terror and religious extremism. Understanding Afghanistan as a country, a culture, a nation, independent of the global war against terror was not part of the agenda. Once we realized it, in the later years of intervention, our efforts to convince the policy makers to view the country independent of this global war was too late and too little. We needed more time and more people.

Sheesha Media: Some Afghanistan scholars later reached the policy-making levels of Western governments, for instance, the US government. Mr. Barnett Rubin, a famous Afghanistan expert, worked in the Obama administration in the office which drafted the US policy on Afghanistan. That was the office of Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan. Mr. Barnett Rubin has done a lot of research studies on Afghanistan. In his book, he has given a very realistic research of Zahir Shah’s reign and had an almost accurate understanding of Afghanistan, not an orientalist one. In your opinion, how could the presence of Barnett Rubin and others like him affect the view of the policy-making community and Western governments regarding Afghanistan?

Sharifi: First, we should not exaggerate their influence in shaping policy-making processes. Their influence, at best, was limited and marginal. From our point of view, I mean those who lived in Afghanistan, they appeared to be very important and influential, almost  as big as Jupiter in the solar system. But the reality was otherwise. When you compare the Sun with Jupiter, Jupiter is a tiny planet. I have a lot of respect for Dr. Barnett Rubin as an expert of Afghanistan. I was at a conference with him in early 2018, where I presented one of the chapters of my doctoral thesis to a group of scholars of the Middle East, South Asia and Islam. After the presentation, everyone commented on my methodology, sources, theory, and analysis. This chapter was about governance in Afghanistan. Barnett Rubin asked why my research neglected the role of Westerners in Afghanistan’s government formation. He was not interested in the methodology, theoretical framework, or anything else. He wondered why I did not mention the role of Westerners in my research. He said, “Why didn’t you mention the Americans and the role of Germans and Swedish ?” I answered that my work as an anthropologist is to focus on  the perspective of the ordinary Afghans. 

Barnett Rubin’s question and similar experiences in other forums convinced me that for many Western scholars and policy makers accepting the indigenous agency in shaping politics, forming cohesive government, establishing legitimate authority and modern state without direct foreign intervention is difficult to fathom if not outright unimaginable. The fact that Afghans can change their destiny for good, form positive and peaceful social relations and have the ability to develop constructive framework for building a modern state, was an unfamiliar terminology. Unfortunately the collapse of the Afghan army and fall of the republic reinforced such belief. However, many forget or ignore the fact that the Afghan army and the republic were established as auxiliaries to support the policy of global war against terror. Once the policy lost its meaning, these institutions lost their relevance and disappeared. 

Looking back at the experience of the last two decades, no institution or structure can survive if they are not based on the realities of the country. Many of the republic’s elite, both the diaspora who formed the majority of the decision making bodies, and the former Mujahidin leaders, acted, behaved and interacted with the people in accordance with the necessities and requirements  of the global war against terror, not the realities of Afghanistan.This was obvious especially after 2014 elections.

Dr. Barnett Rubin’s research on the collapse of the  Afghan state, titled, “Fragmentation of Afghanistan” is a monumental work in understanding the developments of the 1980s and early 90s. He  personally witnessed the collapse of institutions in Afghanistan. Similarly, works by other Western scholars during the 1980s explained the emergence of Jihadism and Islamist movements among the Afghan refugees. However, we have almost no academic work during the crucial decade of the 1990s and how it fundamentally changed the country.  

Looking back at the evolution of Afghanistan studies in the West, 1960s and early 70s witnessed an influx of international scholars to Afghanistan. But the process stopped with the Soviet invasion. We have almost no academic work doen by scholars inside Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion until the mid 2000s. By 2003, when Western academics started to return to Afghanistan, we already lost a quarter of a century. The efforts to re-establish Afghanistan studies as an academic field was insufficient and as the priority was vocational training for Afghans.

Sheesha Media: Even in fighting terrorism, insurgency, or war with the Taliban, the Afghanistan Knowledge of many NATO member countries has been clumsy. Thomas Johnson, an expert on counter-insurgency, has a book titled “Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict”. In one of the chapters of his book, there is a detailed discussion about oral literature in southern Afghanistan, including songs and music produced by the Taliban and how they spread their thoughts through music. The Taliban introduced themselves to the villagers through these songs [famous in Afghanistan as the “Talibani Songs”]. Through them, they encouraged the villagers to support the bombing and other terroristic activities of the Taliban. In the same chapter of his book, Johnson wrote that NATO did not know until 2010 that such a thing as Talibani songs existed or that they used a particular singing culture in southern Afghanistan. While Louis Dupree, one of the scholars on Afghanistan studies of the 1960s and 1970s, has talked in great detail about singing and oral literature in different regions of Afghanistan. The Westerners could use his research to find out about many issues, including the “Talibani Music”, to help them in the war against terror, but it seems they were too fed up with this part. What do you think is the reason for this?

