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Saturday
Aug222009

Political Myths and Narratives in Afghanistan

This article is a reprint of an abridged version of a similar post originally published on Worldfocus's website. 

One of my favorite pastimes of late has been talking to people about who they’re voting for and why. Politics is universal to human beings but thoughts about politics are heavily shaped and molded by cultural contexts. Whatever people’s education levels they get the concept of political participation and voting and I’ve found that they reject voting only insofar as they don’t think the vote will be respected. The big difference I encounter here is not defined by democratic values, rather it’s a difference of how people talk about politics, their narratives, so that the way many Afghans talk about their candidates seems surprising to somebody from the US, France, or Iran.

There is no such thing as a political vacuum if people are present, there are only places where the politics appears inscrutable to the uninitiated. Afghanistan with its multiplicity of figures in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of alliances and betrayals for no apparent ideological reason often seems like such a place. The reasons for the shifting currents are there, although outsiders don’t always properly appreciate them. People who told me they would vote against Karzai just because he was supported by former warlord Abdurrashid Dostum all of a sudden appeared teary-eye alongside the road to watch his convoy a few days later when he made his sudden return from Turkey. The cause was simple. Their logical analyses of the pluses and minuses of his rule had been replaced by their emotional attachment to a man who had brought relative stability to this party of the country when the rest was in chaos.

One day while driving to the gym my driver and I were looking at all the campaign posters and related activity in town, poking fun and sharing opinions. He didn’t have much definitive to say about any of the current contenders but instead went on at length about some strongman whom he particularly liked during the Soviet occupation. The next day he had a completely different story. Evidently my driver had to decided to throw his wait behind Karzai and the story changed dramatically. Suddenly it was Karzai who could do no wrong. ‘Karzai built everything in this country after the war [sic]; he’s honest, clean, and has personality integrity.’

The argument against Karzai is that he hasn’t done enough or doesn’t have enough of any of the above, but I didn’t see the point in arguing that. So I asked my driver how he had been convinced of this. He must have a conversation with his friends over qalyan (sheesha) or heard the argument from an akhund (priest), I thought. His response was ‘no that’s just the way things are.’

This is one story but it typifies many others that I’ve had. During a fast food break in Samangan a man sat across from me while I was eating my kabab and extolled the virtues of one or other previous regime that he particularly like by the same simple formulations; you could leave your door unlocked (no, they really believe it), there was no theft, so-and-so distributed swift and equitable justice. It annoys me as a Westerner because I feel it sets up unrealistic expectations of leaders and therefore just perpetuates the cycle of violence. For me not locking one’s door is a (negative) indicator of sanity rather than a sign of good governance. As a student of history though I know it is something more and that these precise formulations have been used for thousand of years. The only reason I don’t know personally them is because the fundamental social and moral restructuring of modernity happened where I grew up before I was born.

Narratives are the key linkage in the relationship of consciousness to reality. They help humans structure the world around them to create meaning. Sometimes narratives become so big and generally applicable that they are myths. In Afghanistan political power is often understood and explained in the form of myths about individuals rather than the specific issues they stand for. Instead of a person saying “I value this characteristic and therefore I will vote for X”, they instead tell a story whereby the characteristic is absolutely beyond question and X embodies it.

Afghanistan is a place where the distance between that old worldview and modern reality is perhaps one of the shortest. Myths will always be with us but in the pre-modern world they held a much greater grip on the human psyche and often became articles of faith in themselves. The relative lack of technology made the gap between cause and effect far wider and therefore gave myths’ explanations much greater power and perceived utility. The mythic narrative doesn’t seek to describe so much as prescribe, because since the myth has moral authority (because it is believed more deeply), it suggests both correct means and ends. New technology has reshaped the role of mythic narratives in much of the world but in places like Afghanistan the concomitant social change (i.e. individual choice and existential doubt) hasn’t yet had the chance to be incorporated into people’s self-understanding.

The power of myths in Afghanistan has allowed people to latch on to unhealthy worldviews that free of massive social stress seem clearly counterintuitive, like the Taliban’s ideology. But this need not be the case and it is important to understand the underlying processes at work. Conversely it may give them the cognitive space in which to reconstruct their identities as people in this region have done before in the face of sweeping social and political changes.

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  • Response
    Political Myths and Narratives in Afghanistan - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger

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