Distorting Theory and Misreading Society in Afghanistan

This is in response to M. Nazif Shahrani’s piece titled “The Taliban Enigma: Person-Centered Politics & Extremism in Afghanistan” published in ISIM Newsletter 6, October 2000, pp. 20-21. Crucial ethnographic details, structural principles and historical processes, especially those dealing with social inequality and political instability in contemporary Afghanistan, are misunderstood, garbled, and oversimplified by the author. Shahrani deliberately distorts a number of theoretical views in the social sciences and ethnographic facts apparently in order to fit his confused conception of history, society, and relations of power in Afghanistan.

The author has the habit of invoking well-known authors and their theoretical frameworks without spelling out his understanding of them. It is rather curious that a Western trained Afghan (Uzbek) “anthropologist” anchors an ostensibly anthropological analysis of social conditions in a complex Central Asian society and culture in judgmental idioms borrowed from a Western economist whose Eurocentric ideas of “efficiency” and “poor performance” are merely codes for condemning non-European, non-industrial societies. Perhaps unwittingly, Shahrani plays into the hand of European racism when he invokes the economist Douglass C. North’s notions of “persistent poor performance” in his interpretation of Afghan history, society. North’s approach is inherently incompatible with the basic tenants of anthropology. In the opening sentence of his piece, a quotation from North, Shahrani deceptively inserts his own words “socio-political and economic” without an explanation. North’s institutional analysis is aimed specifically at Western notions of various forms of material “efficiency” and Western views of “the consequences of institutions for economic (or societal) performance” (parenthesis in the original, emphasis added)1, not what Shahrani first calls “socio-political” and three sentences later “political culture.” More importantly, Shahrani makes no attempt to apply North’s understanding of “efficiency” and “poor performance” to any specific set of social and economic conditions in Afghanistan. His essay contains neither a description nor analysis of ethnographic or statistical economic data on Afghanistan, leaving the reader in the dark with the mere abstraction of “political ecological and socio-economic realities shaping the contest” in Afghanistan. Questions about the nature of “political ecological and socio-economic realities”, “the contest”, the contestants, issues and stakes in the contest, and the regional and global contexts of the contest remain unanswered. An anthropological analysis would treat this contest as a predictable adaptive response and process transpiring at the inevitable confluence of the historical past and the ethnographic present and would dispassionately spell out the specific ethnographic “realities” involved and not merely wax condemnations of Paxtun society and culture in Afghanistan

To Shahrani “person-centered politics” is the “crucial characteristic of Afghan political culture” and “[p]erson-centered politics, the cornerstone of kin-based mode of Pushtun tribal social and political organization, has been the defining attribute of Afghan politics since the creation of Pushtun-dominated centralized polity in the mid *18th century.” The leap from “Afghan” to “Pushtun” and the frequent divergent and interchangeable uses of the two categories and the confusion of “Afghan political culture” with “Pushtun tribal social and political organization” characterize this piece and other of Shahrani’s chapters in various edited books. Given this orientation (and the citation of Wolf for it), readers are primed to expect at least an unadulterated reading of a benchmark anthropological study of the expansion of European capitalism, where Wolf identifies “[t]he kin-ordered mode of production”2 and argues that when kin-ordered leadership acquires enhanced economic resources, i. e. surplus, its mode of production changes “from a set of interpersonal relations” to “a governing ideological element in the allocation of political power.”3 Kin-ordered modes of production are usually found in societies where there is little or no surplus. Shahrani concocts out of this his “kin-based mode of Pushtun tribal social and political organization” ignoring the reality of regular surplus producing pastoralism and intensive agriculture among Paxtuns and all the other groups in Afghanistan. Substituting “based” for “ordered” and overlooking the typological differences between a foraging subsistence economy and a surplus-producing agricultural and/or pastoral economy cannot be simply matters of narrative style or technical errors.

Nowhere are readers told what the author’s understanding of the Marxist concept of “political economy” is and how he applies it to Afghanistan. Thus the meaning of the “person-centered, kin-based” version of this economy remains obscure and suspended. Shahrani confuses “political economy”, the structural arrangements that pertain to the production, accumulation, and distribution of economic surplus, or the formal academic procedure that attempts “to lay bare the laws or regularities surrounding the production of wealth” 4 with what Western functionalist political scientists call “political culture”, sentiments and cultural values that are considered diagnostic of a specific political process and behavior. Shahrani’s inability to appreciate the “relational” framework of the synthesis between “theoretically informed history and historically informed theory”5, coupled with the perversion of established theoretical frameworks are either due to ideological blinders or understandings that are uninformed, contradictory and unsupportable by the ethnography and history of Afghanistan and the region.