Sharifi: Yes, unfortunately this is true. Of course, I don’t want to generalize but we cannot deny the consequences of a “top-down” understanding of Afghanistan.  Such a dominant perspective only reinforces my previous argument. It denies the agency of the locals and indigenous people. Taranas is a common feature of Afghan culture. It was a common phenomenon during the Anglo-Afghan wars. During the Afghan-Soviet War, Mujahidin parties produced many songs and Taranas.   The pro-Soviet government in Kabul produced their own version of Taranas. We have so many songs produced during WWII by the allies and the Nazi Germany.  It is common all over the world.

Sheesha Media: Afghan modernists used music to promote their ideas, like Mahmoud Tarzi.

Sharifi: Yes, Mahmoud Tarzi and his associates used the music. When the Westerners found out that the Taliban were producing  songs for their constituency, they were surprised. They perceived it as a novelty, a new discovery almost like discovering  a new planet in the solar system. From a psychological and anthropological point of view, it is one of the manifestations of the “top-down” view that denies the agency and ability of others to use art forms in furthering their political views.

Reading the colonial literature on Afghanistan, we are categorized as the “noble savages.” I think this categorization continued to influence many Western policy makers and their Afghan diaspora colleagues during the intervention.

Yet, on the Afghan side, it was a different story. Unlike some countries in the region, acting and behaving like a European  is not necessarily considered noble or civilized. Compared to some of our neighbors, many Afghans do not find superficial westernization a very attractive attitude.

Ethnographic studies during the 1960s and 1970s clearly shows that in Afghanistan, the idea that Western cultural superiority was neither popular nor widespread.   Except for the Muhammadzai elite, the general public,  whether urban or rural, attached little prestige to imitating the Europeans. Ordinary Afghans considered themselves better than anyone.  Even the Afghan communists, when they came to power, pretended that they were better than Stalin and Lenin. They considered themselves the best role models of communism. It is an interesting characteristic of all the countries that did not have a direct experience of Western colonialism. We have a few countries in the world that did not directly experience colonialism. I witnessed first hand that many international colleagues were surprised that many Afghans never looked at them as someone superior, despite their enormous difference in terms of  poverty and deprivations. 

Natural State

Sheesha Media: Well, let’s discuss another critical issue related to Afghanistan studies: the perception of these people about themselves and the perception of outsiders. The argument is that the nation-state building of Afghanistan is not based on spontaneous interaction. It is true that the current zones of Afghanistan, or the cultural regions of Afghanistan, have a long history. In some cases, their historical record reaches ancient times. Still, Afghanistan’s nation-state came into existence due to the colonial powers of Tsarist Russia and Britain’s design. They needed a buffer territory and created this nation-state, which was not the result of a spontaneous interaction within this geography. The different zones of the current Afghan region are the various sections of the territories of the neighboring countries geographically connected to it. Some foreign researchers raised this opinion, and now inside Afghanistan, some people believe it. How realistic do you think this is?

Sharifi: In my opinion, It is a simplistic perspective. When I look at the post-colonial world, I see a similar pattern. Colonial rule and post-colonial struggle for independence.  Look at the Islamic world; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and the Middle East, South and Southeast Asian countries were shaped by the colonial policies and emerged as independent nation-states  after the collapse of the European colonial empires. The formation of the Iranian nation-state is not different. Almost all non-Western European nation-states were shaped in one way or another by the colonial experience and emerged after the collapse of major European empires. Even in Europe, many nations were carved out by major powers after World War I  while others ceased to exist. Even great civilizations such as modern China and India are products of the colonial period. For instance, look at the current crisis between Taiwan and China. India emerged as an independent nation-state in 1947. The experience of being modern Indian is the product of British colonial rule. We did not have an Indian nation-state prior to European colonialism. I do not see any country in the region and beyond that is not shaped or formed in one way or another by the great powers’ politics. Do you know any? Show me.

Sheesha Media: Russians formed Central Asia, and Pakistan is no exception.

Sharifi: Yes, Pakistan, the Middle East, North Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and even China, are all the products of colonial experience.  

The Afghan nation-state is not an exception. It emerged in the 1880s and early 1900s. However, we need to distinguish between the establishment of the nation states and their internal dynamics and discourse. We have so many problems in defining our national discourse. Since the inception of modern Afghanistan in the late 19th and early 20th century, we have been plagued by tribalism, ethnocentrism and many other problems. But it is a separate issue. We should not confuse these two. I do not ascribe to the argument that Afghanistan as a nation-state is a completely unnatural phenomenon. But I agree that we have many problems that need to be addressed in order to have a viable nation and a state.  

I think what makes Afghanistan an interesting case is that despite all the problems, it never had an organized separatist movement. All our neighboring countries have secessionist movements. Most countries in the Middle East have such movements. As an anthropologist, I am more interested in understanding why such a phenomenon does not exist in Afghanistan, rather than focusing on the differences and diversity as markers of division and secessionism.   The return of the Taliban and their violent and oppressive policies could potentially encourage  separatist voices, but it will be different from the ethnic or linguistic separatism which is common in the region.

