Television and the Afghan Culture Wars
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Television and the Afghan Culture Wars

Brought to You by Foreigners, Warlords, and Activists

Wazhmah Osman

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eBook - ePub

Television and the Afghan Culture Wars

Brought to You by Foreigners, Warlords, and Activists

Wazhmah Osman

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About This Book

Portrayed in Western discourse as tribal and traditional, Afghans have in fact intensely debated women's rights, democracy, modernity, and Islam as part of their nation building in the post-9/11 era. Wazhmah Osman places television at the heart of these public and politically charged clashes while revealing how the medium also provides war-weary Afghans with a semblance of open discussion and healing. After four decades of gender and sectarian violence, she argues, the internationally funded media sector has the potential to bring about justice, national integration, and peace.

Fieldwork from across Afghanistan allowed Osman to record the voices of many Afghan media producers and people. Afghans offer their own seldom-heard views on the country's cultural progress and belief systems, their understandings of themselves, and the role of international interventions. Osman analyzes the impact of transnational media and foreign funding while keeping the focus on local cultural contestations, productions, and social movements. As a result, she redirects the global dialogue about Afghanistan to Afghans and challenges top-down narratives of humanitarian development.

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Legitimizing Modernization

Indigenous Modernities, Foreign Incursions, and Their Backlashes

Western history has had an overriding importance—for good or ill—in the making of the modern world. The history of modern Western thought, for example, can be (and is) written on its own, but not so the history of contemporary Arab thought. One opposition between the West and the non-West (and so a mode of connection between them) is constructed historically by these asymmetrical desires and indifferences.
—Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam
The bitter truth about our present is our subjection, our inability to be subjects in our own right. And yet, it is because we want to be modern that our desire to be independent and creative is transposed on to our past. It is superfluous to call this an imagined past, because pasts are always imagined.
—Partha Chatterjee, “Our Modernity”
The history of the “modernizing” world is often written as one of failed imitation of the West—failures of secular democracy, failures of nationalism, failures of enlightened modernity, failures due to the pull of tradition, travesties of modernity. But in recent years, a number of theorists of the postcolonial have been thinking more creatively about the encounter between West and East. They have pursued the analytical implications of the insight that modernity is a construct and an organizing trope, especially for the national developmentalist successors of colonial regimes. They have also suggested that translation, hybridization, and even dislocation might be more useful metaphors than imitation, assimilation (forced or attempted), or rejection for grasping what happened in the colonial encounter.
—Lila Abu-Lughod, Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East
IN ORDER TO HAVE A HOLISTIC understanding of the present-day situation of Afghanistan, at least a preliminary understanding of Afghan history is necessary not only for contextualization purposes but also because the past is particularly present in today’s Afghanistan. In a present plagued with constant reminders of war and its aftermath and fallout, such as lawlessness, corruption, violence, and the rise of conservatism, the past becomes a source of pride and hope, a reminder of a time of peace, moderation, and progress. Afghans enact their attachments to different historical periods daily to support their progressive and reformist ideas and make rights-based claims. In the current culture wars—for human rights and media rights activists as well as for other progressives and conservatives—the past is essential to the authentication and legitimizing of what constitutes a “true” Afghan culture.
This is because since the creation of the nation there has been a long history of foreign manipulation, control, and invasions, which has made Afghans extremely suspicious of foreign influence or involvement. During British colonial rule of the region, the British tried to build railroad tracks to stretch their empire. Fearing foreign invasion and influence, Afghans in tribal areas repeatedly destroyed their “iron horse.” As a result, whereas India and Pakistan have intricate national railroad systems, Afghanistan did not have any to speak of until this last decade. (There are now two railway lines.)1 But Afghans are equally dubious of national projects, which they deem transgressions against their local independence and autonomy. In the same manner, today the Taliban and other religio-tribal groups destroy the foreign-funded telecommunication satellite towers that transmit and broadcast signals for wireless telephones, radios, and televisions (Killid Group 2016).
Due to the many incursions and invasions from the West and Soviet north, Afghans are suspect of foreign interventions. The pejorative Persian word gharbzadegi, a term first coined by Iranian intellectuals, literally translates to being hit or struck by the West but is commonly translated as “Westoxification,” referring to the negative influence of Western culture and values.
Mindful of this, media makers know they must demonstrate that their agendas, platforms, and programs are deeply rooted within Afghan culture and history. As agents of change on the forefront of the culture wars, television producers also try to buttress their work from government, tribal, and religious censors not only by appealing to their present-day popular support but also by calling on mahaly or “indigenous” modernity movements of the past.2 Therefore in this chapter I highlight a few key historical movements of reform and modernity in Afghanistan, along with the backlash against them.
