New leader of Afghan democrats can also fix teeth

Less than a year ago, Zabir Nasiri was busy filling teeth at his dental clinic in Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

A skilled and respected practitioner from a prominent local family, Mr. Nasiri sometimes found himself elbow-deep in the mouths of senior Taliban leaders. One of Osama bin Laden's sons came to him with crowded bicuspids. Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, summoned him to his palace one day to yank out a rotten molar.

"Mullah Omar was sitting in a room, holding his jaw and moaning," Nasiri recalls. "He told me, 'I'm very afraid. Previously a doctor hurt me a lot.'

"I told him to open his mouth."

Nasiri's practice collapsed with the fall of the Taliban. Not because of a shortage of patients, but for lack of time. Today, he is hard at work shaping a prodemocracy movement in a country where the rule of the gun has been the dominant mode of political discourse for centuries.

"For every job, there is an instrument," Nasiri says. "And for the politician, the best instrument is a party."

Although the party has yet to be named, it has a mission – demobilizing fighters and breaking the grip of the warlords – as well as a regularly paid staff, offices in three cities, including the capital, Kabul, and a constituency that is desperate for an alternative to decades of warfare.

"People still come to my clinic, and they say, 'Where is Dr. Zabir?' Nasiri says. "I'm busy with politics. It's more important than taking out a tooth, or making dentures."

Nasiri's transformation from dentist to democrat isn't as sudden as it might seem.

He studied dentistry in Pakistan, where he "read American history, European history, and saw what happened to feudalism." Then in 1994, the first year of the Taliban's reign, he and his brother, Mohammad Zareef Nasiri, began organizing an anti-Taliban resistance in refugee camps in Quetta, Pakistan.

Even as he practiced dentistry, Zabir spoke in secret with community leaders about a better future. Instead of violent overthrow, he and his brother preached American-style multiparty democracy.

"Talking with guns is not democracy," says Mohammad Nasiri. "One man, one vote – that is democracy. If today's generation improves by one step toward democracy, then the next will take a second step, then a third and a fourth, and we'll have the development of a fair political system in our country."

Although there is no such thing as universal suffrage in Afghanistan, the Nasiri brothers recognized that the principle of majority rule exists in vestigial form in the tribal councils, or jirgas, which arbitrate disputes in the countryside in the absence of a justice system with a national reach. Zabir, who still thinks like a dentist, explains how the jirgas work:

"A man punches another man, and knocks out his tooth," he says. "If it is a molar, the jirga will say, 'You have to pay so much money.' If it is a front tooth, the jirga will make him pay more. Of course, the molars are more important, since they are used for chewing, but the jirgas think the front tooth is more important, for appearance. That doesn't matter though. People talk, and they decide."

Wooing the country folk

In eight years of working with tribal elders, Zabir has succeeded in drumming up a political consciousness among Afghans weary of the muscle of warlords and the autocratic style of the Taliban. But in rural areas, he has found that people have trouble swallowing a political system that is associated with the West.

"People don't know what democracy is," Zabir says. "They think it means free sex, prostitution – bad things. We need to educate our nation."

In order to convince Afghans that democracy is not synonymous with Western-style vice, Zabir has turned to Said Muhammad, a Koranic scholar who holds a PhD in Islamic criminal law from the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Mr. Muhammad is mining the Koran for verses that echo the basic themes of democracy.

"We need to let people know what Islam's take on democracy is," Muhammad says. "If you look through the Koran, democracy is there. 'Majority rules' is there. Freedom of speech is protected. All the same rights that exist in a democratic society – freedom from discrimination based on religion, gender, ethnicity, and race – are all in the Koran."

Demonstrating that democracy is not a threat to Islam is a key issue for Nasiri, because the strength of his movement is located in the countryside, where people tend to be especially devout Muslims. Effectively mobilized into a political force, rural folk could be a potent voting block.

"This is the mass of the people; they have a lot of power, but they don't know what to do with it," says Michael Pohly, country director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which promotes democracy in developing nations and contributes funding to Zabir's efforts. "If they are left alone, they will become fundamentalists. If they're lucky, they will become a conservative party in Afghanistan. It's not a party now, but it will be a party."

A multiethnic movement

While Zabir has galvanized jirgas from every ethnic group into quasi-political units, he has been especially successful in the south of the country, dominated by the Pashtun, the country's largest ethnic group and the driving force behind the Taliban.

Zabir's efforts to cultivate a multiethnic movement bore fruit this June, when he brought 42 jirgas from every corner of the country together in Kabul. Hundreds of village elders from every major ethnic group sat cross-legged, thumbed prayer beads, and hammered out a plan for the loya jirga, or grand council, which brought some 1,600 delegates to Kabul that month to elect a new government.

Zabir's caucus rallied behind the former king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who had returned from a 30-year exile and declared his candidacy for president. However, their first test run as a political machine was short-circuited by Zahir Shah's unexpected withdrawal from the race.

"It was a big blooper when the king withdrew his candidacy," says Zabir, who refuses to be considered for a leadership position. "We had no alternative."

Many royalists believed that the former king was strong-armed into backing out of the race in a back-room deal to satisfy a powerful clique of ethnic Tajiks. According to Mr. Pohly, who advises Zabir, many would-be democrats lost their faith in the power of the ballot.

"They were talking about war," Pohly says. "It is easier for them to make war than politics. That is clear. We tell them to leave their weapons in the cupboard."

The post-jirga rebound

Since the loya jirga, Zabir's pro-democracy movement has bounced back, gathering funding from prominent members of the group, organizing an executive committee to work up a political platform, and putting together an operating budget. Zabir is determined to have a party in place, with a name, and a candidate, by the next loya jirga, scheduled to convene in January 2004.

Creating an even playing field in Afghan politics may take longer than that – most of the existing parties are affiliated with warlords, and the loya jirga is organized along winner-takes-all lines. But Zabir believes his party will have a good chance to elect a president someday, perhaps Mustafa Zahir Shah, the former king's grandson, who has yet to declare any intention of running for office.

Whatever happens, Afghanistan's democrat-dentist will be looking for ways to find relief for the long-suffering people of his country.

"I like being in close touch with the people," Zabir says. "I can still ask, 'What is the problem? Where does it hurt?' And then I can do what I can to makes things better."

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