First published in the London Review of Books on 11 July 2002.
When Ali brought out his Koran I thought of Tony Blair. It was February 2002. The Taliban had retreated, having burned Ali’s village to the ground. Four feet of snow had closed the passes into Bamiyan and all the roads were laid with anti-vehicle mines. Ali opened the carved wooden box, kissed the bundle, unwrapped it carefully, said a prayer and opened the book. The fire had consumed one corner, exposing thin layers of oil-blackened paper, and as Ali opened it some ash fell from the binding.
‘If you want to understand the Taliban, look at what they did to our holy Koran,’ Ali said.
‘Can you read the Koran?’
‘No. In this village we cannot read or write.’
‘Did the Taliban take it out and burn it?’
‘No. It was lying in one of the houses that the Taliban burned when they attacked the village.’
‘So it was accidental.’
‘Yes. You see what kind of people the Taliban are.’ He meant, I imagined, that they were sacrilegious infidels.
‘How many people did the Taliban kill in this village?’ I asked.
‘Six,’ someone corrected him, ‘Hussein, Muhammad Ali, Ghulam Nabi …’
‘Six,’ agreed Ali.
‘From your family?’
‘Yes. My brother. His father. But look at the Koran.’
There was no Coca-Cola or Hollywood in this village, they had no electricity and had never watched TV; the only global brand was Islam. Ali did not think I would be interested in the deaths in his family. But he expected me to understand that anyone who burned the Koran, even accidentally, would be damned for sacrilege.
Tony Blair has paid a lot of attention to the Koran. On 20 September, he packed his Korans for his tour of the Middle East. Nine months earlier he had told an interviewer that he owned two different editions. Now, according to the Guardian, he had three. ‘Blair,’ it said, ‘now carries a copy of the Koran at all times for “inspiration and courage” – a habit he picked up from President Clinton’s daughter.’ He had encouraged Muslims to study their holy book before 11 September, telling readers of the Muslim News that ‘the concept of love and fellowship as the guiding spirits of humanity is so clear . . . if you read the Koran.’ On 7 October, he made a more specific pronouncement: ‘the acts of these people are contrary to the teachings of the Koran . . . it angers me, as it angers the vast majority of Muslims.’ And a week later: ‘I can’t understand how anybody who truly studies the teaching of Islam and the words of the message of the Koran can possibly justify the slaughter.’ George W. Bush joined in: ‘Islam’s teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith.’
Blair’s handling and discussion of the Koran was highly eccentric. In the first place, he claimed to have read it. He hadn’t and he couldn’t have done because he can’t read Arabic. Since the Koran, unlike the Bible, is thought to be the verbatim word of God, spoken through Muhammad in Arabic, a translation cannot really be the Koran. To translate it at all has at times been considered blasphemous. Perhaps because he didn’t understand its status, Blair handled his in a curious fashion. Ali carefully wrapped his Koran, kept it in a wooden box on a high shelf and approached it only after ablutions and with a prayer. He would have been horrified to see Blair thumb his translation on the plane. Blair was equally confident in his interpretations of the book. The dense network of metaphor, poetry and allusion is traditionally interpreted with reference to the Hadith and long traditions of legal and theological exegesis. Public pronouncements on the meaning of the Koran are usually reserved for the most learned and senior of mullahs.
Blair’s confidently casual handling of the text was not supposed to be patronising or presumptuous. It was meant to display his sensitivity to Islamic culture. Perhaps he thought the Koran was like the Bible, or the Bible as he sees it: a text no less sacred when in translation, open to interpretation by lay people and physically to be handled much like any other book. This may also be true of other Protestant commentators such as Bush. In November there was a photograph of the President casually dragging a Koran across the table with his unclean left hand, while the mullah who presented it struggled to smile.
