Islam and Afghanistan: A (Limited) Unifying Force

In my time at Penn, the more passionate I became about US/Iran relations, the more frustrated I grew with Penn’s course catalog.  Virtually every other country in the Middle East is studied in classes more frequently.  Case in point: PSCI211: Politics in the Contemporary Middle East by Dr. Robert Vitalis failed to mention Iran in a single lecture or reading (albeit not without reason: find my posts of those papers and you’ll see why).

You can imagine, then, my genuine thrill whenever I came across a class that studied Iran, much less mentioned it in the course title!  NELC281: Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with Dr. Brian Spooner, was a seminar divided into thirds — one for each country.  Each unit was capped off with a written response to one of a few prompts from Professor Spooner, while the term paper was an extended research work dealing with one or more of the countries discussed in the class.

This paper is one of those mid-term analyses, dealing with the role of Islam in Afghanistan.


In what ways is Islam implicated in the current situation in Afghanistan? That is, what difference does it make that the populations of Afghanistan and adjacent countries are almost entirely Muslim?  If they were not Muslim would the situation be different, or could it be essentially the same for other reasons you can suggest?


In Michael Cook’s The Koran: A Very Short Introduction, Cook does an excellent job prefacing the cultural impact of Islam and the modern-day role of fundamentalism.[1]  Coupled with this have been Professor Spooner’s lectures, in which he has emphasized Islam’s reverence for the days of Muhammad and the idealization associated with that time-period.  It is in this context that the current situation in Afghanistan is playing out.  In order to understand the interplay between Islam and modern Afghanistan, this paper will first outline the modern history of Afghanistan, so as to put the role of Islam in context.  Second, the author will make the case for Islam’s critical role in the current situation in Afghanistan.

Modern History

The story of Afghanistan’s modern history starts off as one of political détente between two stronger countries.  As Britain was consolidating its hold over colonial India, Russia was paying very close attention to its southern border.  Afghanistan, being caught in the middle, was soon turned into a hotbed for espionage and intelligence activities between Russia and Britain.  The end result of this international chess game was to formalize national boundaries around Afghanistan to serve as a buffer-zone between India and Russia, borders which have survived into the present day.

While Afghanistan’s history includes stretches of imperial rule, these boundaries as drawn by the Europeans had no prior political significance to the people of Afghanistan.  Political ordering centered on the relationship between cities and their surrounding rural areas.  Tribal relationships were the principal units within this ordering, and those tribes were differentiated by kinship ties and ethnic and linguistic differences.  Thus, the borders as drawn by outsiders were thrust upon the people of Afghanistan, with little to no understanding of the divisions being artificially created.  As a result, many different ethnic groups suddenly straddled two different nations.  By way of example, Afghanistan shares Baluchis with Pakistan, Tajiks with Iran, and Uzbeks with Uzbekistan.

For decades, the people within these borders were essentially isolated from the goings on of the world.  Trading routes that had previously flourished dried up.  This in turn resulted in a changed dynamic between cities and their surrounding areas, with cities declining in relative power.  Tribalism, on the other hand, grew during this time.  With this political and economic stagnancy came constancy and stability.  As we will see, this lack of change will prove to be a formative period for modern Afghanistan.

It was, however, not to last.  It is at this point that David Edwards in Before Taliban essentially begins his genealogy.  During the Cold War, Communist ideology grew in influence among the military and educated parts of society.[2]  Backed by the military, Taraki and the Khalqi party overthrew the government of President Daud in the Saur Revolution of 1978.  Taraki then embarked on a program of fundamental change, in line with his communist beliefs.  For example, two of the new regime’s decrees initiated a program of land reform and took a progressive stance on women’s rights.[3]  Such topics were traditionally the domain of tribes and the source of authority for any decisions therein came from local, religious elders – not the secular government leaders.  Most controversial of all to the traditional forces in Afghanistan, was the Communist aversion to the very idea of religion itself.  In little time, the pendulum swung the other way, and a counter-revolution ensued.  The Soviet Union, defending a fellow communist government in need, invaded Afghanistan and fought the religious counter-revolutionaries for a decade before retreating.  A period of Taliban rule followed, during which Taraki’s changes were undone.  Then in 2003, America invaded Afghanistan and dismantled the Taliban government.  Since then, the process of nation-building has forced the people of Afghanistan to undergo rapid changes to the present day.

Role of Islam

“Sixty years of tyranny are preferable to one year of disorder.”[4]  As we’ve learned in lecture, Islam isn’t just a religion – it sets out to be a simple method for organizing all aspects of life.  The foregoing quotation is meant to illustrate the emphasis on the ability to practice Islam.  That is, periods of unrest – such as those under the Taraki Regime, during the Soviet occupation, and today with the American and NATO presence – are ultimately impediments on the ability of day-to-day people to practice Islam.  These periods of instability are met with a strong desire to return to calmer days.  Viewed within this context, any outside interference runs counter to the organizing and stabilizing element of Islamic life.  Afghanistan’s strong history of tribalism and the resulting decades of stability, imply that any higher form of governance or authority (ranging from an Afghani government in Kabul to NATO troops) is unwelcome at best and unnatural at worst.

This analysis is consistent with the portrayal of Afghanistan in both Rory’s Stewart’s book, The Places in Between, and David Edward’s documentary “Life in Kabul in 2005.”  Stewart relies on the tradition of hospitality as he walks across Afghanistan, but even then he encounters some tribes so averse to outsiders that they refuse to host him and his guides.[5]  In Edward’s documentary, NATO and Soviet occupation are portrayed as being cut from the same cloth – both are an imposition on Afghanistan’s way of life and detract from practicing Islam.  In one of the interviews, a tribesman treated both NATO and the Soviets the same way: there was violence during the battle with the Soviets, it persisted even after the Mujahedeen victory, and then the American B-52 bombers came.  Certainly, the public works being done by NATO are appreciated by those shown in the film.  But the hassles thrust upon the country’s people and bureaucracy as evidenced by the huge strain on the police force and the public perception of corruption have produced a society torn apart.  In short, it is exactly the kind of chaos that Islam seeks to avoid at all costs.

At the same time, Islam plays a limited role as a unifying force.  Certainly, the common religion serves as a point of connectivity between different ethnic groups that don’t even speak the same language.  But these kinship ties still take precedence over a wide-reaching sense of religious unity, hence the dominance of tribes based on ethnicity.  What’s important to understand, however, is that this sense of tribal emphasis is in and of itself a manifestation of Islam.  Through promoting social order, constancy, and stability, tribalism is Afghanistan’s best answer to-date when it comes to securing a day-to-day life in which Islam can be practiced without distraction.  Thus, the current situation in Afghanistan with regards to the difficulties of holding together this patchwork of ethnicities is a cultural byproduct of Islam for a people that have had change and unrest thrust upon them after decades of stagnancy in which tribes were the source of security.

[1] Cook, Michael, The Koran: A Very Short Introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[2] David Edwards, Before Taliban, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 55.

[3] Edwards, 66.

[4] Professor Spooner, Feb 16 lecture.

[5] Stewart, Rory, The Places in Between, (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2004), 56-58.