Friday, January 20, 2012

Come from the Shadows

There are two things that will strike any reader of Come from the Shadows, Terry Glavin's new book on Afghanistan. The first is his optimism about the future of the country, though only if the Taliban are defeated and the international intervention maintained until they are. The second is his affection and respect for the Afghan people and his desire to give them a voice. Both combine to make this an impressive book, angry, passionate and partisan. And it is wholly convincing.

Terry's main literary device is to show how the conventional wisdom on Afghanistan describes another place, a fictional Absurdistan. As a picture of the real country, it is wrong in almost every respect. Afghanistan is not a mediaeval, ungovernable throwback, it is a modern developing country wrecked by war and only just recovering from an imposed, ultra-violent theocracy. Nor is the Taliban some form of anti-imperialist resistance movement. It is a psychotic organisation, with little internal support, trying to regain power through uninhibited violence with the help of external powers pursuing their own agendas.

To counter the media mood music of quagmires and unwinnable wars, Terry blitzes us with history, including the extraordinary tale of the links between Pashtun chauvinism and Nazi Aryan fantasies, demolishes myths, shows patronising and racist assumptions about Afghanistan's people for what they are and, most important of all, allows Afghans to speak for themselves. And what stories they have to tell.

Looking at what has been achieved since the fall of the Taliban, one gets a glimpse of what is beginning to emerge. This is not simply a political, institutional democracy, certainly compromised by Karzai's corruption though still an achievement, but a democratic society, in which ordinary people are starting to take control of their own lives and reshape their culture, rejecting oppression and embracing freedom.

Yet there is more to it than this.  As I read on, I became more and more convinced that the struggle for a democratic Afghanistan is also our struggle.  The problems are deeper, the violence more extreme, yet the underlying themes Terry explores have something universal about them, something shared. And this is what I want to look at here. I want to highlight the lessons we can take from the book. God knows, we need to know more about Afghanistan, but there is also much that we can learn from it.

My starting point is where we actually have a difference of emphasis. Terry asks serious questions about the ubiquity of the Absurdistan analysis amongst the political left and the damage it has done in Canadian politics. The phenomenon he describes is of an unthinking, reflexive left that sees surrender as 'peace' and wishes to abandon the Afghan people to whatever emerges through a deal with the Taliban. He writes of a left that has the inability to see that in a fight between their own country and fascists, their own side might be in the right for once and of one that is deaf to the urgent appeals of the Afghan people themselves.

There are two broad models of explanation for why this might be so. The first is 'left betrayal', the idea that something went terribly wrong during the post-war period and caused the left to abandon its principles and break with an honourable past. The other sees all the currents of apologism, relativism, anti-Semitism and frank admiration for tyrannies as things that have always existed within the left. From this perspective, Afghanistan is symbolic of a broader intellectual struggle that has always needed to be fought. I come from the longer, historical view (neatly described by Norm Geras here and here). Terry predominantly argues that there was a breach with earlier socialist and social democratic discourses; that the left abandoned class organisation in favour of 'counterculture'.

Terry's exasperation with counterculture is not confined to dippy hippy pacifism, he also includes paranoid leftist 'anti-imperialism', fashionable cynicism and a self-indulgent, narcissistic and, ironically, heavily commercialised and conformist 'alternative society' in his catalogue of despair. Who could demur? Yet reading his book also convinced me of the importance of countercultural action and the need to rescue the term. After all, the social change that it has brought in my lifetime is pretty dramatic and wholly welcome.

Two reasons why we should not casually discard the notion stand out. The first is that counterculture stands in direct opposition to cultural relativism. Relativism is a conservative doctrine. It urges acceptance of other cultures as they are, often asserts that they are unchangeable, eternal and somehow 'authentic' and refuses to pass judgement on even the grossest cultural practice. Counterculture argues that culture can and must change if people are to be free from the tyranny of convention.

Secondly, countercultural action is an explicit recognition that political and economic liberation can still leave sections of a society entrapped in webs of prejudice, enslaved by gender and oppressed due to their sexuality. The right have recognised that culture is a critical battlefield, from Islamism, through the Tea Party to the Fidesz government in Hungary today. The left needs to do so as well and to fight back.