Much of the British media, following Blair, defined Islam almost exclusively in terms of the Koran, without referring to the book’s cultural context. They might not have been as quick to discuss the Catholic Church merely in terms of the gospels. But perhaps they were more interested in changing Islam than in describing it. On 16 September, the Observer remarked that the houris promised to the faithful in the Koran were innocent symbols rather than virgins provided for sexual services, and thus, by implication, that the suicide bombers had been misled. A month later, the Guardianwrote of one version of the faith that ‘this is not Islam any more than the Ku Klux Klan is Christianity.’ Commentators rarely described the variety of Islamic beliefs and practices. This may have been because their comments were primarily intended to calm anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain (and perhaps in the case of Tony Blair to appeal to Muslim coalition partners). Anti-Muslims, too, looked at the Koran in isolation, in support of their own agenda. In November, the chairman of the British National Party said that he had looked for the passage in the Koran
which has been quoted again and again since 11 September, including by George Bush, Tony Blair, Iain Duncan-Smith and an endless string of journalists: ‘Whoever kills a soul is like one who has killed the whole of Mankind.’ This sentence is at the heart of the Politically Correct campaign to ensure that the war fever against Islamic terrorists doesn’t lead to an explosion of hostility against Muslims per se. After all, isn’t it clear evidence that Islam is at root a peaceful, loving religion; Christianity with a towel on its head?
Indeed it would be, if it were genuine. But the problem is that this quotation is a Politically Correct fabrication. Just look at what Surah 5, Ayat 32 actually says: ‘whoever kills a soul, not in retaliation for a soul or corruption in the land, is like one who has killed the whole of mankind.’
He went on to cite 23 verses as ‘evidence’ that Muslims are ‘a threat to British life’.
The two ways in which the Taliban were usually perceived in the West demonstrated, if anything, even greater insensitivity to cultural context and difference. The first defined the Taliban and al-Qaida as a single group that could easily be counted: thus, the Evening Standard in March wrote on one page that British Marines would be fighting ten thousand Taliban and, on the next, ten thousand al-Qaida. This was a view encouraged by the Pentagon, and the Standard article probably emerged directly from a military briefing. The second definition challenged the Pentagon’s demonisation: differentiating the Taliban from al-Qaida, it suggested that the Taliban were morally indistinguishable from Northern Alliance groups.
The first (Pentagon/Evening Standard) view – that the Taliban is the same as al-Qaida – may have been encouraged by the difficulty of identifying members of the two organisations, and by the notion that both believed in ‘fundamentalism’ or, more fashionably, ‘political Islam’. The Taliban and al-Qaida are, however, two different groups. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida has co-operated with the Taliban (most noticeably in the two years between the fall of Kabul and the bombing of the American Embassies in 1998), but it remains a predominantly non-Afghan jihad/ terrorist organisation that happened to have its headquarters in Afghanistan. The Taliban by contrast were the indigenous Government, led by Mullah Muhammad Omar, and there is no evidence that they had prior knowledge of the 11 September attack. Afghans, if aware of Chechen and Pakistani al-Qaida men, perceived them as ‘guests’, distinct from the Taliban Administration.
The two groups, furthermore, follow different Islamic traditions. Bin Laden’s faith is in the Wahabi/Hambali tradition centred on Saudi Arabia, whereas the Taliban were trained in Deobandi schools, originating within the Hanafi tradition of South Asia. Neither group has published comprehensive theological summations, but their actions suggest that they differ at least over the importance of religious hierarchy and the moral status of modern technology. The Taliban declared televisions, videos and the filming of their leaders to be a blasphemous abomination. Al-Qaida, by contrast, specialise in propaganda videos featuring Osama bin Laden. This difference over videos is not just a theological issue: it symbolises contrasting attitudes to the world. Bin Laden is obsessed with what happens outside Afghanistan and is determined to reach an international audience, while Omar knows about little except his own country. In fact, if bin Laden had cared more about the interests of Afghans, or if Omar had better understood America’s military commitment, they might never have been allies. In this sense it was not the similarity but the difference in their priorities and outlooks that led to their association.
It was in any case rarely easy to identify a Taliban below the senior ranks of their three councils. The Taliban Administration was deliberately informal, personal and non-transparent. There was considerable overlap of responsibilities, and the existing civil service was marginalised. Rural administration and military support depended on the uncertain loyalties of regional commanders, who in turn relied on half-amateur personal militias. Many people had associated with the Taliban during their five years as the Kabul Government without sharing their beliefs. Because the Taliban Government was opaque it is often difficult, particularly since its disappearance, to prove or disprove an individual’s role in the regime.
