KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — In the 1980s the United States possessed a distinct ideological advantage over the Soviets in the battle for Afghanistan. Whereas the Russians and their Marxist Afghan allies were publicly antagonistic towards religion in all forms, America staked out a small but crucial common ground with the Mujahedeen based on a mutual respect for devout, even fundamentalist faith. William Casey, the CIA director from 1981 to 1987, is said to have felt deep connections between his own Catholic faith and the religiosity of the anti-Soviet Islamists who would one day found the Taliban. Playing the role of provocateur, the U.S. was fully satisfied with the creation of an atheist/theist binary, correctly predicting that any successful Afghan government would need to reconcile itself with the profound role that Islam plays in local life.
Two decades later, America found itself in a very different position. Seething with pain and desperate to construct a worldview in which terrorism was both comprehensible and preventable, the United States entered Afghanistan with a radically revised approach to Islam. America’s new “with us or against us” paradigm positioned Western (neo)-liberalism in stark opposition to a retrogressive Islam that was blamed for incubating Osama bin Laden and emboldening those who would race to their own deaths in order to realize his terrifying decrees. A new binary was crafted, pitting Western secularism against an Afghan Islam that was deeply, perhaps exclusively, associated with the Taliban’s efforts to restrict personal freedoms.
This perspective is ever-present in reporting on Afghan media, especially Tolo TV, a privately operated, American-supported, station that currently dominates Afghanistan’s TV market. The station, which currently airs a mixture of international format game shows such as Minute to Win It: Afghanistan, Turkish soap operas and local productions underwritten by American money, has been praised in outlets ranging from The New Yorker to Fox News for its willingness to eschew traditional Islamic values in favor of ratings-grabbing entertainment.
However, this aspect of Western media efforts in Afghanistan is only part of the story, and one that ignores an opposing trend that is every bit as important. Although television has been growing at impressive rates, in the more rural areas in which Talibanism is the most likely return, radio remains the medium of choice. In this market, Radio Azadi, a local affiliate of America’s Radio Free Europe outreach efforts, plays the central role.And Radio Azadi’s programming tells a very different story about Islam. In news coverage, commentary and especially popular radio dramas, American-funded programming stresses the centrality of Islam to a proper and prosperous Afghan life. Instead of disparaging Islam as an inconvenient impediment to giving the people (consumers) what they want, Radio Azadi’s programming attempts to re-interpret Afghan history as a narrative in which a true Islam has been corrupted by uneducated Taliban leaders.
In soap operas such as One Village, One Thousand Voices, produced by the San Francisco-based NGO Equal Access, characters consistently find themselves facing injustice due to Koranic confusion on the part of older Afghans. For example, in one episode a woman is denied her inheritance due to a local interpretation of Islam that restricts property transmission to male heirs. However, in the course of the drama, the characters, and the audience, come to learn that a different, presumably more theologically valid, reading of the Koran ensures female birthrights.
In another instance, a character, Khudaidad, defies his father’s request to visit violence upon a family enemy. Before the actor playing Khudaidad appeared live on Radio Azadi to respond, in character, to listener questions, a group of Afghans and Americans coached the performer on proper Islamic responses to the charge that he had violated the Islamic law of honoring one’s parents. Armed with newly memorized Hadiths, “Khudaidad” was ready to teach a national audience about Muhammad’s declaration that if one’s parent asks him to defy Allah’s will, he should “not obey them,” but nonetheless “accompany them in this world with appropriate kindness.”
In providing these lessons American efforts return to a point of natural alliance between Afghanistan and America, the Western country that remains most strongly committed to the notion that religion can be an important part of ethical governance. The approach to the Koran and Hadiths found in One Village, A Thousand Voices is strongly reminiscent of liberal American politicians who selectively invoke the bible in order to stress that Western society has long been committed to fundamental principles of right and wrong.
At the same time, there is something disconcerting about what might be seen as an effort to not only define right and wrong versions of Islam, but also an attempt to fundamentally separate religion from lived historical experience. While religion might exist in heaven at a theoretical and theological level, in reality it is shaped by daily life. There is no such thing as a religion entirely divorced from the history or its practice. The lessons of One Village, A Thousand Voices, perhaps suggest otherwise.
America’s effort to accept and encourage the role of religion in Afghan life is important and encouraging, especially in contrast to the public celebration of secular, capitalist activity that may yet prove unsustainable. It suggests a realistic approach to the future that refuses the demonization of Islam that has been — at least in certain circles within the United States — central to the rhetoric of the so-called “War on Terror.” Nonetheless, any optimism must be abundantly cautious. The best hope for American interests, and perhaps also human rights, lies in the possibility that today’s better educated generation of young Afghans chooses to take the sorts of lessons put forth in One Village, A Thousand Voices and make them part of the lived experience of Afghan Islam. It will be a slow process and perhaps an unsuccessful one, but it is far better than pretending a country can go straight from theocratic rule to the deification of the free market without suffering the consequences.
Matt Sienkiewicz is an Assistant Professor at Boston College, where he teaches on global media cultures and media theory. He is writing from Afghanistan.