Dialogue January-March, 2012, Volume 13 No. 3


Afghan Cultural War and Cross Cultural Dialogue

Davood Moradian

Creed is a predominant driving force in many wars, alongside greed and grievances. Culture, value system, national identity and historical narratives are the objects as well as the battlegrounds of warring parties. The Afghan conflict is partly a cultural war, intermingled with other domestic, regional and international factors. This war is waged on the place of religion in private and public spheres; the status of women; the type of state; the basis for entitlement and participation in political life; the competition of civic and ethnic discourses; the troubling relations between Islam and the west; and the compatibility of Islam with universal values and democratic form of political organization. As with any war, it is imperative to seek an appropriate "conflict resolution" strategy for the cultural pillar of the Afghan war. The discourse of cross-cultural dialogue is a rich field which can facilitate the transformation of the present violent cultural war into a civic dialogue, mutual understanding and accommodation. This will also help bring the Afghans and their international partners closer together and reverse the growing mutual misunderstanding, disappointment and blame game. Acknowledging the primacy of universal values over cultural, national and socially-constructed norms will also be an important way in addressing not only the Afghan conflict but also many present global challenges.

Premises of Cross-cultural Dialogue

In discussing cross-cultural dialogue a number of issues are presented. One is whether certain norms and values are universal or unique to a specific nation, culture, geography and religion. Can we speak of "Ethnic Norms/Values" similar to "Ethnic Foods"? Can we extend certain cultural prejudices to include certain fundamental questions and principles? Cultural and behavioral prejudices and stereotypes such as English cooking, Germanís sense of humor, French humility, Greek prudence, Scottish generosity, American subtlety, Pakistani honesty and Afghan punctuality. Can we exclusively associate certain principles, fundamental norms and values with certain social groups and communities? Can we extend copy rights and intellectual property rights to ethical values? Such as the Greeks, the inventor of rationality and freedom, Spartan for their warrior virtue, Persian for their despotism, or associating solely Christianity with love and forgiveness, Islam with violence and intolerance, the Orient with order, the Occident with decadence? Addressing the tendency to reduce fundamental ethical values to a specific group, geography, culture and religion is an important issue for cross-cultural dialogue. No single group can claim a monopoly or be excluded from sharing and contributing to articulating and developing universal values such as justice, freedom, equality, fairness and solidarity as well as vices such as aggression, intolerance and despotism.

Another tendency is compartmentalization and a binary mind set: a mindset that sees and forces us to choose between perceived conflicting norms and values: Justice, order, law, freedom, peace, equality, stability, individual autonomy, communal interest, national security, human security, global responsibility and fraternity, accountability, reconciliation, national sovereignty, universal norms, religious imperatives, secular norms and so on and so forth. The perceived conflict and competition between fundamental norms is more problematic and visible at the policy-level as many recent global challenges such as the establishment of the International Criminal Court, interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq and the terrorism discourse demonstrate. In the ongoing debate on Afghanistan, one can see such a dichotomous mindset in discussions over the utility of politics over military. An important task for both cross-cultural dialogue and a holistic approach to security must be addressing such a perceived conflict and the resolution and reconciliation between competing norms and values. We can learn from other traditions and cultures by looking at how they have addressed such conflicts and resolutions. The concept of "Unity/Oneness", which is the foundational principle of Sufism, has successfully addressed the interconnected nature of all living creatures as well as social norms and precepts. For Immanuel Kant, there was no clash of conceptualizations between order and justice. Law and right were unified. In his Rechtslehre (doctrine of right) legality and morality were seamless. The South African concept of ubuntu is a manifestation of the Sufi concept of Unity and Kantís Rechtslehre. Ubuntu refers to the interconnectedness of people and the responsibility people have towards each other, emphasizing compassion, justice, reciprocity, harmony and humanity. Gandhiís ideal state, Ramrajy, is another example. Such a state is with no communal connotationsó a state where values of justice, equality, idealism, renunciation and sacrifice are practiced. Gandhi emphasized, "Let no one commit the mistake of thinking that Ramrajya means a rule of Hindus. My Ram is another name for Khuda or God. I want Khuda Raj which is the same thing as the Kingdom of God on Earth."