This confusion and conflation of the groups resulted in villages being bombed because Afghans, exploiting the uncertainty, had described their rivals as Taliban or al-Qaida to US Forces. But the public in the West only really noticed when the victims were foreign. The bombing of four Canadians made them aware of errors in targeting, while the trial of John Walker, a white American Muslim, for taking up arms against the United States, highlighted the significance of the confusion. Walker’s defence was that he had joined a Taliban-led jihad against ‘un-Islamic factions’ inside Afghanistan before the events of 11 September led the US to back the Northern Alliance, and that his membership of the Taliban had nothing to do with those events. An American politician replied that Walker should be ‘tied to the head of a cruise missile and fired into the Tora Bora complex’. The widespread hostility to Walker suggested that many Americans still believed his association with the Taliban made him an al-Qaida activist dedicated to terrorist attacks against the United States.
One beneficiary of the confusion was the US-led coalition, because the uncertainty minimised domestic criticism of their campaign. The US Administration needed from the outset to convince the public that an assault on the Taliban was an appropriate response to an attack by al-Qaida. It was convenient to encourage the belief that the two organisations were identical and that the Taliban were therefore directly responsible for the hijackings. As the public struggled to distinguish terrorists from ordinary Afghans, it became easier for the Pentagon to explain away errors and to introduce new targets. When villagers were mistakenly killed in bombing raids (as a result either of faulty intelligence or of mechanical error) the Pentagon was able to assert that ‘the people killed were Taliban/al-Qaida’; it was able to alter its objective from catching bin Laden to liberating Afghanistan; and in April it could announce its attempt to kill the commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had been never been part of either al-Qaida or the Taliban.
The second way of seeing the Taliban attempted to refute its demonisation by the Pentagon. This view criticised the Taliban treatment of women, their use of Sharia law and the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas, while recognising that many villagers tolerated these practices. It stressed that the Taliban were ‘no crueller’ than the Northern Alliance and had improved security in rural areas. The implication was that intervention would simply replace one group of crooks with another, and anger Afghans in the process. Some of its proponents were war reporters who had been in the Balkans and, perhaps because they remembered the fury of even anti-Milosevic Serbs over the Kosovo bombing, predicted a similar reaction in Afghanistan. This second version at least recognised that an Afghan’s perception of the regime might differ from an outsider’s. It remains the view of many development workers in Kabul. But, like the coalition’s approach, it takes too little account of the rural experience.
Hazaras such as Ali, for example, suffered at the hands of the Taliban in a manner unprecedented in its scale, and emphasis on ethnic differences. In Yakawlang the Taliban executed three hundred people against the clinic wall. The bazaar in Shaidan was abandoned and the seventy shopfronts reduced to blackened shells. It took me three days to walk from one place to the other, and every Hazara village I saw on the way had been burnt. In each settlement, people had been murdered, the flocks driven off and the orchards razed. Most of the villages were still abandoned. This was largely a result of the Pashtun Taliban’s ethnic and religious prejudices against the Shi’a Hazara, and it determined the Hazara attitude to the American bombardment, the new Administration and their own future. They were delighted the Taliban had gone and did not resent America’s role in disposing of them. They understood the experience of the Taliban in almost exclusively ethnic terms, and were resolved to avoid future interference from other ethnic groups governing in Kabul.
The most significant problem in the coalition’s engagement with Afghanistan was the Western view of Afghan villagers. The economic and political development of Afghans, 90 per cent of whom live outside cities, was believed to be central to the interests of the West. In 1989 Ahmed Rashid said that ‘by walking away from Afghanistan as early as it did, the USA faced . . . bombs in New York and cheap heroin in the streets.’ Tony Blair apparently accepted this analysis and was, therefore, considering Britain’s interest when he announced: ‘We will not turn our backs on Afghanistan.’ Proposals have been made to offer as much as twenty billion dollars to Afghanistan, and although the final sum will be smaller, the streets of Kabul have been jammed since January with the white Land Cruisers of international organisations. Development was expected not only to benefit Afghans, but also to show the Muslim world the benefits of co-operation with the West, to justify the coalition’s bombing campaign, to stop Afghan support for drug production and international terrorism, and to contribute to the wealth and stability of its neighbours. The scale of investment and level of self-interest seemed to suggest that the West was serious about the political and economic development of Afghanistan.