There are aspects of the emergence of Afghanistan as a nation-state, which, in my opinion, can teach us positive lessons about our history. Remember after 1919, when Afghanistan got its full independence in foreign policy from the British Empire. It was literally the only independent Muslim state in the world. The Middle East was occupied by the allied forces, modern Turkey was divided between various European powers, Central Asia was under the Soviet occupation, South and Southeast Asia were ruled by the British and the Dutch empires, and Iran was occupied by the British. With the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate, many in the Middle East and British India proposed Afghanistan as the natural country to re-establish the caliphate. Subsequently, there were proposals to King Amanullah to become the next Caliph. However, he and his modernist friends rejected the idea and instead chose to establish a modern nation-state. Their version of the modern nation-state was centered around three main principles. A constitution for citizens of Afghanistan to replace general Sharia law, universal education for men and women as a nation is composed of both genders and archeology/history in order to study and explore the historical continuity of the people who are the citizens of what is today called Afghanistan. Thus, in 1922, King Amanullah invited the French Archeological Mission (DAFA) to Kabul. This initiative led to the discovery of the region’s and Afghanistan’s Hindu and Buddhist past.

Sheesha Media: We will return to the discussion of Amanullah Khan and the Caliphate. Before that, there is another question. Benjamin Hopkins, one of the young experts on Afghanistan Studies, says in one of his interviews that, in the same efforts aimed at creating a buffer state between Tsarist Russia and British India, the two empires decided that Afghanistan should not have free access to the sea so that it would need Foreign aid. Did you come to this conclusion in your studies and research? This topic seems relevant to our current discussion. Even today, the foreign powers pump forty million dollars weekly to keep Afghanistan’s economy running. In your opinion, was the country designed to be in such a state from the beginning?

Sharifi:  I have not seen any document to prove this theory.  The economy of what is today known as Afghanistan’s in the 15th century had benefited tremendously from the maritime trade. At that time, the Timurid dynasty of Herat ruled over the geography of present-day Afghanistan. It controlled the trade routes between India, China and the Middle East.  Their control over Hormuz port  provided the dynasty with enormous surplus income. That is why literature, art, and architecture flourished during that period.  Most of our current historical Islamic heritage, from arts to architecture and philosophy are the legacy of that period. During the Durrani Empire, most of the income was from tribute, mainly extracted from modern day pakistan. 

Sheesha Media: For instance, Punjab.

Sharifi: Yes, from Punjab, Sindh, and other provinces. I am not aware of any maritime policy during the Durrani period. I have yet to see  a document to show that during the time of Ahmad Shah Durrani there was a maritime policy to control the trade from the ports of Gwadar or Sindh. Sindh was somehow under the control of Durranis until the early decades of the 19th century. The British took control of present-day Sindh and Balochistan in the 1840s to 1860s. In fact, looking at the work of Professor Kakar, Afghanistan’s main export in the later half of the 19th century was to Russian Central Asia and main imports were from north India. When the British Empire annexed Sindh in early 1840s, Afghanistan was still divided between independent principalities of Peshawar, Kabul, Kandahar and Herat, ruled by Barakzai and Sadozai princes and Kondoz, Mazar, Faryab and Badakhshan ruled by semi autonomous Uzbek and Tajik rulers. 

Modernism and ‘Deobandism’

Sheesha Media: Well, let’s go back to the discussion of Amanullah Khan and the state-nation of Afghanistan. As you said, in the 1920s, Amanullah Khan was an independent king in the Islamic world, and after the fall of the Ottoman Empire or the Caliphate, he did not accept the title of ‘Amir al-Mu’minin’. He brought modernism to Afghanistan. The education of men and women, as you explained, the nation-state debate, the constitution, and the nationalism of the Afghan government also date back to the same era. In short, at that time, there was a vast transformation. According to these facts, one opinion is that there were two reactions to modernism in this geography. One is the reaction of Amanullah Khan that modernism should be adopted; Politics, economy, and culture should be modernized, and Afghanistan should join contemporary civilization. Another reaction is Deobandi’s opposition to modernism. This war has been going on for a hundred years. Sometimes one wins in Afghanistan, and sometimes the other. The last modernist leader was Ashraf Ghani, who the Taliban overthrew on August 15, 2021. Do you also accept this reading of the situation?

Sharifi:  Yes. I am not sure whether the Taliban rank and file define themselves as Deobandis (an umbrella term for South Asian originated Islamist movements) or understand what exactly it means. Though, I know in academic circles, they are known as the Deobandis. 

Sheesha Media: Of course, the names of the Taliban leaders have been hanging at the gate of Akora Khattak Madrasa until now.

Sharifi: Well, We have  witnessed the most painful and violent manifestations of the confrontation between modernism and political Islam. But this situation is not unique to Afghanistan. We saw this in Iraq and Iran before and after the revolution, in the Syrian war, in the Egyptian revolution and Morsi’s premiership, and in the Algerian war of the 1990s. But obviously Afghanistan is one of the bloodiest, the most painful, and the most tragic manifestations of this confrontation.