Cross cultural dialogue is not only an avenue to reach "them", but it also helps understand "us". We all have the tendency to compare "our" theories with "their" practices, putting ourselves on Mars and "them" on Venus. It is through dialogue that we can learn more about "our" practices and "their" theories as well as the convergence of mutual practices and theories. Dialogue does not necessarily entail moving from one extreme to another, from hubris and dogmatism to total surrender and defeatism. It is about the courage and ability to subject oneís values to other assessments and an open-mindedness to listen.

The Myths of Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been a laboratory and battleground not only for warring nations and competing interests but also concepts, prejudices and ideologies. Since 2001, we have seen the manifestation of many conceptual battles, prejudices and de-mystification of some myths about Afghans and their international partners. Despite propaganda waged by Islamist ideologues, Afghanistan has shown that the West is not at war with Islam, owing to conscious and genuine efforts of Western nations in showing sensitivity towards Islamic norms. Moreover, contrary to Orientalist ideology, the supposedly xenophobic and backward Afghans have embraced democratic forms of political organization and are yearning for good governance and justice.

Nevertheless, despite significant investment and sacrifice, we could have been in a better position today if both the Afghans and their international partners had refrained from the tendency to succumb to their prejudices and uninformed reading of Afghan history and society. One myth is the myth of democratization of Afghanistan and the Afghansí resistance and rejection of democratic norms, practices and institutions, because of their cultural and religious characters. In reality, neither democratization nor nation-building was the priority of the West in Afghanistan. They were/are the accessories to an anti-terror-based military campaign. There was no desire or plan to create a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan from the very beginning to today. A mainly military campaign, plus prejudiced views about the Westís superiority and democratic credentials and Afghansí inherent backward and tribal characters resulted in a "warlord democracy." This was further compounded by the false choice between justice and stability, which was advocated by the first UN envoy and its ensuing acceptance by many Western nations. Another manifested example of cultural prejudices was resource allocation. Based on the view that Afghans are inherently corrupt and corrupting in contrast to the professionalism and law-abiding nature of Westerners, nearly 2/3 of reconstruction projects and resources were given to Western firms and companies. However the reality was quite different.

The different view of the Taliban and Al Qaeda was and is another manifestation of a cultural prejudice and a form of culturally-oriented racism. Western nations rightly treat Al Qaeda as a radical and terrorist entity, whereas they remain confused about the Taliban. Despite the Talibanís record of human rights violations and continuing brutalities, some Western nations, particularly Great Britain are ready to allow them to share power and/or sovereignty as long as they do not play host to the enemies of the West. In other words, the West does not care what the Taliban have done and would they do to the Afghan people as long as they merely severe their link with the Westís enemies. Call it realpolitk, defeat, hypocrisy, moral decadence, utter selfishness or strategic naivety. Furthermore, despite its active support of terrorism, particularly by its security establishment, Pakistanis are still treated as a strategic partner and a spoiled child by many Western nations. On the Afghan side, many of us hide ourselves behind the shields of wars and are blaming foreigners. And some of us have been engaging ourselves in national looting. The Afghan people are sandwiched between two morally bankrupt entities, namely narco-mafia and the Talibanís naked violence and brutality. In the absence of a sincere commitment to certain normative principles such as accountability, mutual responsibility and justice for victims, many interpret the current "peace process" as an attempt to reconcile the Talibanís terrorism and Pakistanís hegemony with Kabulís corruption.

A Renewed Compact

The prospect for the resolution of the Afghan conflict, including its cultural component is premised on certain principles and appropriate implementing mechanisms. (Re) initiating social and political compacts between the main stakeholders is one way towards this end. This includes mutually inclusive compacts among the Afghan political community, between the Afghan government and people, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, between Afghanistan and its neighbors and between Afghanistan and its international partners.

As with any social and political compact, the renewed compact between Afghanistan and the international community needs to be founded on certain mutually agreed norms and principles. The most important principle is the principle of solidarity. Afghans who have endured almost four decades of persistent conflicts and violence are entitled to continuing solidarity of the community of nations. Afghanistan is a just and humanitarian cause as well as an imperative for regional stability and global peace. It is a rare example of the alignment of universal values, global stability, and regional and national security imperatives. The other important principle is the principle of mutual accountability both for the past as well as the future. We should not forget that the Soviet invasion and ensuing support for the Mujahedeen paved the ground for the destruction of Afghanistan and the radicalization of Afghan and Pakistani societies. One cannot even go to the colonial era, where the seeds of many present-day problems were sown by the colonial powers or many strategic blunders were commited since 2001. The Afghans need also to grow up as mature adults in assuming responsibility for their country. The other principle is the principle of consistency between preaching and practice, between ends and means. To this end, we must reject the notion of good and bad terrorism, or the belief that we can create a democratic and responsible Afghanistan by warlords and war criminals.