In March, the United Nations Special Representative, Lakdhar Brahimi, outlined a plan for ‘a broad-based multi-ethnic government respectful of human rights and guided by the rule of law’, which he said was the ‘only hope to restore stability in Afghanistan’. Various NGOs meanwhile continued to work on small-scale rural development projects for schools, clinics, irrigation systems, vocational education and teacher training. Many organisations, including the Danish Aid Agency Dacaar and parts of the World Bank, expected this approach to deliver better results than heavy infrastructure investment. Ideally, aid workers ‘with a long and profound understanding of Afghan village culture’ would work alongside the local people to choose a project which the village could own, admire and maintain.
The difficulty was finding foreigners with ‘a long and profound understanding of Afghan village culture’. Most ‘internationals’ were on short-term contracts, did not speak the local language and had been encouraged by security briefings to be excessively wary of the war, the landmines and the hostility of the rural poor. Few felt able to wander far from their jeeps. The head of a major development agency spoke for many foreign aid workers when he said to me:
Afghan villagers are simply victimised and lacking in health and education facilities. Because Afghans have all killed or seen people killed, they all suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are happy to accept a donkey as president provided it delivers peace. All they think about is where the next meal comes from. They are like poor villagers everywhere in the world.
The analysis is superficially plausible, but it minimises cultural and religious differences, regards villagers as entirely passive (‘simply victimised’), and ignores ethnic and religious tensions. Like Blair’s analysis of Islam, it is politically convenient but uninformative.
Many of the villagers I met weren’t primarily concerned with where their next meal was coming from, and were often ready to fight if they thought their interests were threatened. Nor were they like poor villagers all over the world. In fact, their isolation means that each community has a distinctive and complex history. In Ali’s district, for example, I found that power had recently shifted from a feudal lord to a new commander backed by Iranian cash and weapons, who administered justice and controlled relations with the provincial Government. A new Hazara nationalism was coalescing around Governor Khalili.
Women are more visible in Ali’s community than among neighbouring Tajiks. Still, his wife has never walked even the three hours to the nearest village, has never had the use of electricity or been in a motorised vehicle. There wasn’t a famine (although Ali lives in the middle of what the international community calls the ‘hunger belt’) so he didn’t have to worry unduly about food. Like most Afghan villagers he paid great attention to his faith, more so than many Pakistani or Iranian villagers. His small hamlet had put most of its surplus cash into building a mosque, in which every man prayed several times a day and at great length. Everyone I asked in his village thought Khalili should be the next Afghan President. When I pointed out that their ethnic leader would not be acceptable to other groups they had no more ideas to offer. Ali probably considers himself a Muslim first, a villager of Ghorak second, a Hazara third and an Afghan last, if at all.
The differences between Ali’s perspective and that of the development experts in Kabul aren’t small, but the latter got to decide how to allocate resources that were meant to benefit him. Some of the development initiatives were absurd, such as projects for laying fibre-optic cables or for creating ‘contemporary Islamic public spaces in urban settings’. Others, such as initiatives on ‘education in human rights and in particular the rights of women’, required far more sensitivity and social explanation than they ever received. Even the more tangible projects, such as food aid and education, were inadequately related to the situation in the villages.
Robert McNamara attributed the failure of the US in Vietnam to ‘a profound ignorance of the history, culture and politics of people in the area’. On these grounds a military disaster might have been expected in Afghanistan last year. Britain seemed better prepared for the Second Afghan War a hundred and twenty years ago. Then it had soldiers and administrators who spoke good Pashtun and Dari and had considerable experience of governing and fighting on the North West Frontier. Westminster was prepared to tolerate risk to its personnel. The objectives were straightforward, the enemy known and communications so bad there was little danger of a campaign inflaming other Muslims or provoking terrorism at home.
None of this was true of the recent campaign. Yet the coalition seems to have avoided disaster so far. This may be due to the technological superiority of the West, or because their ignorance of the Taliban was surpassed only by the Taliban’s ignorance of the West. In any case, they have removed the Taliban Government without immediately ‘inflaming the Arab street’ or (so far) provoking more terrorist attacks at home. They will probably not catch bin Laden. And it is unlikely that they will be able to create prosperity and ‘a broad multi-ethnic government respectful of human rights and guided by the rule of law’. But the billions of dollars, the learned commentaries and the thousands of foreigners devoted to Afghan development will have served their higher purpose: the West’s priority was to be seen to respond to the attacks of 11 September. Our leaders were never serious about understanding Islam, the Taliban or rural Afghanistan, and got away with their complacent approach because the consequences were visible only in Afghanistan and not in the West.