Sheesha Media: Well, if you see, the other phenomenon in Afghanistan is that sometimes one side wins and sometimes the other side. Both sides oppress each other in the bloodiest way. For example, today, you can see that the opposite of the same three pillars of the nation-state that Amanullah Khan proposed is ruling Afghanistan. Today, the Taliban have an Amir al-Mu’minin, something Amanullah did not want and rejected. Modern, universal, and women’s education, which we heard today, was completely banned. They closed universities for women; denied women education and higher education.

Another thing is that the Taliban completely denied the history of Afghanistan before Islam and considered the destruction of Buddha statues in the first period of their rule as a great honor. We see that continuous war, with numerous victories one over the other, has become the characteristic of Afghanistan today. What is your opinion about this?

Sharifi: Yes, as I explained, Afghanistan is one of the bloodiest examples of the confrontation between modernism and Islamist ideology. But let’s keep in mind that modernism in Afghanistan emerged from within, as a response to the global changes in the early 20th century. This phenomenon grew gradually but consistently. The reaction against it was formed and supported by global jihadism, whether against Amanullah Khan, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), or the Afghan republic. The external support was instrumental in the sustaining Islamist ideology in Afghanistan. 

During the  ‘Musahiban’ period, the Deobandis gradually but firmly failed to dislodge the modernist movement. The period witnessed the gradual but consolidated effort to modernize the country. The opposition to Deobandism or in other word, Taliban style Islamism, is rooted in history. Amir Abdul Raman Khan banned studying in Deobandi schools on the pain of death. He believed that Islam permeates all aspects of Afghanistan’s social and cultural life, and there is no need to politicize the religion. 

It was only after the 1980s and during the Afghan-Soviet War that Islam ceased to be a faith and has become an ideology. Or what we call today as Deobandism/Talibanism has become the dominant narrative in understanding Islam. And it happened because of the massive investment by the West and reactionary Arab states.

To summarize a hundred years of confrontation between modernism and Islamism in Afghanistan, given the current ascendancy of Taliban, the ideology by itself is insufficient to govern the country as it offers very little and only survives through sheer violence and suppression. We all know that suppression is not a meaningful and sustainable  path for a better future. 

Sheesha Media: As you said, during the period of the ‘Musaheban’, especially during the reign of Zahir Shah, the government had established dominance over the cities. Even though the government did not have full control over the villages, its authority was expanding by establishing schools (both boys and girls) and providing other social services. The government tried to extend its power to the villages. In this specific era, we see that Mullahs, Talebs, and Deobandi forces, did not have a strong presence in politics. They were weak and without an organized effort to enter the political field. During this period, except for one or two demonstrations in Kabul (pul-e Khisti) and Kandahar in response to the establishment of a cinema, which was suppressed by a police crackdown, Islamism had no other forms. The question is why at that time, even though the Mullahs were present in schools and villages and taught their ideology, they retreated against the government’s policies. They did not oppose the modernist policies of the monarchy and did not care much about government and politics. What was the reason in your view?

Sharifi: I believe the alternative, the traditional – historical Islam was a powerful and dominant discourse among ordinary Afghans. Deobanids had a hard time convincing the general public. Furthermore, the prevalence of Sufi orders also prevented the widespread adherence to Deobandism. 

In the late 19th century, we witnessed the beginning of the transition from the classical state to the modern nation-state. Under Abdul Rahman Khan, the Afghan government decided to prevent the spread of South Asian Deobandism and Wahabism by inviting prominent Sufi orders’ leaders, mainly the Qadiriyya and Naqashbandiya orders to Afghanistan. We cannot call them, like their illustrious predecessors, the mystics, but nonetheless, they were influential and respected across the Muslim world, specifically the Sunni world. They successfully used the traditional networks to spread their message and influence across the country and remained one of the important pillars of religious legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the population. This process continued until the 1980s when the Soviet invasion, migration and introduction of petro-dollars changed the social and religious landscape of Afghanistan. The Deobandis replaced the Sufi orders and teachings among the refugees who became the dominant force among the Mujahidin parties. 

Besides, during the 1960s and 70s, several Afghan scholars travelled to the Middle East and adopted the  Muslim Brotherhood ideology. 

Sheesha Media: You must mean Professor Rabbani, Professor Sayyaf, and the like….

Sharifi: Yes, Ustad Rabbani, Ustad Sayyaf, and others. The ascendancy of Deobandism since the 1980s has been a complicated process. To be brief, I think they managed to replace traditional practice of Islam, especially among the Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan, thus, linking the global Jihadist movement with the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion. 

Sheesha Media: Well, Zahir Shah had traditional legitimacy accepted by all sections of society. This legitimacy existed in the country without any serious objection. Don’t you think that this legitimacy paralyzed the Deobandi forces and that potential was activated when the traditional legitimacy disappeared?

