A reformed Islam could save Afghanistan

The despotic and misogynist narratives of Islam must be challenged by interpretations that embrace freedom and human rights.

In Afghanistan where young people have placed themselves on waiting lists to become suicide bombers, increasing the number of soldiers – whether US, NATO, or Afghan (in order to "Afghanize" the war) – will prolong the conflict rather than ending it.

The decades of violence and instability in Afghanistan suggest a deeper answer to a deeper problem. What the country needs is an interpretation of Islam that embraces freedom and human rights instead of violence and tribal oppression. Everything else is a Band-Aid.

The despotic and misogynist narratives of Islam that predominate now must be challenged by alternative interpretations of Islam. The argument that Afghanistan is "not ready" for democracy and only capable of authoritarian politics misses this point entirely, and condemns Afghanistan to a permanent state of war.

Afghanistan is a deeply religious society, but the dominant interpretations of Islam, as in most Islamic countries, is one that fosters submission to force. More specifically, under existing sharia law, which is completely detached from the message of the Koran, human beings are understood to be at the service of religion and not vice-versa. Because this belief is entrenched deeply in the popular psyche, the struggle for social and political dominance expresses itself through religious discourse.

Religion has become about power. The most abhorrent form of this violence, suicide bombing, is the direct result of the dominance of a religious interpretation that sanctifies violence. Unless this changes, religion in Afghanistan will continue to serve the fundamentalist powers and those who are nourished by the politics of fear.

What is required instead is a revival of the repressed traditions of Islamic thought and practice, such as the concept of "Tawhid." This is a worldview that regards the whole of existence as a single form. There is no separation between everything existing. The whole of existence is a single living and conscious organism, possessing will, intelligence, feeling, and purpose. This encompassing existence is damaged by conflict and by separation from others.

Through this lens, the exercise of submission to power is regarded as anti-Islamic rather than as intrinsic to the faith. The expansion of freedom and development is understood as the pathway to the divine. From this perspective, human beings are created with the talents, rights, and responsibilities of initiative and self-determination.

All forms of censorship within "self" and "society" have to be removed because they are obstacles on the path to realization. This means that no individual or group can legitimately dominate another, and that challenging all forms of domination in oneself and others is an ethical responsibility. This Islam is a religion of freedom.

What does this mean in practical terms? The task of revolutionizing Islam in Afghanistan should begin with attention to the plight of women. Presently, half the population is absent from the public domain, veiled from head to toe, branded as inferior to men and treated as sexual objects to be kept at home.

There is no doubt, given that the society is patriarchal and highly militarized, that changing this status is a Herculean challenge.

But the enormity of the task should not prevent Afghans from undertaking it, as it is impossible to imagine a democratic and developing Afghanistan if the status of women is not confronted. It requires a frontal jihad – a political, intellectual, and spiritual struggle to liberate Muslims and Islamic societies from the addiction to force. This can only be successful when grounded in a freedom-oriented Islam, rather than Western models that seem increasingly alien to many Afghans.

It goes without saying that neither more foreign troops nor more suicide bombers can contribute to this essential transformation.

If there is any chance for the indigenous emergence of peace and stability in Afghanistan through an Islamic renaissance, the global and regional powers surrounding it should act on a principle of "negative equilibrium" in which no country can interfere in Afghanistan's affairs.

The Afghan people should also consider that a plurality of different ethnic groups with competing economic and political interests can maintain peaceful relationships only when the country becomes a federation organized around three major rights.

1. the right to participate in government;

2. the right to practice different languages, cultures, and religions; and

3. the right to peace through the absence of domination of any ethnic groups by any other.

The renaissance of Islam is above all the task of young Afghan people, who make up nearly 70 percent of the country's population. Such a renaissance is not historically alien to Afghan culture: Avicena's rationalism and Rumi's mystic philosophy are, after all, part of this tradition, much more so than the practice of suicide bombing.

Communicating this interpretation of Islam through the relative freedom of the media in Afghanistan could play a major role in popularizing democratic and humanist forms of Islam, which could in turn pave the way for the development of a democratic and independent Afghanistan that is a threat to no one, including its own people.

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was the first elected president of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the 1979 revolution. He has lived in exile outside Paris since 1981, when he fell out with his former ally Ayatollah Khomeini. In exile, he has continued to develop his idea of Islam as a "discourse of freedom."

© 2009 Global Viewpoint Network. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.

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