Elsewhere, in attempting to reduce structural features to personalities, narrow and specific articulations of social relations in the abstract Shahrani, without any explanation, equates his garbled understanding of “kin-based personalized politics…of the person-centered, Pashtun-dominated, Afghan political culture” with Edward C. Banfield’s typological formulation of “amoral familism”.6 In so doing, he relegates the Paxtuns explicitly (and all Afghans by implication since he frequently interchanges Afghan with Paxtun) to a Westerner’s racist views. But he does so by first tampering with Banfield’s original ideas of “amoral familism”. In the 1950s Banfield, a political scientist, conducted a study of the Montegrano, a small peasant community in Southern Italy, based on field observations and the interpretation of a single picture in a thematic apperception test given to 31 individuals. He concluded that the underdevelopment of the Montegrano peasants qualified them for being lumped with the non-Western World. As a remedial measure for their underdevelopment he hinted at “[c]hanging the ethos” of these Italians by introducing “Protestant missionaries”.7 Banfield had hypothesized “that the Montegranesi act as if they were following this rule: Maximize the material, short*run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise” (emphasis added).8 Shahrani changes “rule” to “tendency” and attributes the idea of “amoral familism” to Banfield as “a tendency to ‘maximize material, short-run advantage of the … family [and kin], assuming that all others will do like-wise'” (spacing and brackets in the original). Changing “rule” to “tendency”, deleting “nuclear” and inserting “kin” and similar tampering behavior elsewhere are breaches of academic standards that cast serious doubt on the integrity of the author’s writings about Afghanistan. On the face of it and at the minimum this is an attempt to make racist generalizations about southern Italian peasantry fit stereotypical and distorted views of the people of Afghanistan. Even if Shahrani had not modified Banfield’s language, he would have been only speaking of some urban dwellers in Afghanistan (less than 15% of the total population), including western oriented urban Afghan elite and merchants who dominated the country and who were intimately familiar with the social formation called a “nuclear family.” The vast majority of Afghans live in larger, extended versions of the family. Moreover, those who are inspired by “amoral familism” should realize that Banfield was oblivious to the historical context of Montegrano society, a society that was successfully adapting to a number of hostile Italian national power structures and a political atmosphere that inhibited larger social arrangements including extra-familial formal groupings. Nevertheless, while Banfield clearly states the bases for his conclusions, Shahrani offers no historical or ethnographic or demographic evidence whatsoever for the application of “amoral familism” (even in his crafty manipulation of this typology) to the Paxtuns and other ethnic groups in Afghansitan.

It is well known that the author was intimately connected with a non-Paxtun faction of the U. S. sponsored terrorists (“mujahidin”, Muslim holy warriors to him)9 who were to be state rulers of Afghanistan. Reminiscent of Banfield’s suggested religious based solution to a concocted social problem among the Montegrano, the mujahidin terrorists and their “born again” Muslim Afghan supporters, also openly proposed fundamentalist Islamic solutions to what they perceived as problems of Afghanistan. The now defunct Taleban regime was essentially promulgating and implementing, albeit with zeal and symbolic emphasis, the ideology and policies of those Islamic solutions, solutions that Shahrani and his mujahidin subscribed to. It is difficult to avoid concluding that for Shahrani the Talebs’overt Paxtunness made them less legitimate as the implementers of these solutions. He writes that “Talibanism” is “the inevitable culmination of the person-centered Pashtun-dominated, Afghan political culture”. And equates “Talibanism” with “amoral familism” and “kin-based personalized politics” but he offers no analytical bridge or ethnographic or historical evidence for this equation. Nor does he establish an analytical relationship between Talibanism and the “person-centered Pashtun-dominated, Afghan culture”, rendering the “Taliban Enigma” in the title of the article meaningless.

Shahrani equates the Arabic concept of “jam’at” (sic) society organized around Islamic principles with the secular Western concept of “[C]ivil [S]ociety”, a central subject for prominent European writers such as John Locke, Adam Smith, Georg Wilhelm, Karl Marx, Alexis de Tocqueville, Antonio Gramsci. Characteristically, Shahrani neither states his own understanding of this typology nor does he tell us which version of civil society he has in mind. Elsewhere, without mentioning its genealogy he invokes the concept of “[S]ocial [C]apital” and imposes on it notions that are removed from Pierre Bourdieu’s original construction of the idea. To Bourdieu social capital is “made up of social obligations (‘connections’), which is convertible, under certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the form of a title of nobility” (parenthetical quotation in the original).10 Were this application to be meaningful Shahrani would have had to tell the reader how his notion of “trust” figures in Bourdieu’s foundational concept of social capital and how was trust “institutionalized” within Shahrani’s ideal “circle of family and close kin or at most one’s own ethnolinguistic group” in Afghanistan, and what conditions have “caused the general erosion of trust” in those communities. To suggest that stark trust-eroding structures of inequality, induced by capitalism (operated mostly by non-Paxtuns), within ethnic and other local borders, did not exist in Afghanistan denies the social and historical realities of the country. Tensions within and between ethnic groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere inevitably revolved around unequal access to material resources and center-articulated structures of power. This center has always been dominated by non-Paxtuns.