Mediating Concepts and Indigenous Institutions/means

For the implementation of such a social and political compact, we need to be more creative and courageous. Identifying indigenous institutions and mediating concepts is the way forward. To this end, one can give two examples which are also relevant to the discourse of inter-cultural dialogue. The most important principle and norm in Islam is justice, not only in its retributive form, but more importantly in its inclusivity and wholeness. For Western audiences and policy-makers, corruption is mainly understood in the form of rule of law, whereas for an Islamic discourse corruption is a form of injustice. We can tackle more effectively our endemic corruption by articulating it as a form of injustice and thus un-Islamic, in addition to strengthening the institutions of the rule of law. Another mediating concept is the notion of forgiveness. Once again Islam, particularly Sufism as well as social institutions such as Pashtonvali are imbued with the notion of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the reconciliation between demands of retributive justice, accountability, national reconciliation and peace.

The discourse of inter-cultural dialogue must empower and facilitate all communities and backgrounds towards a conceptual articulation of a moral community, founded upon fundamental principles. Such a community needs, however, to be generous and inclusive in allowing all communities to participate and contribute to create and sustain a global moral community. There are certainly different ways and approaches for the realization of principles of justice, equality, freedom, self-determination. However, different manifestations and approaches should not become a justification to pursue hierarchical understanding and partial implementation of universal values and principles. Denying human dignity and human rights to women in the name of Asian values and Islamic Sharia must be denounced as they clash with the fundamental principles of justice and equality. By utilizing indigenous and mediating concepts such as Islamic principles of justice, our cause will be more effective and receptive to Islamic audiences.

Afghanistan: A New Greco-Bactrian Civilization

Our success in Afghanistan will be an important step towards such an end. Afghanistan is the natural candidate for demonstrating the possibility of co-existence, mutual accommodation and interaction of different cultures and a bridge between the Islamic world and the West. Such a vision and status is not new to us in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the home for the first ever successful model of East and West hybrid political organization. The Greco-Bactrian civilization was established in Balkh, in todayís northern and western Afghanistan following Alexander the Greatís adventure to the region. In contemporary Afghanistan, we are inspiring and struggling to create a new version of Greco-Bactrian by becoming the cross-roads for regional cooperation and integration, an Islamic democracy and a strategic partner with our Western partners. Our cultural heritage is rich and diverse, comprising of the pre-Islamic era, Khurasan, modern Afghan nation-state period, the inter-factional war after Sovietís withdrawal era and the dark period of the Taliban and its deep radicalization legacies and terrains. Our national identity has also been enriched by our unique geographical position, recent migration and interaction with the Middle-East, Central Asia and the Sub-continent and recently with the Western world. Our religious identity has also been pluralistic and moderate. Prior to the invasion of the Arabs in the 8th century, todayís Afghanistan was a leading Buddhist center as well as the birthplace of the prophet Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism. There used to be Jewish neighborhoods in some Afghan cities, particularly in Herat as late as the 1960ís as well as an Armenian Christian community. An important part of our cultural war is about the identity of Afghans as a nation and our historical narratives and legacies. The Talibanís vision of Afghan national identity is a totalitarian- Arabized/Islamist prescription, whereas some ethno-political entrepreneurs reject the pre-modern nation-state cultural heritage and identity of Afghanistan. This is indicative of their hostility towards Persian/Khurasani culture and heritage, ignoring the fact that todayís Afghanistan was one of the main centers of Persian culture and civilization, or overlooking the Pashtun and Turkic heritages. The new Afghan national identity must celebrate all positive aspects of Afghan history and heritages from Zoroaster, Avicenna, Ghoharshad, Jalal-Al-Din Mohammed Balkhi-Rumi to Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan or Badsha (Pacha) Khan and our enlightened King Amanullah. Undoubtedly it is a Herculean task but not an impossible one.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati