Anthropology and the Representation of Migrations from Afghanistan

[This is a paper that was originally published under the title of “Anthropology and the Representation of Recent Migrations from Afghanistan,” as it appeared in Rethinking Refuge and Displacement: Selected Papers on Refugees and Immigrants, Volume VIII, 2000. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association. Eds. E. M. Godziak and D. J. Shandy. Pp. 291-321. Given the intense interest in Afghanistan today, this article is made available on this site in the interest of wider accessibility. Copyright remains with the author.]

The April 1978 revolution in Afghanistan and the subsequent armed intervention in the country by the Soviet Union in December 1979 prompted millions of Afghans to migrate to Iran and Pakistan. About 200,000 of these migrants were resettled in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Thousands of others have moved to the Gulf States, India, Russia, and Turkey. This paper provides a critical analysis of selected writings by anthropologists regarding these Afghan migrants. With minor exceptions, these writings are passionately political, narrow in scope, anti-Russian, and designed to embarrass the USSR and the Revolutionary Government of Afghanistan. The author argues, however, that the vast majority of Afghans who left Afghanistan were economic migrants and suggests that the anthropological analysis of recent migrations from the country needs to be framed in historical processes, global capitalism, and the Cold-War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Anthropologists often bemoan their perceived lack of impact on public policy and discourse. In the case of Afghanistan, as I will demonstrate, the opposite is true. Anthropologists are products of the ideological environments in which they live; the writings on recent migrations from Afghanistan by anthropologists are framed by passionate politicized discourse.

Ethnography can be seen as a means by which anthropology, or the systematic study and understanding of the human condition, is achieved.1 Ethnographic writings on Afghan migrants have tended to fall into two categories: macro-and micro-specialist writings. Both forms, I propose, are framed by political opposition to the Soviet Union and the post-1978 revolutionary government of Afghanistan.

The study of spatial and social movements of people has been an important dimension of anthropological discourse. The migration of millions of people within and from Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s offered a unique opportunity for anthropologists to study center-periphery relations and to gain new insights into population movements produced by regional and global political, economic, and historical processes. In addition, these population movements provided the potential for informing our anthropological understanding of the adaptation processes of diverse ethnic groups from Afghanistan who found themselves in new, challenging socio-cultural environments in Iran, Pakistan, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere.

In this paper, I argue that the politicization of the study of Afghan migration has resulted in a missed opportunity and therefore produced meager theoretical and ethnographic contributions to the understanding of migration and population dynamics, Islam and social movements, social change, and tribe and central government relations in Afghanistan. As part of its main argument this paper offers an assessment of selected aspects of writings by primarily North American anthropologists about migrants who left Afghanistan after the 1978 takeover of the government by the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), locally called Khalq (masses). This change in government marks a profound discursive shift in the anthropology of Afghanistan, making it unambiguously and viscerally political. Descriptive texts produced in pre-revolutionary years were replaced by undisguised anti-Afghanistan discourse and jehad (agitation, struggle) promoting anti-revolutionary political rhetoric.2

In the following sections, the dominant paradigm in which Afghan migrants are characterized as political refugees rather than economic migrants is examined. This will be followed by background information to situate these migrants and ethnographic accounts about them within a larger geo-political context. Against this backdrop, the paper explores the engagement between Western anthropology and these migrants. Particular emphasis is placed on the ways in which anthropology becomes politicized in contexts of ideological warfare.


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