The South Asia Channel

Six Things About Afghanistan That May Surprise You

Despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration on Sep. 29, many Afghans remain skeptical about what will happen next and whether his power-sharing deal with Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah will stick. Given two months of tumultuous political negotiations against the backdrop of a potential Taliban comeback, you might think the country’s natural state is one ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration on Sep. 29, many Afghans remain skeptical about what will happen next and whether his power-sharing deal with Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah will stick. Given two months of tumultuous political negotiations against the backdrop of a potential Taliban comeback, you might think the country’s natural state is one of constant warfare, hopelessness, and religious bigotry. However, what you don’t know about Afghanistan may surprise you — and lead you to believe that there is some hope in the country’s future.

First, hardline Islamism does not represent mainstream religion in Afghanistan. Much like the rest of the Muslim world, the country’s culture is deeply rooted in the practices of Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam. Since Sufi institutions transcend ethnic divides, they often serve as alternative spaces to foster social cohesion and community well-being. According to the Ministry of Information and Culture, in Kabul alone, there are over 50 Sufi centers, or khaniqahs, that date back several hundred years. We attended weekly poetry recitations, meditations, and sacred music performances at khaniqahs in several provinces, and found that on any given Sunday, dozens of families picnic at shrines of beloved Sufi luminaries. These shrines are also some of the few spaces in which women can socialize in the public sphere — even in the most socially conservative regions.

Second, Afghanistan has produced some of the world’s most celebrated poets and artists. Few today know that the village of Chisht in northwestern Afghanistan was a fountainhead for a spiritual tradition that, throughout the last millennium, inspired much of South Asia’s classical music, as well as the development of the sitar. Perhaps the most famous Afghan poet is the 14th Century champion of love and tolerance, Rumi, who is still a best-selling poet in the United States. In fact, poetry remains such an integral part of Afghan culture that even taxi drivers frame their political critiques in classical poetry.

Third, cities like Kabul and Kandahar were not always backwaters of Asia. Kabul served as the first capital of the Mughal Empire, which at its peak in the 16th Century ruled all of South Asia. Through research, we’ve found that, even at the turn of the 19th Century, when much of the Muslim world was in decline, Kabul continued to thrive as scholars from Russia, China, and India traveled great distances to study at the city’s colleges in the fabled Shor Bazaar. Afghans still have vivid memories of the storytellers, scholars, and musicians of this once vibrant district, which is now gradually being rebuilt after three decades of war.

Fourth, Afghanistan has always been socially conservative, but that doesn’t mean women haven’t played major public roles. Consider Bibi Sahiba, one of 19th Century Kabul’s great scholar-saints. Kabul’s top scholar of the time, Safiullah Mujaddidi, considered her his foremost protégé — high praise in an era when few women around the world had access to higher education. Similarly, the 10th Century female poet-saint, Rabia Balkhi, whose shrine is just outside of Mazar-e-Sharif, remains a national icon today. Even today, 28 percent of Afghanistan’s parliament is made up of women — a remarkable achievement considering that in the United States, women make up only 18.5 percent of Congress..

Fifth, despite occasional tensions, religious community leaders insist that sectarianism is largely a foreign concept. It’s noteworthy that the country’s most popular pilgrimage site, Mazar-e-Sharif, is frequented by both Shiites and Sunnis. There is even a country-wide council of 100 leading religious personalities, called the Islamic Brotherhood Council, which is specifically designed to prevent conflict between the two groups. Three years ago, when Sunni extremists coordinated multiple attacks against Shiite communities, the council issued public condemnations.

Sixth, it’s possible to promote progressive values in Afghanistan — as long as they are framed in a traditional paradigm. It may be hard to believe, but Planned Parenthood has a branch which has been operating in Afghanistan for the last 40 years. According to its director, Naimatullah Akbari, a secret to their success in educating communities about family planning is that they address sensitive issues in a framework based on Islamic texts that resonate with the population. In line with this approach, over the last few years, the World Organization for Resource Development and Education — a nonprofit, educational organization with which we are both affiliated — co-hosted a series of conferences with the U.S.-based George Mason and Boston Universities on peacebuilding from an Islamic perspective. The conference brought together 200 religious leaders from across Afghanistan to meet with internationally-renowned Muslim scholars. By utilizing a faith-based approach, it was possible to generate discussions on hot-button issues ranging from jihad to women’s rights.

But why should all of this matter to us?

Essentially, these lessons indicate that there is plenty of potential within Afghan culture for promoting positive values. Both Afghanistan and the international community should capitalize on this to help the country through its continued transition. Specifically, the United States and the international community should forge stronger ties with Afghan civil society — in particular, its cultural leaders, poets, and religious figures. Those leaders are uniquely qualified to understand the value systems and needs of their communities but, unfortunately, remain largely underutilized. If we work with such local stakeholders to frame development, peace, or conflict resolution programming in a way that appeals to Afghanistan’s heritage, we can help bolster institutions with a strong public mandate to tackle today’s seemingly intractable problems.

Mehreen Farooq is a senior fellow at the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE). Waleed Ziad, the director of WORDE’s South and Central Asia Program, is completing his Ph.D. on religious and intellectual networks in Central Asia at Yale University.

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