Untapped Potential: Afghanistan’s Traditional Civil Society

For centuries, the backbone of Afghanistan’s civil society has been its traditional community-based institutions. Partnering with them will be vital to achieving stability in the region.

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In his recent speech to the U.S. Congress urging for continued support, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani noted that violent extremism and hate “must be challenged and overcome from within the religion of Islam.” Our research across 35 towns and villages in Afghanistan, indicates that its civil society -- particularly traditional and faith-based actors -- are uniquely capable of approaching peacebuilding from within an authentic religious paradigm that resonates with ordinary Afghans.*

For centuries, the backbone of Afghanistan's civil society has been its community-based shuras (councils), jirgas (tribal assemblies of elders), and religious institutions. The latter includes mosques, madrassas, khaniqas (Sufi centers for cultural and spiritual advancement), and shrines -- all of which are key public spaces, whether in rural, urban, or tribal settings. Mosques, like the Jami Masjid of Herat pictured here, have served for centuries as forums for addressing community concerns and conflicts. Partnering with such institutions will be vital to achieving stability in the region.

*Mehreen Farooq and Waleed Ziad conducted this research on behalf of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE). Additional photography from their research can be found on www.the30birds.com.

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Despite their prominence in Afghan culture, traditional institutions still remain untapped resources by the international community in building community resilience. For example, shrines honoring saints and luminaries are amongst the most popular cultural landmarks in the country. Every day, thousands of Sunni and Shiite pilgrims flock to shrines like Mazar-e Sharif, or the one picture here in Laghman province. Major shrines host cultural events, and are some of the few spaces in which women can socialize in the public sphere. As such, they can be important venues to disseminate positive messages to a broad cross-section of society.

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Sufi cultural centers, like khaniqas, are among Afghanistan’s most important institutions for fomenting social cohesion across ethnic lines. During the Soviet occupation and later under the Taliban, many khaniqas were shuttered, and indigenous cultural practices were forced underground. Today, khaniqas are once again serving as centers for meditation, poetry, and music -- particularly for youth. They also function as depots for coordinating grassroots assistance. The director of the Khaniqah-e Chisht, (pictured above) for example, coordinates relief for impoverished families and has helped find job opportunities for unemployed youth to deter them from criminal activities. Given their prominence, Sufi centers around the world have been targeted by violent extremists. Just last month in March, two Sufi centers were attacked in Kabul in separate incidents.

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As of 2011, approximately 700 madrassas were registered in Afghanistan, however, thousands remain unregistered. Throughout the country -- particularly in remote regions -- families send their children to such institutes to receive basic education. Madrassa students interviewed in Jowzjan province (pictured above) spoke with confidence about how their madrassas have fostered the development of peer-support networks in which they can help prevent their classmates from engaging in drug abuse and militancy.

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Traditional religious leaders are effective communicators, and have ready-made mass communication platforms in the form of mosques and pulpits. Every week in Kabul, for example, Mawlavi Haqparast (center right), one Kabul’s respected academics, and Farooq Orakzai (center left), a popular radio personality, convene a group of religious scholars at Hazarat Tamim Sahib Ansari, a major pilgrimage site, to discuss how to disseminate positive values in their Friday sermons. Many of the powerful counter-extremist narratives they cite are based on Prophetic traditions and Quranic exegesis. In the meeting of scholars pictured above, one of the stories they cited for promoting tolerance was of the Prophet Muhammad standing up in respect for a Jewish funeral procession.

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Both traditional religious scholars and tribal leaders are key mediators at the local level -- often between their communities, the government, and the Taliban. In Uruzgan province, the birthplace of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, tribal elders explained how they helped develop a program to reintegrate members of the Taliban into mainstream society. Militants who agree to lay down their arms are offered amnesty, and are provided with alternative employment. Through this program, over 120 Taliban have renounced anti-state activities. One of the success stories includes a former Taliban commander who now serves in the Afghan Local Police and is instrumental in encouraging others to join the peace process.

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Shrines can serve as a safe space for women and other vulnerable segments of society. In Herat, the caretaker of the 11th century shrine of the poet-philosopher Khwaja Abdullah Ansari (pictured above), explained that recently, when a young man in their community developed a drug addiction, his family was given refuge at the shrine until he was rehabilitated.

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In remote regions of Afghanistan, conflicts are resolved through jirgas, or community councils, which combine tribal customs and Islamic jurisprudence. Public opinion polls indicate that the vast majority of the population perceive these traditional dispute resolution mechanisms to be more fair and effective, more so than state courts. As a result, civil society organizations like the Peace, Training and Research Organization (PTRO) offer workshops for religious, tribal, and youth leaders to improve their peacebuilding efforts. In Kunduz province, which suffers from ethnic tensions and Taliban violence, PTRO works with jirga participants -- like Mawlavi Ghulam Muhiyyuddin, pictured above -- providing them training in anger management and mediation skills to mitigate conflicts in their communities.

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Across the country, poetry and sacred music remain among the most powerful mediums of promoting positive values that undermine extremist narratives. Organizations such as the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society frequently host Qawwali (a popular folk music genre) performances that were previously banned under the Taliban. Across the country, communities are also organizing poetry recitals to explore themes of divine love and tolerance in the works of Afghanistan’s beloved poets like Rumi, or the female mystic Rabia Balkhi, whose shrine is pictured above.

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How can the United States and international community respond to President Ghani’s appeal to make Afghanistan more self-reliant? Part of the answer lies in helping strengthen Afghanistan’s traditional civil society, especially in small towns and rural areas -- like this madrassa in Samangan province. The international community can, for example, create incentives for international organizations to partner with traditional grassroots institutions, and in the process, provide Afghans with training in good governance, financial management, and communications. It can also help network traditional and faith leaders so that they can build coalitions and share best practices. Ultimately, the international community should cultivate their input and involve them in programs from development assistance to conflict resolution.

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