Of course, Afghan history is just as contentious as the Afghan culture wars; this is as true among Afghans themselves as it is between Afghans and non-Afghans. In fact a significant part of the media culture wars is over the interpretation of Afghan history. Here I offer one history of the last century organized around the theme of modernizing moments, drawing from academic research as well as from my lived experiences and oral traditions.
As postcolonial scholars from a variety of disciplines have shown, the history of the Global South and East has always been written as one of failure and Othering by the Global North and West (Abrahamian 2008; Abu-Lughod 1998; Asad 1993; Chatterjee 1997; Fahmy 2009; T. Mitchell 1991, 2002a, 2002b). Afghanistan is no exception. In order to justify Western colonial and neocolonial rule and violence, the vast majority of Afghanistan studies scholars conform to a view of Afghan history that is a narrative of failure and despotism. This ideologically problematic narrative presents Afghanistan as a static culture and Afghan people as bound by problematic, anti-modern, archaic traditions and tribalism. In popular culture and academia, the people are represented as fierce, militant, isolationist, and inherently against the forces of cultural exchange and international globalizing forces.
In Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation (2015), historian Robert Crews offers a refreshingly alternative view, one that focuses on historical change and global interconnections, and explains the insidiousness of this prevailing racist image: “The most enduring image of Afghanistan evokes a desolate, inward-looking, and isolated place. Numerous twentieth-century writers mythologized this ‘hermit kingdom’ over and over, claiming that its ostensibly primitive inhabitants have remained immobilized in time and space in a morass. … Ancient tribes reign supreme, undergirded by patriarchy and xenophobic religious authority. Ethnic chauvinism trumps ideas. And loyalty goes to the highest bidder. A French ethnologist sketched out most of this forbidding picture already in the late nineteenth century when he wrote, ‘The Afghans do not have a history, because anarchy has none’” (3). Today in development circles and in international relations and political science terminology, Afghanistan is frequently described as a “failed,” “broken,” “fragmented,” or “collapsed” nation (Ghani and Lockhart 2008; B. Rubin 2002; Coburn and Larson 2014), terms that have replaced the earlier classifications of “late state formation,” “the rentier state,” and “third world despotism” (B. Rubin 2002).
The pervasive colonial and neocolonial rhetoric of “failure” is frequently used as a teleological framework to prejudge Afghanistan and its people as dehumanizing caricatures. Modernity and democracy, with their indicators of human rights, economic/class parity, and social mobility, have been wielded to applaud the progress of the Global West and North and condemn the failures of the Global East and South. Modernity and its counterpart, progress, have become the ultimate litmus tests to judge countries and their leaders. Through the lens of modernization theory, progress is the variable factor on the linear path to modernity. The theory assumes that Western nations have achieved modernity and progressed in terms of providing rights for their subaltern populations such as women and religious and ethnic/racial minorities. Based on these already biased assumptions, “third world” nations are scrutinized to determine the degree of their progress or lack thereof. Questions are asked as to how much, how little, how fast, or how slow they have progressed. Western experts substantiate their deductive and inductive claims—such as the claim that third world nations rank poorly in comparison with first world nations—via theories and methods of measurement that abstract, generalize, and interchange MENASA3 (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) countries without crucial in-depth analysis. Theories of the “rentier state,” “third world despotism,” and “game theory” may have useful applications in some contexts, but in the case of Afghanistan, they have been applied in ways that are simplistic and problematic.
Whether modernity and democracy have actually advanced or improved the lives of human beings has been explored in depth by poststructuralist, postcolonial, and feminist scholars. Such scholars situate colonialism, imperialism, and slavery as central to the projects of modernity and democracy. Michel Foucault analyzed the institutions of the modern state and how they constructed and normalized an individual’s sense of self and sexuality by disciplining the body (Foucault 1988). Partha Chatterjee and other subaltern studies scholars have shown the duplicity of Western enlightenment theory, especially democracy, when applied by the British Empire to India (Chatterjee 1997). In addition to the institutions of the prison and hospital, the family was structured and normalized to perpetuate the status quo. Likewise, as Lila Abu-Lughod (2005) and Timothy Mitchell (1991) have demonstrated in the case of Egypt, the state’s endorsements of the nuclear family, heterosexual marriage, and individualism extended its reach into the domestic and private spheres and weakened the power of traditional communal structures and ties. As they have effectively argued, the “premodern” society, lacking organized mechanisms of surveillance, policing, identification, and other modern apparatuses, can be a freer and more empowering society for subaltern people. While I agree with these apt criticisms of the apparent virtues of modernity and democracy and that some traditional practices are worthy of further exploration and preservation, my intent here is not to add to them, as I have done elsewhere. For the purposes of this book, I am taking modernity and democracy at face value and analyzing them on their own terms because, for better or worse, they have been used as an organizing trope and system of ordering and ranking countries and civilizations.