Counterculture may be hip in western democracies, outside them it can be dangerous, involving what Christopher Hitchens has called, "living 'as if'".
Vaclav Havel, then working as a marginal playwright and poet in a society and state that truly merited the title of Absurd, realised that "resistance" in its original insurgent and militant sense was impossible in the central Europe of the day. He therefore proposed living "as if" he were a citizen of a free society, "as if" lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties … In the late Victorian period, Oscar Wilde - master of the pose but not a mere poseur - decided to live and act "as if" moral hypocrisy were not regnant. In the deep south in the early 1960s, Rosa Parks decided to act "as if" a hardworking black woman could sit down on a bus at the end of the day's labour. In Moscow in the 1970s, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn resolved to write "as if" an individual scholar could investigate the history of his own country and publish his findings.
Now read about the Afghan women whose stories Terry tells. In the days of the Taliban they tried to live 'as if' they were not in a dystopian misogyny and today, after the end of Taliban rule, they are determined to live 'as if' their new freedoms were not fragile and constrained by cultural conservatism. Take a woman like Shamisa Sharifi who ran an underground organisation under the Taliban teaching poor women to read and write. Now her new organisation, Negeen, has combined women's literacy with craft skills, rights education, textile workshops and micro-banking. It is still hard and risky work. It still means living and working 'as if'. Women's education, organisation, political activity and even taking part in sport are examples of the counterculture we should be promoting. After all, as Terry puts it, "in Afghanistan, if you're a girl, to play soccer is a revolutionary act".

Whatever its sources, it has to be said that the alliance of parts of the left with a deeply reactionary totalitarianism is pretty weird, probably the strangest thing since, well, the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Ultimately, I can only see it as a colossal moral failure and an historic misjudgement. The Afghan Hazara Lacanian, Buddah Ahmedy, whom Terry met on his travels, best summed it up:
… it comes from the tragic incapacity at the core of liberalism itself to comprehend what we used to call "evil".
I find this embrace well nigh unforgiveable. But a general acceptance of the Absurdistan myth is more understandable; it is couched in progressive language, uses nice words like 'peace', recoils against what Wilfred Owen called "the pity of war" and is suspicious of American intentions. For those who grew up in the left, it is a position that need not disturb our universe. To reject it means a re-examination of beliefs held for decades. It is a difficult thing to do. I know. I have done it; too slowly and too late. But the purposeful maintenance of the myth is more contemptible. It relies on constant reinforcement by a flow of lazy, selective reporting and dubious opinion pieces, often by people who have access to far better information. And this points to the second universal point that Terry makes; the need to confront prejudice with truth. And the only real way to do this in Afghanistan is to let the Afghan people speak.  Even so, this isn't enough on its own. People also have to listen.

A perfect example of wilful deafness is the story of Code Pink, an American feminist 'peace' organisation that makes the fashionable call for troops out.  They went on a sponsored visit to Afghanistan, met with women activists who universally said that it was essential for women that the troops remain. After this, they returned the USA to write a report calling for the troops to be withdrawn. Why did they bother?

And you have to be discriminating about who you listen to as well. There are plenty of apologists and pessimists out there. Absurdistan has its much-touted champions like Malalai Joya, whom, Terry writes, is remembered in Afghanistan by "human rights activists and women's rights leaders … with a mix of pity and contempt". Terry is unapologetic about choosing sides rather than producing a book that aims to strike a spurious balance. As he writes, "I've written this book as a partisan in the cause of Afghanistan's democrats. That's my bias."  It's also the bias of the left, of liberty, of our common cause.

Terry noticed something else too, 
"… the greater emancipation was occurring with the help of projects that were diffuse, small-scale and nimble … At that level, when Afghan women were running their own show, you could pretty well sit back and watch them change the world before your eyes." 
This will sound familiar to anyone who has ever worked in community development. Rather than indulge in the expensive temptation to impose grandiose schemes, often informed by fashion rather than expertise, development is far more effective if it is shaped and run by the people themselves, those who have been at the sharp end of oppression and poverty. They are the experts. And Terry shows just how well this can work in Afghanistan, giving us moving accounts of community action; organisations such as Aschiana, a children's outreach programme and its associated Children's Development Bank, small-scale agricultural developments such as the Garden Gate project, through to the Afghan women's football team; another blow to the condescension of the cynics.