Sharifi:  Yes, of course, it was. Traditional legitimacy centered around dynastic rule and  religious legitimacy. If you look at the history of Afghanistan, from Ahmad Shah Durrani’s time till Dost Muhammad Khan or Abdul Rahman Khan, mullahs and clerics have never been the ruling class. Sardars, princes, and khans have always ruled the country and had did not need madrasa or being a mullah to affirm their religious credentials. This never caused any doubt about their religiosity or Islamic credentials.

As I said, the absence of direct colonial experience prevented the sense of historical/cultural break in Afghanistan. The sense of continuity  in relations between governments and religious groups was not exclusive to Afghanistan. It had existed in most of the pre-colonial Muslim world. Rulers were not expected to be clerics. Except for the Shia dynasties  like the Fatimids, who based their legitimacy upon descendence from the family of Prophet Mohammad and Shia Imams, the rest of the rulers of the Islamic world were not expected to be religious scholars or mullahs. Even the Abbasids, who called themselves religious leaders (Imam) in the beginning of their rule, left the religious affairs to Islamic scholars and jurists.

This tradition continued and remained deeply rooted  in Afghanistan because the country never experienced direct colonial rule.  For this reason, the question about the Islamic identity of the rulers had never become an issue among the ordinary people as well as the elite. For example, the concept of “martyr” or “martyrdom” did not exist in Afghanistan until the 1980s. All heroes of the Anglo – Afghan Wars were called  “Ghazi” or victorious living warrior, not a Shaheed or dead warrior. Shaheed or Martyr was not seen as a marker of piety or Islamic identity in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion. 

After 1980s, the concepts of “martyr” and “martyrdom” entered different Afghanistan’s languages and religious discourse when the Jihadi parties began to promote it. For example, Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbudin Hekmatyar used to publish a magazine called “Shahadat” or Martyrdom. Other  Jihadi parties also invested in the concept of martyrdom as a way to legitimize their ideology. Thus, by the 1990s, death in the name of religion has become a pillar of identity among many people, specifically those with strong adherence to Deobandi Islam. .

The concepts of Shaheed has existed  in the Middle East and South Asia since the 19th century, but was unpopular and uncommon among Afghans. Do you know a hero or a role model among people called a martyr before 1980s?

In Pakistan where almost all Jihadi parties had their headquarters,  the concept of  martyrdom is an established and accepted fact of religiosity. Given the repeated defeats of Pakistan in its confrontation with India, they used this term to glorify the death and defeat and mobilize the people. The Mujahidin parties adopted the Pakistani methods to justify the war, initially against the Soviets, and then against everyone who opposed their beliefs.

Obviously martyrdom has a special meaning and place within the Shia Islam, but it is a different topic. 

Sheesha Media: You mentioned foreign influence and touched on some interesting points about concepts. One surprising issue about Afghanistan is that incidents from countries far away have their effects on Afghanistan more than their surrounding areas. For example, in the revolution of 1924 in Turkey, Amir al-Mu’minin was deposed, and its effects have been present in Afghanistan for a hundred years. Amanullah Khan was under pressure to become Amir al-Mu’minin, but he refused. But this thought remained alive. In the 1990s, Mullah Muhammad Omar gained power by claiming the title of Amir al-Mu’minin. Now we see another person who usurped power in Afghanistan with the same claim. In a way, this is the effect of the same transformation a hundred years ago in Turkey. Then we have the Cold War, which according to you, Afghanistan becomes the fuel of its bloody rivalry.

Even Afghanistan is somehow affected by the six-day war of 1967 between Israel and its Arab neighbors. That war injected the Arabs with a sense of defeat and humiliation. When the Soviet Union came to Afghanistan, many Arabs, even those who did not know anything about the religious motivation of the war, and some retired officers of the Arab armies came to Afghanistan to fight and let go of that sense of inferiority. After September 11, 2001, the United States fought in Afghanistan, and it reproduced the story differently. I want to ask your opinion on this issue, and what do you think is the reason? Specifically, what are the characteristics of Afghanistan that are affected by developments in faraway countries?

Sharifi: Well, yes, international intervention, in this case, the influx of young non-Afghan Jihadists has changed the course of our history. However, it was not a one way process. Remember, the same Arabs who fought in Afghanistan, later established jihadist groups in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. The emergence of Al Qaeda and other international Jihadist and terrorist groups were closely related to what happened in Afghanistan during the Soviet War. Today, the presence of regional Jihadist groups, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and many other similar entities are offshoots of the Afghan Jihad. For many Jihadists, Afghanistan has been the promised and imagined land of Jihad because the Afghans are the only Muslims who managed to do successful Jihads in the whole Muslim World. First in the 19th century against the British, then in the 20th century against the Soviets and recently against the Americans. Many Jihadists consider Afghanistan as the promised land where they can build bases and spread the message of Jihadism across the Muslim world. This is the sad fact of our history. Reading the works of Afghan writers during the 1980s, it is hard not to notice the profound disillusionment among the Afghan literati who were increasingly alarmed by the presence of these Jihadists and their internationalist agenda. They had a completely different imagination about their country, their nation, their place in the modern world and history. One which was fundamentally at odds with the global Jihadist narrative. 