Social Movements, Indigenous Modernities, and Transcultural Hybridity

The dominant “failed state” paradigm thereby erases not only historical moments of achievements, such as periods of democratization and modernization, but also the fundamental agency, creativity, and intellect of the Afghan people. With this in mind, I have provided in this chapter a condensed history of the last century’s reform and modernity projects by highlighting a few of the key movements and their repercussions. Here I rely on and build upon the work of a small but notable group of Afghanistan studies scholars (Adamec 1974, 2005; Crews 2015; Crews and Osman, forthcoming; L. Dupree 1973; N. Dupree 1984, 1988; Gregorian [1969] 2013; Nawid 2000; Shahrani and Canfield 1984) who have defied this trend in the Western academy by producing nuanced work. We situate our work within the broader fields of postcolonial studies, cultural studies, performance studies, and revisionist history and use approaches that demonstrate the complexity of cross-national and cross-cultural encounters. This approach goes beyond the dominant framework of failed imitation of the West and acquiescence to Western culture and values (forced or consensual), that is, the homogenization thesis. It also goes beyond complete rejection and resistance to all things Western. By taking into account factors such as alliances and divisions between hegemonic/democratic, elite/non-elite, and urban/rural vectors between countries, these scholars have demonstrated the inherent complexity and cultural hybridity of global phenomena (Kraidy 2005; García Canclini 1995; Appadurai 1996b). Even in cases of imperialism and subjugation of a weaker entity by a stronger one, these scholars have shown how cross-cultural and cross-national encounters are discursive processes that result in a degree of exchange and mixing that leave their imprint on both sides. Robert Crews explains, “It was as subjects of empire that residents of places such as Kabul and Kandahar came into contact with cosmopolitan court cultures in Isfahan, Delhi, Agra, Samarkand, and elsewhere. These imperial contexts proved fertile ground for state-building projects” (2015, 6). However, Crews continues that these empires also left their negative mark on Afghan history: “It was in this setting that the opponents of these Afghan political movements [for independence] began to circulate narratives about the supposedly ‘wild,’ ‘unruly,’ and ‘warlike’ Afghan, an idea that subsequent observers would take up and apply to very different contexts, even in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary” (6).
In best-case scenarios, global encounters can be mutually constitutive. Arjun Appadurai refers to this process as “indigenization,” which is also the word that the Afghan reformers I spoke to use but in a different way. Afghan reformers use the Dari and Pashto word mahaly, meaning “of the people and land,” to describe and defend their modernization projects that they believe have roots in Afghan culture and history. Appadurai argues that “the homogenization argument subspeciates into either an argument about Americanization or an argument about commoditization, and very often the two arguments are closely linked. What these arguments fail to consider is that at least as rapidly as forces from various metropolises are brought into new societies, they tend to become indigenized” (1996a, 32). However, Appadurai does not discuss that the reverse is also true, that weaker states affect stronger ones.4
Here it is also important to raise Marwan Kraidy’s warning. Kraidy explains in his book Hybridity, or the Cultural Logic of Globalization that while hybridization is “a productive theoretical orientation” compared with its predecessors, it must be invoked critically, what he calls “critical transculturalism,” since if applied without taking hegemony, power, and inequality into account, it can be used to strengthen the position of globalizationists: “Hybridity entails that traces of other cultures exist in every culture, thus offering foreign media and marketers transcultural wedges for forging affective links between their commodities and local communities … and hides its inherent contradictions as it mystifies globalization’s material effects” (2005, 148). In other words, even though the cultural hybridity and homogenization theses challenge globalization