Finally, a brief comment about gender relations in Afghanistan, a subject that evokes great passion among Europeans and, only very recently, among Afghan intellectuals. Mistreatment of women and gender inequity were used as a pretext for the recent European military occupation of the country. Apparently Shahrani believes that before the ascendance of the Talebs in 1996 Afghanistan was free of gender segregation and inequality. He asserts that the Talebs’ “real claim to infamy comes from the imposition of a policy of ‘Gender Apartheid’ directed against the girls and women of Afghanistan”. This is indeed perplexing! What former regime in Afghanistan cannot be identified with such an “imposition”? Shahrani must have in mind a country other than Afghanistan, the country of our birth, enculturation, primary and secondary schooling, and ethnographic research. The rudiments and structures of gender apartheid and inequality have been defining fixtures of everyday social life for centuries in the region of which Afghanistan is a part. This kind of blatant ethnographic and historical misrepresentation (or perhaps misunderstanding!) together with the crafty manipulation of various theories and theoretical ideas raises serious academic questions. Cloaking a bizarre patchwork of mangled fragments of theoretical ideas and formulations by various economists, political scientists, and sociologists with the prestige of an academic title in an anthropology program, besides being a bad academic habit, does not qualify for an anthropological (or for that matter, social science) contribution. But to be fair, Shahrani himself has not explicitly claimed for this genre of his writings (post-1979, ever since he dropped “Mohib” from his name) an anthropological label. The label that might fit would neither be scholarly nor academic.

The post-1992 Afghan Islamist regimes, including the Talebs were not really enigmas. What is enigmatic, however, is the myth of Paxtun rule and domination in Afghanistan, a myth that Shahrani naively embraces and invokes with heated passion and puts forward as a historical and ethnographic fact. This myth can be debunked with a simple straightforward empirical observation. Based on a vast amount of theoretical and ethnographic comparative literature on language as a tool of domination and construction of relations of power, in multiethnic and multilingual societies like Afghanistan, the language of the dominant ethnic group (even when it is a numerical minority) is the language with which structures of political and economic power are articulated and it is this language that provides privileged access to these structures. The dominant group is invariably monolingual in its own language. On the other hand, the dominated groups are overwhelmingly bilingual. They are forced to adopt, alongside their own language, the language of the dominant group. Let us now ask Shahrani: Which ethnic group in Afghanistan was overwhelmingly monolingual? Which ethnic groups were overwhelmingly bilingual or trilingual? If he correctly answers these questions, his expatiations about the domination of Afghanistan as a state structure by Paxtuns are invalid and totally unfounded.

By manipulating Islam and practicing ethnic dissimulation, the Persianized Durrani governments, through a variety of tactics, chief among them, the playing of one ethnic group against another and shi’a against sunni, were able to rule Afghanistan and keep ethnic tensions barely below the boiling point. In this bloody enterprise they enjoyed the support of all non-Paxtuns. The 1978 overthrow of the last of these Persianized and Persian-dominated governments in Afghanistan and the subsequent United States reaction of creating, financing, and managing the terrorist freedom fighters/mujahidin in a phony Islamic “jihad” against the legitimate central government of Afghanistan destroyed the national market and the fragile center-periphery relationship in the country. For fourteen years the ethnically based mujahidin factions were pitted against each other in a bloody contest for the favor of their patrons and competition for the resources of cash and guns supplied by the United States and locally distributed by the government of Pakistan. One major consequence of this “jihad” has been the unleashing of ethnic hostilities in Afghanistan. Non-Paxtuns (like Shahrani) desperately and understandably insist on return to the “status quo ante”, what was a non-Paxtun-dominated state. The Paxtuns, on the other hand, advocate an arrangement where their perceived numerical majority would guarantee them prominence in central government. An objectively constructed model of government that will creatively blend these (not necessarily opposed) positions will likely succeed in a reconstructed Afghanistan.


1. North, Douglas C. (1990), Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 3. For North’s ideas of “efficiency” see pp. 51, 80-81, 92, 94.

2. Wolf, Eric R. (1982), Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 88.

3. Ibid., p. 93

4. Ibid., p. 19.

5. Ibid., p. 21.

6. The idea of “Amoral Familism” is from Edward C. Banfield (1958), The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, Glenco, Illinois: The Free Press. Shahrani mistakenly locates this racist typology in Edward C. Banfield (1970), The Unheavenly City, Boston: Little Brown.

7. Idem., (1958), pp. 170-171.

8. Ibid., p. 85.

9. Shahrani, M. Nazif (1994), ‘Honored guest and marginal man: long-term field research and predicament of a native anthropologist’, in: D. D. Fowler and D. L. Hardesty (eds.), Others Knowing Others. Washington, D. C.,: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 15-67.

10. Pierre Bourdieu (1986), ‘The Forms of Capital’, in: J. L. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood Press, pp. 241-258.

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