It reminds me of Benedict Anderson’s book, Imagined Community. In his book, he explains the process of nation making and nationalism. According to Anderson, what defines nations and nationalism is that the connectivity between members of each community, enabled by modern technological innovations such as print media, railroads and communication. These innovations increased the power of the state to record, educate and control the people, thus making itself central to the establishment of national and nationalist imagination. Nations are imagined because every member who will never know personally other members of the community, yet, in their minds, they all live in communion. Elements of imagined community manifest themselves through symbols, art, myths and shared stories. 

In the early 20th century, the Afghan nationalist intellectuals, primarily Mahmud Tarzi (1865-1933), pointed to history to demonstrate Afghanistan’s continuity. He and his associates sought to link the politics of their day to a coherent past stretching indefinitely back in history. After the third Anglo- Afghan War of 1919, statehood and nationality were thus founded on territorially defined conceptions of modern nation-state, of a geographically and historically distinct Afghan nation. With the Soviet invasion of 1979, the trajectory of the state  and nation building project entered a period of prolonged crisis and the international ideologies and religious forces took hold of the nation-making project. Many observers see this as the profound failure if not collapse of the Afghan state with the demise of the Afghan nation. The Taliban, being part of the global Jihadist network, despite the whitewashing by some Western diplomats and Afghan diaspora, only further this confusion and bewilderment. 

Sheesha Media: Well, another interesting topic in Afghanistan Studies is the topic of ethnicities, tribes, and different identities that you have researched. Before raising this discussion, there is another question I would like to ask. There is a general cliche about Afghanistan in the West that you explained. Another point is the view of the neighboring countries, which is greatly influenced by history. Different zones of current Afghanistan, for example, the Balkh, Herat, and Kabul zones, as mentioned in Mr. Barfield’s book, were critical security-border zones of the empires that existed around present-day Afghanistan. For example, Kabul was one of the vital zones of the Mughals throughout history. Herat was an essential zone for the Safavids. Balkh had the same importance for the powers based in Central Asia. And there was also competition for Kandahar, and until now, the neighboring countries who consider themselves the heirs of the same empires see Afghanistan as their borderlines. For example, Pakistan thinks it will lose its security if its forces do not rule in Afghanistan. Iran may have the same view on Herat and the western region, and Central Asia and Russia have the same idea. It means these countries see Afghanistan more as a border region they should manage, not a country and a nation with which they should have bilateral mutual relationships. What is your idea about this?

Sharifi:  This perception is correct. We have a much better understanding of our neighboring countries than they have of us. The reason is that millions of Afghans have immigrated to the neighboring countries during the last four decades. They live in these countries, have direct experience of life there. The miseries of war and migration has caused our neighbors to form their distinct perceptions of Afghans.

For example, Iranians have a discriminatory view of the people of Afghanistan. I believe this view is partly rooted in Iranian nationalism, which is inspired and shaped by early European nationalism and includes some elements of Shiism and the Aryan race theory. We can find it in their everyday expressions such as  the  terms “Afghan -e Pedarsokhtah ” [a abusive term towards Afghans]. In Pakistan, religion plays an important rule in social and political life, and their understanding of Afghans.   Even Indians have very general and exotic assumptions about Afghanistan. We have seen this in their policies during the last three decades.

Our neighbors managed to collect a huge amount of scattered information about different groups and peoples in Afghanistan. Yet, you find the same orientalist tendencies in their analysis. Why? Because I haven’t seen a single scholarly research on Afghanistan published in either Iran or Pakistan. Unfortunately with the Taliban in power, the situation will get worse. 

It is hard to generalize. Remember, during the Tsarist occupation of Central Asia in the late 19th century and later during the Bolshevik period, hundreds of thousands of Central Asians immigrated to northern Afghanistan given the ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties between the people on the both sides of the Amu Darya (Oxus River). And the fact that Afghanistan, then, was the only independent Muslim country. Islam has remained a powerful force in people’s perception of themselves and formation of their identities. This fact manifested itself during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan where many Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens and others took active roles in the war against the Red Army. These facts also played an important role in the Taliban swift conquest of Northern Afghanistan. While many thought that the non-Pashtuns resentment towards the hierarchical structure of power may prevent them from cooperating with the Pashtun dominated Taliban movement, but Taliban and their Central Asian Jihadists emphasis on Islamic nature of the movement swayed many non-Pashtuns in the North in their favor. 

Sheesha Media: Okay, so let me ask about different ethnic identities. As everyone knows, Afghanistan is ethnically heterogeneous, which cannot be compared with neighboring countries. For example, in Pakistan, 62% of Punjabis have the upper hand in politics, the economy, the army, and the country’s parliament. In Iran, the majority are Persian-speaking Shiites. There is an ethnic majority in Central Asian countries. Afghanistan is very heterogenous in this respect. You must have read the book by British historian Jonathan Lee. He mentioned in his book that the diversity of identities in Afghanistan is so great that Afghanistan can tear itself apart and disintegrate. According to Lee, Afghanistan has not been physically decomposed because the neighboring powers do not want it to deteriorate. What do you think?