theory, both have been subsequently used to justify globalization and hide the negative consequences and asymmetrical aspects of global encounters. For example, John Tomlinson argues that cultural diversity is not always worth defending and that in some cases homogenization or the influence and transmittance of Western values is a good thing, especially if it is replacing dangerous anti–human rights traditions (2002). This is similar to Ithiel de Sola Pool’s claim that “the Americanization of the world so often commented on and often deplored might be better described as the discovery of what world cultural tastes actually are” (1979, 145). While these claims in support of human rights and the universal appeal of Western ideas, lifestyles, and products might sound innocuous and even agreeable, it is important to think through their underlying assumptions. Arguments in support of the Westernization of the world are embedded in dubious neoliberal “free market” logic and Western-centric assumptions that all Western values are inherently positive and that the West is the forebear of human rights and democracy.
Challenging Westernization- and homogenization-friendly arguments requires a deep dive into local cultural contestations and social movements. Only by paying close attention to how global encounters unfold on the ground and intersect with local cultures and history can we complicate the false binaries between Eastern religiosity/traditionalism versus Western modernity/secularism, which fuel simplistic and inaccurate discourses of Eastern despotism and failure against Western progress, development, and humanitarian/human rights interventions (Asad 1993, 2003; Chatterjee 1997; Göle and Ammann 2006; Mahmood 2005; Hirschkind and Mahmood 2002; T. Mitchell 2002a, 2002b; Wilkins 2010). For example, contrary to the stratified belief that the US government has been the bearer of democracy and human rights in MENASA countries, the postcolonial scholar Timothy Mitchell explains in his article “McJihad: Islam in the US Global Order” that American financial and military support for the ultra-religious Afghan and Pakistani groups was neither random nor coincidental. “When other governments moved closer to the United States—Egypt under Anwar Sadat in the 1970s, Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s—their political rhetoric and modes of legitimation became avowedly more Islamic” (2002a, 1).5 Likewise during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the CIA clandestinely funded some of the most conservative elements of the Afghan population. As many journalists and scholars have reported, the Bush administration, in conjunction with the US oil company UNOCAL, also actively wined and dined the Taliban regime at the start of their ascent to power in an attempt to negotiate building a $2 billion pipeline that would run through and tap into Afghanistan’s vast oil reserves (Cloud 2006; Hirschkind and Mahmood 2002; T. Mitchell 2002a; Rashid 2001). These are the types of critical nuance that are often missing from the hegemonic American discourse and that I will direct readers’ attention to in this chapter.

Early Culture Wars: Key Historical Moments

Instead of starting from the premise of these false mythologies, binaries, and tropes that present Afghans as anomalous prehistoric creatures outside of modern time and space, the revisionist postcolonial scholars I mentioned in the last section treat Afghans as just as creative and global as any other group of people. In the same vein, in our forthcoming book Afghanistan: A Very Short Introduction, Robert Crews and I aim to redress and rectify the dominant interpretation: “Rather than view Afghanistan as a benighted land frozen in time, this book tells the story of the dramatic changes of the last five centuries that have transformed the lives of Afghans and how Afghans have transformed the forces around them too. We link Afghanistan to societies and cultures in South and Central Asia, the Middle East, and across the globe. Afghanistan is a product of modern globalizing forces. Like so many countries, Afghanistan today reflects the imprint of empires, nationalism, capitalism, communism, Islamism, global drugs trade, and so forth” (n.p.). This historical chapter aims to highlight a few of these sociopolitical movements and ruptures, wit...

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