Interview: "I Try to Break the Taboos"
Female politican Shukira Barakzai talks about enduring traditions, misguided policies and bomb attacks.
Afghan society is conservative and religious; democratic transition and state-building remain huge tasks. As it seems, the media could be co-opted as a tool for further promoting intolerance – will the country be able to prevent this?
More than two and a half centuries after Ahmad Shah Durani defined the territory that became Afghanistan, a modern Afghan state remains a rather distant dream. While the notion of being ‘governed’ by the state is largely accepted by urbanised Afghans, the rural majority continue to practise customary systems of governance.
To a large extent, the tension between the state and these deeply-rooted traditions remains unresolved. State influence on traditional and rural life was limited during the 19th century because both Afghan rulers and their neighbours fostered the independence of the tribes in order to keep the other at bay. But since then, Afghan rulers have used nationalism, mixed with a strong dose of religion, as a means of institutionalising their dominance. In an already highly conservative society, this was often perceived as intrusive, especially when it entailed conscription and/or the collection of taxes. By rejecting these intrusions, the powerful tribes limited the state’s ability to provide services to the population.
Suspicion of outsiders has also hindered efforts to mould the diverse ethnic groups into a community with common interests in an Afghan nation. Strong group (usually tribal) identity has limited the development of coherent national identity. If anything, decades of unrest have strengthened small-group identity and encouraged a more traditional way of life. In the mid-20th century, some limited progress was achieved in developing a national identity – it gained momentum in 1911 with the launch of a newspaper called Seraj ul-Akhbar by Mahmood Beg Tarzi who in his writings promoted Afghan nationalism – but the fragile and tentative nature of the state has not allowed this to be effectively pursued.
Although it remains an inherently conservative country, Afghanistan has not historically been a closed or intolerant society. The region has been home to Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Hindus and Muslims and it was this cosmopolitan past that created the richness of different cultures and civilisations that is Afghan history. Sadly, many Afghans remain unaware of this rich history, and their leaders today tend to ignore or denigrate anything other than the Islamic period.
Afghan leaders use religion as a tool to legitimise themselves and mobilise the population when needed – especially in the face of external threats.
As has been the case throughout its modern history, Afghan leaders use religion as a tool to legitimise themselves and mobilise the population when needed – especially in the face of external threats – and to maintain stability. This trend was further consolidated when Dost Mohammad came to power in 1826 and, conscious that he was not of royal blood, coerced the clergy to declare him to be Amir al-momineen (Leader of the Faithful).
While this had been done before, his decision had a significant impact on the future path of state legitimacy, which became more reliant on religion. It set a precedent for the next 100 years, during which Dost Mohammad’s successors retained the title Amir al-momineen, until Amanullah Khan changed his title to Shah (king) in 1926.
Being Amir al-momineen provided the head of state with a monopoly of religious power which he could use at will, while ensuring the unquestionable domination of Islam over other faiths in the country. This domination gained more force as it continued, and became more extreme under Dost Mohammad’s grandson, Amir Abur Rahman, who expelled the remaining Christian minorities in the late 19th century.
Like today’s leaders, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan chose at the turn of the 20th century to play victim to the Anglo-Russian rivalry that surrounded the country, and wrote at the time that Afghanistan was a ‘swan’ caught in a lake surrounded by hostile predators: ‘On one bank of the lake there lay, watching and waiting, an old tigress – the British government in India. On the other was assembled a pack of greedy wolves – Russia. When the swan approached too near to one bank the tigress clawed out some of his feathers, and when on the opposite bank, wolves tried to tear him to pieces. He resolved therefore to keep secure from either foe in the middle of the lake'.
The religious card has since proved to be both a threat and an asset, in different circumstances.
While Amir Abdur Rahman does not specifically refer to this in his tale, the role of conservative and powerful religious groups was also part of his arsenal in protecting his ‘swan’. The religious card has since proved to be both a threat and an asset, in different circumstances. In the 19th century, the Mullah of Hadda demonstrated the power of charismatic religious figures when he defied the head of state Amir Abdur Rahman Khan and launched an uprising against the British. The reformist king Amanullah Khan used the religious concept of jihad to rally Afghan tribes in his campaign to gain the full independence of Afghanistan from the British in 1919, but it was religious conservatives who opposed his subsequent attempts at modernization and forced him to abdicate.
Afghanistan is not, of course, the only weak state today that is affected by religious extremism. Yemen and Somalia also have groups that threaten the state itself, invoking jihad against their leaders who, like those in Kabul, are portrayed as propped up by occupying forces.
The manner in which the post-2001 Afghan state has tried to engage with its citizens draws heavily on the experience of this mid-20th century ‘golden age’, as well as imported models of ‘development’, while ignoring the fundamental shifts in power relations that have taken place in many rural parts of the country during the intervening years of conflict.
The largest single development initiative launched by the Afghan government since 2002 has been the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) which has facilitated the provision of much-needed development infrastructure such as bridges, schools, clinics, and water supplies. The fact that NSP has routed funding directly to community development councils (CDCs), rather than going through local government structures, may in a way have influenced ways of state-building.
The programme has enabled the central state to work with NGOs and use them as an alternative conduit to reach local communities. Another new approach is that CDCs comprise people elected by communities. However, the positive changes in power relations might be limited: prevailing local power relations means that though elected, CDC members often include traditional leaders. It is not yet clear whether this enhancing of traditional power structures  and giving them a direct say in the disbursement of government resources, reinforces the state and its image in the eyes of its citizens.