Sharifi: Yes, you can say the regional political realities prevented the emergence of separatist movements in Afghanistan. But during the 20th century, we never witnessed an organized political separatist movement advocating for the division of country, even in the time of fragmentation and civil war. This is also interesting once you see it in the context of regional politics. Almost all neighboring countries have an active or even violent separatist movement. From Pakistan to Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, India, Burma, China, there are many separatist movements with ethnic ties to some Afghan ethnic groups. Yet, we have never seen a similar initiative on the Afghanistan side.

No one knows what will happen in the future. Nothing is fixed, given the volatile political environment and spread of violent Jihadism in the region. However, my research shows, at least prior to the Taliban takeover of power in 2021, that many Afghans, irrespective of their ethnic origin, had an unambiguous understanding of their place in the country, who they are as citizens, and their cultural/historical  heritag. Obviously, Taliban takeover and their increasingly alien and radical interpretation of Islam, their extreme brutality and overt ethnic chauvinism may change this fact. Furthermore, we have witnessed the most profound social and cultural changes since 2001. Urban centers have grown across the country in an unprecedented way, people are connected through media and internet and the rate of literacy has improved tremendously. A historian may look at Afghanistan’s diversity and see it as a force for further fragmentation, but as an anthropologist, I am more interested in what kept this diverse country with so many contradictions still together despite enormous challenges.

Today, Taliban are in power. They banned Afghan women from education and work, closed universities, severely prosecuting free media, discrimination against ethnic minorities is in its worst form since the late 19th century, the country has become the center for all global Jihadists and the economy is in ruins. In brief the situation is dire. 

Yet, given our experience of the Taliban/Pakistani domination before, intervention by two superpowers in the last forty years and regional interferences, what worries me is not fragmentation of the country along the ethnic lines but the emerging intellectual and cultural division between those who advocate for establishing a humane society and those who promotes Jihadism and violent extremism. At the end, it will not be the intervention of foreign powers to change the situation, but the struggle of Afghan citizens for a better future that will mark a new Afghanistan. 

Obviously, foreign support was instrumental in keeping Taliban afloat after 2001, but it was the support of people in the south and certain groups in the north, coupled with the corruption of the Republic’s diaspora and Mujahidin elite that led to the Taliban ultimate victory. The current struggle against the Taliban, in my opinion, is not necessarily along the ethnic lines, but for values such as dignity, liberty, women rights and education. It ultimately demonstrates the intellectual growth of Afghan society.

The contrast between city and village

Sheesha Media: Another debate in Afghanistan is the conflict between village and city. The Mullahs have a monopoly on religious power in the rural areas and have no rivals. The villagers all agree with the Mullahs, who are the same as the Taliban and Deobandi. Cities have different situations. According to some observers, there is an overt contrast between the city and the village. Whether this village consists of Tajik, Pashtun, or Uzbek ethnicities, its mullahs are almost of the same mindset, for instance, about women. We are witnessing the domination of the village over the city and the imposition of rural culture on the urban. What do you have to say about this interpretation?

Sharifi: Well, this is an interpretation that one cannot wholly reject. However, more is needed to help us understand the different aspects of Afghanistan complex social, political and cultural realities. The discussion of village versus city is an important issue. But, you cannot explain the first Resistance against the Taliban in the 1990s and the current second Resistance against the regime only through an urban vs rural divide. If you remember, the Taliban collapse in 2001 was more rapid than the fall of the republic in 2021. If the Taliban represented rural support, why did they collapse so quickly, despite the enormous Jihadists, Al Qaeda and Pakistani military support.

Today, it is estimated that  more than thirty-five percent of the population live in urban centers, or their livelihood  are directly depended upon the economic activities in cities. Cities will ramin the most important center of social and ultimately political changes in the future. 

We should not forget that leaders of Mujahidin parties were all the product of urban life. Do you remember Ustad Rabbani, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, Ustad Sayaf or even the evolution of Mullah Omar?

Sheesha Media: Mullah Mohammad Omar is different. He was a villager who, during his reign, did not even spend two days in Kabul.

Sharifi: Yes, he came from the village, but the party and the movement in which he belonged prior to the emergence of the Taliban movement, were formed by the urban elite such as Mawlawi Nabi.  The discussion of rural versus urban is helpful to the some extent, but we should not exaggerate the contrast and difference between the city and the village life when it comes to understanding Afghanistan. One cannot analyze the Anglo-Afghan wars, or the internal wars between the Mohammadzai princes, or the first and now the second resistance through such dichotomies.   

Today, it is essential to know that Afghan society has changed. We cannot rely on such binaries in understanding the post Soviet war Afghanistan. I think it is more complicated than  this.  

