Afghan intellect blossoms in exile

March 30, 2001

Despite a Taliban crackdown on secular education, Afghan intellectuals are fighting back, albeit by establishing a university in neighbouring Pakistan. Chris Bunting reports.

Mohammad Akbar Kargar's life has somehow been levered into a tiny room in West London. One corner serves as a kitchen, another as a the living room with TV and chairs. Impossibly, he also finds room for a desk, wardrobe and a single bed.

Crammed into this strange environment thousands of miles from his wife and six children and struggling to convey his feelings about his native Afghanistan, Kargar suddenly clambers onto his chair and stretches to retrieve a small, tightly packed, transparent plastic bag from the top of his wardrobe.

"I hope you don't think I am being boastful, but these are my writings," he says, pulling out books of short stories and academic papers. This man, who has recounted dispassionately the minutiae of the 100-year history of secular academia in his home country, is now close to tears. "When you've spent 20 years devoted to something, to see it all totally, absolutely destroyed is very hard."

A telephone call the next day to a senior figure from an international agency operating in Afghanistan brings a markedly different perspective. "Academic freedom? I don't think people are really thinking about that. We've got a war and starvation going on here."

In February, relief workers were reporting starving children in Afghanistan's northern provinces foraging for grass and weeds to eat. Although recent snow and rain have raised hopes of the first adequate harvest in three years, a million people may still face starvation in northern Afghanistan this year, according to the World Food Programme.

With hundreds of thousands of people displaced by drought and the continuing civil war, the average daily wage in the relatively well-off southern provinces has dropped to about 5,000 Afghanis (about 5p).

One person would have to work for a whole week to buy one meal for a family, says Erick de Mul, United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan. To make matters worse, a Taliban ban on opium poppy cultivation is being vigorously implemented, removing many farmers' main cash crop.

In London, Kargar, a former lecturer in Kabul University's department of philosophy and social studies, a one-time member of the Communist Party and director general of Radio Afghanistan during the Russian occupation, is anathema to many conservative Afghans. Nancy Hatch Dupree, senior consultant to the non-governmental Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, says: "Many people in rural areas have traditionally looked on secular education with extreme suspicion as foreign-influenced, as the road to communism and all the troubles that have hit them in recent years."

The suspicion was not unfounded. The growth of the country's education system since the establishment in 1903 of the first secular school, Kabul's Habibia School, based on an Anglo-Indian model, was closely associated with foreign powers' attempts to gain influence in the country. Kabul Polytechnic Institute, established in 1967, was a gift to Afghanistan from the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, while western aid was concentrated on the rival Kabul University.

Many of the other 15 teacher training colleges and 14 higher education institutes set up before the Soviet invasion were partially staffed and funded from abroad. After 1978, the communists accompanied mass literacy campaigns with a huge expansion in higher education, establishing the Institute of Social Sciences and the Institute of Pedagogy in Kabul and three provincial universities.

Kabul's student and academic population has also widely been seen as the nursery for the ideological conflicts that have riven the country. For example, the most powerful three of the seven main Mujahidin Islamic groups in Afghanistan emerged in Kabul University during the 1960s and 1970s.

Kargar's generation of academic refugees has by no means been the first to suffer from these conflicts. A 1973 coup against the liberal-minded Zahir Shah prompted many Afghan intellectuals to flee the country, and some who remained were imprisoned. A second exodus was triggered by the communist takeover in 1978 and the Soviet invasion in 1979, with thousands of university-educated Afghans joining an estimated 6 million Afghans living outside the country by 1989.

Meanwhile, the situation in Mujahidin strongholds during and after the civil war was scarcely better. The widely publicised assassination in 1988 of Sayed Bahauddin Majrooh, who published an independent monthly bulletin in English in Peshawar and who was known for his support for a political solution to the conflict, was part of a pattern of intimidation and violence against independent voices in the Afghan refugee communities in Pakistan by Islamic fighters. When these groups came to power in Afghanistan in 1992, the killings and detentions continued. Fighting between Mujahidin factions reduced Kabul University to rubble.

It is difficult to assess whether Taliban repression is simply a continuation of this tradition or whether it represents a radical development. Are we seeing a crackdown on supposed members of the opposition, a practice with plenty of precedent in Afghanistan's tumultuous history, or are we witnessing something altogether more menacing -what Kargar describes as a "systematic attempt to remove all intellectual questioning from the country, to destroy civilisation"?

There has certainly been repression on a grand scale. Hundreds of academics have been forced to leave the country. Those who have remained are often unemployed and, if they are working, are lucky to receive an irregular and inadequate salary. Professors at Kabul University, once one of the leading higher education institutions in Asia, have been reduced to begging on the streets.

Those who displease the authorities are in immediate danger. A former Kabul University professor, now living in a bedsit a few miles from Kargar in West London, describes being arrested by the Taliban in Kabul on the pretext of being an anti-Taliban spy. "That kind of thing is not unusual. The only unusual thing was that I was released, and that was mainly because of protests from international agencies I had contact with. You actually welcome being beaten by the policemen because that can mean you are not going to be formally arrested and plunged into that black hole."

In neighbouring Pakistan, which is home to tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, there has been a rising tide of arrests, kidnappings and assassinations of prominent intellectual figures over the past two years, and even in the West many refugee academics are unwilling to talk publicly about the situation in their country because of the threat to their families still in the region.

For women in Afghanistan, the situation is worse. The majority of Kabul University students used to be female, but women have been stopped from attending school and higher education. The forcible expulsion of women from the workplace has removed 40 per cent of the country's teachers, damaging the education of boys and girls. Regulations forbidding females from appearing in public without a male relative have removed women's freedoms of expression and assembly.

The scenes at Bamiyan earlier this month, where Taliban militiamen shelled the world's tallest standing Buddha with mortars and anti-tank weapons as part of a purge of "un-Islamic" statues, would seem to make Kargar's claims that the Taliban intends to annihilate all independent intellectual and cultural life depressingly believable.

But with the Taliban coalition's sometimes inconsistent decision-making and the state of war still gripping the country, it seems sensible to reserve judgement. Moreover, any close look at Afghan intellectual life shows some surprisingly resilient green shoots among the devastation.

Despite half-hearted support from the international aid community - which prefers to direct its limited budget at primary education - and constant conflict among political and religious factions, the Afghan refugee community in Peshawar set up an officially recognised university in 1999 to replace five unregistered colleges closed by the authorities. The university opened with 1,511 male and 518 female students and has been expanding ever since. It has 170 staff and there are more than 1,000 students waiting to enrol.

The signs of vigour are not restricted to Peshawar, Dupree says. "The situation in the country is as black as I have seen it. People are thinking about surviving, they are not sitting around thinking great intellectual thoughts. But you can't keep a good intellectual down. They do not have a forum, but they write and they bring their manuscripts to us.

"There is some exciting intellectual movement. We were getting massively long manuscripts in flowery Pushtu. We started asking for fewer than 80 pages in simple language, and we have seen a mini-revolution in the way people are presenting their ideas."

Much more significant are signs that the intellectual climate among the millions of normal Afghans may be changing. "Parents, particularly women in the camps, are starting to say: 'Our children must not be like us. Our children must have education.' These people, from quite traditional backgrounds, who might once have been very suspicious of education, have seen what you can do with education after they were displaced to the camps and they have seen what you cannot do without it and they are clamouring for it for their children.

"The aid community might say that you get more bangs for your bucks from primary education, but these people are demanding much more - secondary and tertiary education. And they want it now, not in five years."

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments