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Orientalism, Afghanistan, and the Recycling Rhetoric

Sunday 25 December 2011, by حکيم نعيم | Hakeem Naim

The study of the “east” as a constructed concept, and the strong association of knowledge with the existing political, social, and economic power structure have created a contrived interpretation of the Orient and the Occident. Orientalism, as Edward Said defined, “is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Orient and (most of the time) the Occident.”[1] The “knowledge” that has been produced as an outcome of the Orientalism is forceful, vibrant, changeable, and aligned with the political purposes of the western powers. It has provided the Occident with the political and military condition and rationale to dominate, to rule and to reconstruct the orient. However, the subject(s) of the Orientalist “thought” — the Orient— has stayed or must stay static, unchangeable, and intact. Thus, they were compelled to be ruled, guided, and supported. Afghanistan illustrates a clear and viable example in this regard. In this paper I argue how Afghanistan has served as a practical, conceptual, rhetorical, and unchangeable example of Orientalism. I further explore the colonial rhetoric which is constructed and reconstructed in relation to the political and military politics of global powers with Afghanistan.

Geography and appreciation of land were important factors for nineteenth century colonialist and Orientalists. The land of Afghans was portrayed as an exotic, unreachable, and strange place for centuries. The wonder of a gaze beyond the Khayber Pass and the myth of the unconquerable Hundu Kush Mountains were the dreams of many European adventurers and empires. Afghanistan was the land of beauty inhabited by “wild” Afghan tribes. The beauty of the land for Europeans was the means to connect with it. It was the source of pursuing deeper into it; it was provoking them to conquer it, to own it, to reshape it. Therefore, the early colonial travelers to Afghanistan constantly stressed the beauty of the land. Mountstuart Elphinstone was one of the first officers from the British East India Company who travelled to Afghanistan in a mission to the court of the Afghan Emir in 1808/9. He described Kabul in his travel account “the views up the east and west walks were beautiful, and each was closed by high mountains; but that of the space which runs from north to south, far surpassed everything that I have seen in an Asiatic garden. … The fountains were sparkling with the sun, whose rays shone bright on the trees, shrubs, and flowers on one side, and made a fine contrast with the deep shade of the other.”[2] But while the land and its resources are appreciated, there remains the problem of its inhabitants. Thus, a discourse of detachment, separation, and disassociation of the natives from their lands was generated and promoted. The rhetoric of doubt and reservation over the capacity of the natives to enjoy, explore, and exploit their land and its resources were constructed and publicized. Alexander Burnes, a colonial explorer, who travelled to Afghanistan on a political mission in 1836, described Afghanistan with astonishment: “beyond all this, rocky mountains are seen with the fresh snow of yesterday upon them; and over these again tower the eternal snow-clad summits of Hindoo Koosh. The scene was as sublimely grand as it was beautiful and enchanting.”[3] However, Burnes concluded that “it is a source of deep regret that this beautiful country should be inhabited by a race of men so turbulent and vindictive.”[4] In another example, almost two centuries later, on June 13 2010, the New York Times reported that “US identifies vast Mineral riches in Afghanistan. On the ground, it is very, very, promising. Actually it’s pretty amazing,” quoting Jack Medlin, an American geologist. The newspaper also quoted the man of power in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command at that time. He said, “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.” However, the discourse of doubt over the competency of the Afghans has to be reconstructed, which the NYT subtly accomplished by arguing that “The corruption that is already rampant in the Karzai government could also be amplified by the new wealth, particularly if a handful of well-connected oligarchs, some with personal ties to the president, gain control of the resources. At the same time, American officials fear resource-hungry China will try to dominate the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which could upset the United States, given its heavy investment in the region. With virtually no mining industry or infrastructure in place today, it will take decades for Afghanistan to exploit its mineral wealth fully. This is a country that has no mining culture.” So, “The Pentagon task force has already started trying to help the Afghans set up a system to deal with mineral development.”[5] The point is that Afghanistan’s land is beautiful, resourceful and “amazing” but it is not for Afghans because “the colonizing imagination takes for granted that the land and its resources belong to those who are best able to exploit them according to the values of a western commercial and industrial system.”[6]

The manifestation of the colonizers right to the lands of the colonized requires power, which depends on knowledge about the subjected races. According to Said’s other definition of Orientalism, it is the institution that produces knowledge about the Orient, which is based on structural myths and lies.[7] The rhetoric of denigration, disparagement and vilification is one of the main elements of the “knowledge” about the Orient that simplifies it, rationalizes it, makes it understandable, and creates a complicated ignorance both in the Occident and the Orient. In the case of Afghanistan, the pejorative rhetoric has conceptualized and become the conventional notion. For instance, nothing in the common and so-called rational discourse in the west can better explain the issue of child marriages in Afghanistan than the “inherently backwardness” of the “barbaric” Afghans.

It should be pointed out that it would be a grave misconception to assume that the contemptuous undertone about Afghanistan was thoughtfully contemplated, constructed, and plotted by the “west.” However, it started within the discourse of Orientalism,[8] eventually coated with colonial prejudices, and become a pragmatic propaganda of power in its military and political encounter with Afghanistan.

One of the earliest colonial sources, which are full of the derogatory rhetoric about Afghanistan, is George Forster’s book, a journal from Bengal to England through the Northern Part of India, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Persia, and into Russia by the Caspian - Sea. George Forster was an employee of East India Company and travelled to Afghanistan in 1784. He was obviously disillusioned when he visited Afghanistan. He wrote, “I expected to see … the capital of a great Empire. But the Afghans are a rude, unlettered people, and their chiefs have little propensity to the refinements of life, which indeed their country is ill qualified to gratify.”[9] His view of Afghanistan set the stage for the later Orientalists and colonialists. The British invasions of Afghanistan and its direct confrontation with Afghans intensely increased the number of visitors, spies, military personnel and travelers who added more flavor to the contemptuous narrative about Afghanistan. Lady Florentine Sale, who was the wife of General Robert Henry Sale an important military Officer in the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1841, wrote in her diary that “The Afghans of the capital are a little more civilized, but the country gentlemen and their retainers are, I fancy, much the same kind of people as those Alexander encountered.”[10] Her views were constantly echoed in later accounts, though the narratives took different forms through time. Some narratives were concealed in the layers of the western “politeness” and “civility.” Others followed the typical trend with great impudence. Arthur Conolly, a British intelligent officer, who was later executed in Bukhara by the Russians, wrote “If dirt killed people, where would the Afghans be!”[11] An American, who lived in Afghanistan in 1910, referred to afghans as “liars and thieves, and there is nothing in the country but ignorance, greed, and Shaitani[evilness].”[12] In May 2010, British Defense Secretary, Liam Fox called Afghanistan “a broken 13th- century country.”[13] The narratives were constantly reproduced and used for different reasons.

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