Sheesha Media: You said that the US presence in Afghanistan was the era of social and cultural transformation. Still, some believe the changes were limited to cities and particular areas. For example, the Hazara community changed a lot, and there was no significant difference between urban and rural mullahs and non-mullahs in the Hazara community. Likewise, in the cities of Afghanistan, there was a lot of transformation. The number of universities and the level of literacy increased, the economy grew, and a high record of employment took place in the cities. But according to some people, the village transformation went negatively. Even today, one cannot see widespread social resistance movements in rural areas against the actions and policies of the Taliban. This fact has led some people to the conclusion that the changes you mentioned were very superficial. What do you think?

Sharifi: The premise of this question is that if a violent movement does not emerge in the cities against the repressive policies of the Taliban, then opposition does not exist. My research shows that any development in the urban centers affects the rural areas as well. Most of the individuals who established the Muslim Youth Movement or Jamiat-e-Islami in the 1970s and later became the Mujahideen leaders in the 1980s were living in Kabul. Yet, if you look at their policies and their fatwas, they are not so different from those of Mullah Muhammad Omar in the 1990s and Mullah Hibatullah in the present day. 

Sheesha Media: I did not mean a guerrilla war. I aim primarily at a peaceful social resistance movement like in Iran. In the cities of Iran, social resistance is against the ideological orders of the government. We do not have this in the cities of Afghanistan in a strong, widespread, and continuous manner.

Sharifi: Well, it took forty years for the situation to reach this point in Iran, especially knowing that the annual income of Iran from oil and gas is far higher than anything we ever got from the international community during the last two decades. Yet, despite huge economic disparity  and far fewer urban centers, we had much more significant developments. The urban centers are major economic centers in Afghanistan, thus, any changes in the cities affect the villages. The Taliban oppress the women in the cities, but I have not seen any research to show that women in villages are comfortable with this situation. The opposition to the policies of the Taliban in the cities is evident because we have better access to the urban centers  than the rural areas. 

I think it is unfair and unrealistic to claim that rural Afghanistan is perfectly happy with the Taliban policies. Maybe some are but I have yet to see it.  My field work demonstrates that the difference between the city and the village is only occasionally as deep as some people imagine.  The spread of modern communication and massive road building projects in the last two decades has significantly reduced the distance between urban and rural areas.  For example, I found out that a villager in Faryab and a resident of Mazar -e Sharif can easily communicate and have much in common compared to 30 years ago.  today, there is a lot of commuting between Mazar and Faryab. The media has played a significant role in expanding communication and connecting people. Thanks to their impact, the city and village people have been closer to each other than ever before. 

Sheesha Media: Well, as the last question of this interview, some people are worried that if there is a change in the current situation and the Taliban fall, the next day, we will witness an ethnic war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan may face a crisis as in Balkan countries after the Cold War. Or at least the scenario of the 1990s will be repeated. The ethnic and hateful debates on social networks today have significantly fuelled the concern of some people in this matter. Do you also have this concern as an Afghan scholar?

Sharifi: I am not too worried about this. This concern presupposes that the people of Afghanistan lack human agency. It is the same as the orientalist designation of Afghans as “noble savages”. The premise of this question denotes that as a people we are unable to come together, create common cause, or build a shared destiny. Let us not forget the experience of the constitutional Jirga in 2003 and 2004.  Some may claim that it happened under the shadow of the American guns, but we all know it is not true. International support was crucial but it was the Afghans, whether Mujahidin leaders, elders, women and intellectuals,  who decided to come together, ratify a constitution and build a better society.

The assumption that the Afghans would tear themselves apart if the Taliban are gone, simply ignores the history, the efforts and sacrifice of millions in the last two decades to build a humane society despite the Taliban and Al Qaeda bombing and American war. It rejects the culture, history, intelligence, heritage, literature and ethics of Afghanistan as a country and as a people.

Remember, during the height of the civil war in the 1990s, we suffered tremendously but the collective consciousness of the people prevented atrocities such as those that happened in Rwanda or the Balkans. It does not mean that we forget all the crimes that were committed by different armed groups. I was in Afghanistan, I decided to stay, and we managed to rebuild the country after the fall of Taliban. The assumption that only the Western societies are capable of rebuilding itself after oppression and war  is not only untrue but also ridiculous.

The fact that today there is a sharp rise in ethnic based arguments in social media, is because there is no other viable political platform for people to express their political thoughts and ideas.

The orientalist assumption in 2004, mostly by the Westerners and their diaspora Afghan advisers, that Afghanistan’s political parties, despite their not so colorful past,  are simply ethnic designations, and thus, there is no need for a political party, condemned  the young Afghan democracy to fail.  In the last years of the Republic, although Ghani overtly promoted ethnocentrism , and Abdullah Abdullah was considered the representative of non-Pashtuns,  there were no clear ethnic boundaries between two camps. Of course, we do have ethnic problems but the ethnicization of Afghanistan’s political landscape is more prevalent in the minds of Western and regional policy makers than the reality of our lives. In my opinion, the experience of 2004 is enough to believe that there is a sufficient and necessary capacity for rebuilding the country after the end of violent extremism and Talibanism.  

Sheesha Media: Thank you, Mr. Sharifi, for taking the time to conduct this interview.

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