Narrating the Afghan story

Haitham Abdel-Samad
Friday 3 Sep 2021

New approaches in political science are restoring content and perspective to this academic discipline in a bid better to understand the Afghan and other crises

Everyone everywhere right now is talking, and rightly so, about Afghanistan. However, the result has been an endless pile of information that is difficult to grasp. 

High-quality journalism is diligently working on making sense of these complex events. Nonetheless, academics have been noticeably absent, at least publicly. In times of crisis, like the Covid-19 pandemic for instance, experts are instrumental in educating society, clearing up misconceptions and shedding light on problems that require urgent solutions. When it comes to current news, however, political scientists seem to hide from the public eye. And the public seems to be indifferent. 

A newly created academic sub-discipline called Critical Terrorism Studies (CTS) might be our best hope for changing this unfortunate state of affairs. This small group of academics has decided to climb down from the ivory tower of academia, not to ‘reclaim’ political science’s “epistemic authority” (of or relating to knowledge), but to ‘rebuild’ it. 

Among CTS’s main critiques are: the dominance of traditional research, which suppresses critical approaches, and the Western hegemony in political science, which marginalises all other perspectives. Denouncing this combination of orthodoxy and eurocentrism, CTS is trying to rebuild the field by including more countries from the Global South, such as Afghanistan, in their scope. Furthermore, it is coming up with alternative ways of conducting research, such as going beyond “what” is being said or done and asking “how” and “why”, ie, highlighting the importance of ‘narratives’.  

The current events in Afghanistan have received considerable global media attention, but with little heed as to ‘the way’ they are being narrated and for what ‘purpose’. Jean-François Lyotard, the famed French intellectual, points out that every culture has its own narrative(s), a set of stories about itself and others. These narratives shape how a society relates to ‘itself’ and to ‘other’ societies. On a global level, however, some narratives tend to dominate. 

These “grand-narratives” tend to be associated with hegemonic powers, and there is little to no correlation between their dominance and their factual, ethical and normative value. If history is a “fable agreed upon,” then these narratives are the pages of its story. It is important to pay some attention to the stories that are being told ‘about’ Afghanistan and the strategic purposes that they serve. The following are some examples of such “grand-narratives” that have been propagated, mostly by the US government, since the beginning of the Afghan War in 2001 until the recent military withdrawal 20 years later. 

“The West knows best:” This refers to the idea of democratisation and state-building. Both concepts have often been misused to justify foreign intervention. Former US president George W Bush made the case that the war would “give the Afghans democracy,” thus uninvitedly speaking ‘in the name’ of Afghanistan’s population and ‘assuming’ their preferences. 

“Afghanistan as a breeding ground for fanatics:” This narrative seeks to portray the Taliban as a systemic consequence ‘of’ the Afghan country instead as a problem ‘for’ it. Just as an infested soil will always produce infested plants, terrorism here is implied to be endemic to the country itself. This serves as a justification for both intervention and withdrawal. 

“Afghan people are different from us:’ To justify, downplay or marginalise discussions regarding practices of torture (prisoners), destruction (culture, infrastructure) or displacement (of millions of Afghans), dehumanising narratives must be created. By defining oneself with a certain set of characteristics (civilised, educated, cultured, etc.), it becomes increasingly difficult to empathise with ‘the other’ – someone who seems to be the polar opposite (wild, barbaric, fanatical, anti-American, etc.). This is facilitated by highlighting and focusing on the religious and racial differences of the Afghans. As a result, videos of Afghan civilians chasing US air force airplanes to flee from the Taliban may become viral, but they rarely cause ‘significant’ outrage. 

“Silence:” This narrative is the most subtle, yet in many ways it is the most potent. It relates to strategic silence on a specific issue to prevent giving it importance. Hegemonies express their power not only by what they say, but also through what they choose not to say. For example, Afghan women are currently facing an immense degree of insecurity regarding their physical safety, their personal freedom and their hard-earned rights. Over the past 20 years, numerous policies, studies and projects have alleged that the liberation of Afghan women was their objective. Today’s de facto silence of these actors has dismantled their insincerity and shown how they have used Afghan women as rhetorical/political/academic talking points. 

When looking at a painting, our eyes tend to naturally gravitate towards the centre. But what is left on the margins is left on the margins for a reason. In a sense, it can tell us more about the centre than the centre itself. Nonetheless, traditional political science has turned a blind eye to this for too long, and now CTS is trying to bring the fringes back to the centre of our attention; both in terms of content (that which surrounds and lies beneath the facts – narratives) and in terms of perspective (those whose narratives dominate – hegemonies). 

Let us hope that more academics follow suit, for only then people might stop asking them “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” – a sarcastic challenge and a metaphor for devoting time to issues with no societal value. 

*The writer is the general secretary of the IISES, a Vienna-based think tank for social and economic studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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