These examples of people building their own lives and communities through direct action could not have happened if the social space had not been opened for them by the defeat of the Taliban. This leads us to the final lesson of Afghanistan. Freedom cannot be exercised without security. In the developed world we tend to think of this as the need for economic security, in Afghanistan it is something more visceral. It is security from being kidnapped, beheaded, dismembered by a suicide bomb, raped and beaten by religious extremists, mutilated with acid for the crime of seeking an education and all the myriad horrors that can be invented by disturbed minds and malign ideologies. In this case, security can only come from one source; troops.

Reading this book, one is struck by the extraordinary institutionalised sadism of the Taliban, the systematic cruelty of their war and of their targets, women especially but also their attempt to eradicate education. Terry points out that "between May 2007 and February 2008 the Taliban attacked and burnt 98 schools, killing 147 teachers and students". Now the provision and demand for education is booming, yet all that stands between it and its destruction is the military force that is deployed to protect the country from the return of the Taliban.

All the Afghan democrats are united on two points: it will be a disaster if the troops leave and a deal with the Taliban would be a catastrophe for the future of the country:
Maboob Shah – "People who say the foreign soldiers should go away, they do not know what they are saying". Shamsia Sharifi – "We need to have the troops in Afghanistan. If the Taliban come back, the target will be us again." Fawzia Koofi – "There is a lack of proper communication in your country about Afghanistan. They don't see all the progress. For me, the hope is for the younger generation. Young men are voting for women. The society is under a big transformation, and there are people who don't want to see this." Amrullah Saleh – "The human cost in this country [of a deal with the Taliban] will easily be up to two million people killed, at least. It will not be big news for Afghanistan. We are used to tragedies, throughout our history. But the cost for you will be bigger".
Still the noises emanating from both governments and the commentariat say the same thing; there needs to be an exit strategy based not on the defeat of the Taliban, but on their accommodation.

Come from The Shadows begins with the Battle of Marefat High School, a fully co-educational school with an intellectually open curriculum, elected class councils and an independent student parliament. The Taliban hated it and rioters tried to smash it. They were beaten back by students who would not run away. They were not about to relinquish their future to a bunch of marauding bigots.

And there in a single example are both the hopes and fears of a nation. Self-help and education; the need to defend every gain, by force if necessary, as it so often is; direct action to change a misogynist culture; and, above all, the lesson the west needs to learn most, to listen to the people, to hear their voices and to choose to stand with them in an act of principled internationalism.

And this applies not only to Afghanistan. Think of how the poor, for example, are to come from the shadows in any European country, how other than by listening to their voices are they to escape the stigma of the word 'scrounger' or the more respectable condescension bestowed by the concept of 'dependency culture', think of how they too can build their own communities, organise and, when necessary, protest. Yes, Afghanistan is our struggle too.

I am certain that Terry would have loved to have written a celebratory book, one that looked forward to a new country being created by the fall of the Taliban and one that heralded the triumph of an Afghan democracy, forged by some remarkable people. Instead the book is troubled. Courage and hope are offset by anger and anxiety at the prospect of a looming betrayal. Come from the Shadows should be a milestone on the road to the creation of a free Afghan nation, let us hope that it does not stand as its epitaph.


Roland Dodds said...

Bloody excellent review. Surely the best out their for Terry's work.

Shauna Singh Baldwin said...

Fabulous essay - thank you. One point. After all, as Terry puts it, "in Afghanistan, if you're a girl, to play soccer is a revolutionary act". It's not only in Afghanistan. Playing soccer or any "man's game" like riding/polo/field hockey/football is a revolutionary act in many countries. Why are there no women's football teams in the NFL? Encouraging women to play such sports and in mixed teams would be a huge first step for women's empowerment.

Anton Deque said...

An excellent read. Glavin has been a beacon of sense on the left simply by observing and recording. Much of what he and by implication you also, write is 'obvious' in left wing terms. Yet it remains the case that only one voice needs to be raised shouting "American oblique Zionist imperialism" and the issues have been dealt a seemingly fatal blow.