The Unholy Alliance of Orientalism, Ethnocentrism, Misogynism, and Terrorism, Part II: Five False Narratives of Orientalist Taliban Apologists
Orientalist narratives are once again displacing the interests and needs of Afghans. Orientalists are some so-called international “experts of Afghanistan'' who make policies, produce opinions and analyses, attend panels, and offer interviews about Afghans, Afghanistan, and the Taliban, but whose analyses, ideas, and prescriptions exhibit a lack of basic understanding of a very complex society. Only a handful of Western analysts know even a small part of the cultures, languages, religion, economic and political history in Afghanistan. Drawing on a long history of Western contemptuous depiction of Asian societies, orientalist narratives about Afghanistan tend to rely on over-generalisations, misappropriations, and arrogance. A new set of Orientalist narratives are deliberately romanticising the Taliban as the natural rulers of Afghanistan. This is a dangerous and flawed strategy emerging in at least five false narratives about the Afghan society and the Taliban.
Narrative 1. Some orientalists have been on the crusade of convincing the international community that the Taliban have changed. Zalmai Khalilzad, the United States’ lead negotiator on the disastrous Doha Agreement with the Taliban, has remained steadfast that “the Taliban have changed” and they would not violate human rights and liberty of citizens. Sir Nick Carter, the UK Armed Force Chief General, echoed this narrative on different platforms. Taliban 2.0 is a fabrication of Zalmai Khalilzad, Gen. Nick Carter, and others in cahoots with Taliban and their regional allies such as Pakistan, Iran, and Qatar, painting a rosy picture of the Taliban internationally. In reality, some human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and even UN Human Rights Council have documented the widespread human rights abuses and the absence of any behavioral and policy changes in the Taliban.
Narrative 2. Another Orientalist narrative generalises the Taliban’s extremism to the entire Afghan population as if the Taliban are the natural representative of Afghans. Sir Nick Carter, UK Armed Forces Chief, called the Taliban “country boys with a code of honor.” This statement not only profiles ordinary Afghans as another Taliban but also equates the violent extremism of the Taliban with the socio-cultural norms of a tremendously diverse Afghanistan. Khola Hasan, in the same BBC interview, while synonymizing the Taliban with Afghans, argues that “foreigners have ruled them for 40 years, let the people of Afghanistan rule their own country and determine their own fate for change.” Turning a blind eye to the Afghan people’s continued civil and political resistance against the Taliban, both statements presume that Afghan society is just as violent and extremist as the Taliban.
Narrative 3. A third orientalist narrative portrays Afghan society as backward, savage, wicked, and hostile, and its people as destined to fail and live miserable lives. Helmed by President Joe Biden, this narrative suggests that the Taliban’s return to power was almost natural, justifying their own defeat against the Taliban, a militarily weaker group. This is a politically convenient narrative exonerating the United States and international allies from any wrongdoings, including rushing a flawed constitutional vision at the expense of Afghan public consultations and consensus building among ethnic groups (2002-2004), and releasing over 5000 Taliban prisoners and their key commanders right when they were advancing across Afghanistan (2020-2021). President Biden has made similar statements such as “[Afghanistan] cannot be put together” and “[Afghanistan] is three different countries. Pakistan owns … three provinces in the east.” Stigmatising the Afghan population, these assertions show a lack of both empathy and understanding of the Afghan society and virtually normalises the domination of one sovereign nation by another. In one of his presidential addresses, Biden went even further, suggesting that Afghanistan turned into a “graveyard of empires” as no force was able to “deliver a stable, united, and secure Afghanistan.” This statement implies that all foreign invaders of Afghanistan had the altruistic goal of state-building there. To validate his claims, Biden often referred to his several brief trips to Afghanistan, an orientalist approach that most Westerners have found befitting to substantiate their claims of expertise in an Orient region. Alexander Hainy-Khaleeli challenged Biden’s narrative noting this: “Biden labeling Afghanistan “the graveyard of empires” is, at best, historically illiterate and, at worst, utterly self-serving. It not only negates thousands of years of Afghanistan’s history as a flourishing center of civilization but also—in the act of supreme imperial hubris—shifts the blame for U.S. failures there onto the land and people of Afghanistan themselves.”
Meanwhile, some Western think tanks, universities, media, and even international organisations have remained complicit by holding conferences and talks about Afghanistan without representation from the Afghan people. Since August 2021, hundreds of panels, discussions, and interviews have been held about Afghanistan, but most have taken place in the absence of any Afghan panelist. Some events have invited Taliban apologists, and others, former government officials, known for their corruption. The United Nations Security Council, however, outbid all by hosting Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for education, to speak on behalf of Afghan women at a time when Afghans, by and large, blamed Pakistan for its complicity in return of the Taliban.
Narrative 4. A varied orientalist narrative draws a primordialist image of Afghans whose lives are supposedly entirely divorced from the regime and political changes in Afghanistan. Anand Gopal’s condescending piece in the New Yorker, based on an anecdote about the miseries of a poor, widowed woman in Helmand, portrays an Afghan society that lacks any aspirations, ideals, imaginations, and care for their surroundings and themselves. This piece concludes that the outcries of women in the big cities should not matter since the rural women are larger in population and are divorced from political changes in Kabul. This piece, which received lots of attention and applause at the time, failed to account for the rich diversity of rural Afghanistan and the continued civil unrest of Afghan women across Afghanistan for their rights and education, including in provinces far from Kabul. More apparent was its call for a total disregard for the plight of Afghan women living in the cities.
Narrative 5. A fourth group of Taliban apologists includes some so-called human rights and peace activists and organisations, which I refer to as entrepreneurs of human rights and peace. For these individuals and organisations, human rights, peace, and development are not a set of human values to be promoted but commodities from which they can make a profit. They seek such an investment in any context and at any cost to the host population. Some go the extra mile to deal with and normalise the main perpetrators of human rights violations. A good example of this is a flattering report published by The Guardian about the Geneva Call’s training program for the Taliban soldiers to ensure “respect of the International Humanitarian Law.” Published in April 2022, this report was titled “I am sure they will change” based on a quote from the Geneva Call, which maintains that they have already been able to change the mindset of the Taliban while showing little in practice to substantiate that. Contrary to these reports and advertisements, time showed only an increase in the Taliban’s suppression of civil rights, particularly those of women.
In this early twenty-first century, we are living in a world where a misogynist, genocidal, and terrorist group is not only normalised by some so-called experts, activists, and policymakers but also given platforms at the international level by authoritarian and democratic states alike. Such orientalist narratives suddenly overlook West’s most favorite fashionable concepts like justice, representation, and respect for human rights, and justify extremism when it occurs elsewhere and victimises someone else. The politics of this world has transformed human rights from basic human values to bargaining chips, human rights advocacy to massive money-making ventures, and duplicity and treacherousness to realpolitik. Our ideals, our power of imagination, and our plight for peace and better lives are buried within the smallest possible compasses by some spineless politicians, tribal media and “experts,” and some international organisations seeking comfort in the worst possible regimes on the planet. It is a bad omen for the rest of the century and a permanent stain on the face of the Taliban apologists, both Afghans and non-Afghans.
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