On Monday I chaired an illuminating discussion called ‘Inside the Mind of the Taliban’ with Alex Strick van Linschoten, Felix Kuehn and Jason Elliot. Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn, who until recently lived in Kandahar, have written a series of outstanding books on Afghanistan, including An Enemy We Created, which tells the story of how the American insistence that al Qaeda and the Taliban were in effect a single, unified enemy, and Washington’s view of the Taliban as just another jihadist group, helped conjure up that very mythical enemy that the West so feared. Earlier this year their anthology, Poetry of the Taliban, was published both to considerable acclaim and considerable controversy. Elliot is a travel writer whose book An Unexpected Light has become a classic and is one of the most influential recent works on Afghanistan.
Given that few people who talk about Afghanistan possess more than the briefest acquaintance with the country, it was good to have the kind of public conversation that so very rarely takes place, led by three people passionate, informed and articulate. But while it was refreshing to have a nuanced discussion on the issue, nuance carries its own baggage.
All the speakers emphasized the complexity of Afghan society, of its culture, of the roots of the Taliban, and of the current war. That was valuable because, as I put it in my review of Poetry of the Taliban:
The significance of the anthology is not that it helps humanize the Taliban but that it reveals the complexity of human cultures. A culture that can produce a movement as savage and brutal as the Taliban can produce also a finely-tuned poetic sensibility. That should not surprise us, for cultures are never all or nothing affairs. Every culture produces a host of different and often contradictory sensibilities. The history of Western societies tells us that. The Europe of Michelangelo and da Vinci was also the Europe that burnt witches and heretics by the score. The England that produced Shakespeare was also the England that transported millions of Africans into slavery.
It is one thing, however, to talk about the complexities of a situation. It is quite another when a situation appears so complex that one feels unable to pass judgment upon it. I felt that in the debate on Monday night the line between accepting complexity and refusing to judge often became blurred. Equally blurred was the line between acknowledging complexity and romanticizing Afghan life, or even the Taliban.
Rural life in Afghanistan, Jason Elliot suggested, is attractive because Afghans are not troubled by the existential angst with which Westerners are often beset. In traditional Afghan life everyone knows their place, their duties, their roles. They just get on with it. But traditional Afghan life is also backward, backbreaking and oppressive. Is knowing you role and duty really attractive to Afghani women, I asked Elliot, when that role and those duties confine you to the life of a third class human? If you are a 14-yr old girl, is being shot for challenging your prescribed role and duty, simply by demanding schooling, really better than being afflicted by Western angst? (I know that this happened in Pakistan, but the situation in Afghanistan, when it comes to girls’ education, is little different.)
In a sense, the romanticisation of Afghan life is the mirror of its demonization. One sees Afghanistan simply through the lens of terrorism, savagery, brutality; it becomes a means of recasting Western interests and asserting Western superiority in a tribal fasion. The other sees Afghanistan through the lens of disenchantment with the West. The simplicity of Afghanistan becomes an antidote to the problems of Western societies. From both viewpoints, Afghans become transformed into merely an Other in whom is reflected particular perceptions of the West. Part of the problem, as I have observed before, is the polarization of the debate, and not just over Afghanistan, between, on the one had, a faux universalism that conflates universal values and the particular needs of Western nations, and, on the other, a dismal relativism that, in refusing to make judgments upon the Other, becomes indifferent to the Other’s plight, and to their basic human needs, desires and aspirations.
Unfortunately we had too little time on Monday to explore these questions. Hopefully we can debate these issues another time. In the meantime do read Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn’s An Enemy We Created, Jason Elliot’s An Unexpected Light and my review of Poetry of the Taliban.