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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

The dream of a secular Afghanistan still holds power – even over the White House

It was war, not Islam, that halted the development of the country, writes Faisal Al Yafai

This 1962 photo shows Afghan medical students at Kabul's faculty of medicine. AFP
This 1962 photo shows Afghan medical students at Kabul's faculty of medicine. AFP

The word “modern” is slippery. Despite its solid suggestion of certainty, there is an evasiveness to its use – it means one thing, only to hint at another. It winks at the reader, creating lines of belonging and division: us versus them, here versus there, modern versus backward. Perhaps only the word “terrorism” is more slippery or more prone to political bias. Both came together at the White House last month, when the president, Donald Trump was persuaded to increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan, to try and win what is America's longest – and evidently most unwinnable – war.

The turning point in his policy came, reportedly, when he asked, “What does success look like?” His national security adviser, General HR McMaster, showed him a photograph of Afghan women wearing miniskirts walking through the capital Kabul in 1972. This photograph, it has since been repeatedly declared, represented a time when Afghanistan was some combination of these words: liberal, tolerant, open, westernised. Modern. Afghans, the commentary runs, used to be like us. Only bombs and guns, it seems, can take them back to that time. Mr Trump agreed to send more troops.

Photographs of women have played a curious part in the political upheavals of the greater Middle East. These dreams of modernity have a hold on the popular imagination, eastern and western alike.

For those in the West, images of glamorous women without headscarves in Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad from the 1950s onwards speak of a world that modern viewers can readily imagine inhabiting. Those women look like them and therefore, the western viewer imagines, the inner lives of their hopes and dreams must be similar.

For those in the east, these images also retain a powerful hold. Afghans, Iranians, Egyptians and almost every Middle Eastern country east and west of Cairo tell similar stories and brandish similar photographs. There was a time in the life of almost every country of the greater Middle East – a time within living memory – when the religiosity that is currently a hallmark of most Islamic nations, and the instability gripping the Middle East, simply did not exist.

These photos are still brandished as a wish and as a weapon. A wish because, for many citizens of these countries, for their descendants in other countries, western and eastern, and their supporters around the world, these images speak of a possibility of return. They feature people who look like them and who are, to use that slippery word, “modern”. But these images are also a weapon against those who say the countries of the Middle East and Asia are forever locked in religious or cultural conservatism.

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So these black and white displays of modernity have become totems, emblematic fragments of history upon which all sorts of explanations can be laid. The truth is rarely searched for: no one has so far identified the three women in that Kabul photo, and few Afghans who remembered the 1970s were interviewed over the past week. The photos tell whatever tale we want them to.

The truth, of course, is always more complicated than it appears. Because while the blame for the change in Afghanistan – and in Egypt, Iran and elsewhere – is often placed at the door of Islam, there is a much worse, more changeable and brutal culprit: politics. It was politics that changed Afghanistan, just as it was politics that changed Egypt and Iraq and Yemen and Sudan.

Afghanistan did not change in a day, but the trajectory of that change can be traced to one: July 17, 1973, a year after that photograph was taken, the day its long-term monarch, Mohammed Zahir Shah, was deposed by his cousin. Even before that, Afghanistan was hardly a secular utopia, but a developing country, very much part of the progression that swept much of the non-western world in the mid-20th century.

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There was, to be sure, much to recommend it. Like the populous republics of the Middle East, the 1950s and 1960s saw Kabul enter the “modern” era. New buildings and universities were built; foreign workers and Afghans worked side -by-side, and women entered the new universities. The pull of religion and culture, which still dominated life outside of Afghanistan's cities, softened. Medicine got better – although a quarter of Afghans still died before the age of 12 – and experiments in democracy began from the early 1970s. Kabul and Kandahar expanded and became part of the greater Middle East: more Afghans moved to the cities and more Afghans went abroad. In the public spaces of Kabul, young men and women wore much the same clothes that their contemporaries in Europe did, and listened to much the same music.

That was Afghan modernity. And it came to a crashing end in 1979, not because of religion, but because of politics.

The years after the end of the monarchy and the presidency of Daoud Khan, are, still, the subject of controversy among historians of Afghanistan. What is certain is that the reforms and policies of the post-war period were shattered on the altar of war. When the Soviet Union invaded, they ushered in a decade of war and a new era for Afghanistan, one which has still not ended.

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Perhaps that is why these photographs still have such a hold on the popular imagination. Afghanistan today, like other countries of the region, can seem worlds away from those black-and-white images. And yet they are not so far removed.

The story of Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, did not end in 1973. In fact, Shah lived long enough to return to Afghanistan in 2002, a fact that, when I noted it to a group of journalists last week, was met with profound shock, the insertion of a historical figure into the modern era. A man who became Afghanistan's monarch the same year that Franklin D Roosevelt became America's president had re-emerged into the era of George W Bush.

That is how close the Kabul era of laughing women in miniskirts is. That the man who ruled Afghanistan for four decades lived long enough after he was deposed to see the Taliban rise, the Twin Towers fall, and the Americans sweep in, makes it seem all the more possible that the Kabul of the 1970s can return.

When he died in 2007, a decade ago last month, Shah still hoped to see Afghanistan stable. Ten years on, the dream of a day when the world again looks to Afghanistan and sees modernity is still alive, and now dreamed of in the White House.

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More from Faisal Al Yafai

Iraq’s obsession with Faisal II reflects its hunger for a lost era

Zaha Hadid and the Arab world’s forgotten past

The death of Arab secularism

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