In the absence of a strong central state, people in many rural parts of Afghanistan have resorted to local tribal customs and traditions to manage their lives.
In the absence of a strong central state, and with the assertion of power by local interests, people in many rural parts of Afghanistan have resorted to local tribal customs and traditions to manage their lives. Where provincial and district level governments function, they are today often dominated by local power brokers who primarily use their position to assert personal and tribal agendas and accumulate power and wealth, rather than represent the interests of the central state. Arguably, they take their cue from those who use state institutions in Kabul to consolidate their power base and make money.
While the country’s vibrant media sector is widely regarded by both internationals and Afghans as one of the ‘success stories’ of the past decade, the media are also especially vulnerable to the tensions in Afghanistan’s governance. In the euphoria since 2002, it has been easy to forget that the powerful tool of the media is prone to the same pressures as those facing the state. The media sector today is providing a new platform for the powerful – and those seeking more power – to consolidate their positions.
The media sector today is providing a new platform for the powerful – and those seeking more power – to consolidate their positions.
Just as they do in other walks of life, religious interests are likely to exert their power in this realm. The diverse choices made by certain media proprietors and editors, sometimes influenced by Western lifestyles in shaping their content, have provoked these religious groups to assert their power by applying pressure to censor or halt certain programmes of which they do not approve.
The religious conservatives have demonstrated in recent decades how they can focus (very selectively) on issues that suit their immediate cause. In recent years, they have turned their attention to the media in pursuit of a cause that they wish to portray as ‘the protection of Afghan cultural values’. Different groups interpret these values in ways that suit them best. In the most extreme – and worrying – cases, these values are manifest in a narrow religious or ethnic agenda, which spreads sectarianism and promotes factionalism, and therefore has the potential to provoke violence.
Ethnic and religious leaders are using the media to influence public opinion in favour of narrower and more conservative agendas.
Character assassination on the air has become commonplace, and ethnic and religious leaders are using the media to influence public opinion in favour of narrower and more conservative agendas. The pain caused by Noorin TV’s on-air campaign in 2010 against women’s shelters by labelling them as ‘dens of prostitution’ is still fresh. If the current trend continues, ‘warlords’ with interests in maintaining space for their own fiefdoms against the imposition of central rule might make use of the media to confuse the population and therefore render any political settlement impossible.
In certain cases, they have backing from Afghanistan’s neighbours, especially Iran, to establish media institutions, often with partisan agendas. Several ‘warlords’ now own media institutions, including broadcast (TV and radio) and print outlets. In the absence of effective and robust financial and regulatory safeguards to protect independently-minded media institutions, this trend will continue and will pose a serious challenge to media freedom in the years to come. Partisan media institutions have proved they have the agility and capability to disguise their true identity and pose as ‘independent’.
While the private semi-commercial channels continue to command the largest audiences, the partisan media are beginning to gain ground. Their small penetration – a maximum of 2% of national audiences for any single such channel at present – has nonetheless provided an opportunity to employ religion and populist sectarian rhetoric to win and manipulate audiences.
Unlike other more independent stations, the partisan channels seem less reliant on funding from conventional external donors – although it is not always clear what their sources of funding are. As the established, and more transparent, sources of funding dry up in the ongoing transition from Western intervention in Afghanistan, non-partisan channels may be obliged to rely on domestic power brokers too for their financial and political survival, and therefore lose their independence. Unless this trend is checked by establishing competitive and transparent mechanisms for sustained funding – including commercial revenues for media outlets - and by the oversight of a stronger regulatory system, partisan media could dominate in the near future, and jeopardize the valuable space that has been opened up in the past decade.
There seems to be a very real possibility that the media will be co-opted as a further tool for promoting intolerance in Afghan society.
In time, the expansion of mobile telephony and the internet may provide an alternative, but the broadcast media will continue to shape and influence public opinion in the country for the time being. There seems to be a very real possibility that the media will be co-opted as a further tool for promoting intolerance in Afghan society.
In these circumstances, it is vital that Afghans and the international community retain some space for non-partisan media, even if small – and that this space is used to provide maximum voice to Afghans and hold politicians to account in the most effective way.
The show is a chance for a studio audience from all corners of the country to question ministers and other leaders – and for the national broadcaster’s radio and TV audiences to see that this is possible.
BBC Media Action has taken some small steps in this direction by co-producing, with state broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA), a television debate show called Open Jirga. ‘Jirga’ is the name of the traditional institution that Afghan societies at the grassroots level use to make decisions, discuss issues and resolve disputes and disagreement. The show is a chance for a studio audience from all corners of the country to question ministers and other leaders on a variety of issues – and for the national broadcaster’s radio and TV audiences to see that this is possible. For both studio and radio or TV audiences, this is often the first time in their lives they have seen this level of accountability, which is expected to transform the traditional perception of power.
The show has support at the highest levels of the Afghan government. Even President Hamid Karzai requested to appear in a special episode in 2012. But a different kind of political support is crucial for the future of this kind of programming. RTA is not yet culturally and editorially able to produce such programming on its own, and BBC Media Action’s training and support as part of the same project will not be able to address the high-level reforms needed.
Open Jirga shows what a public service broadcaster could do and how widely needed such a role is in today’s Afghanistan.
Open Jirga shows what a public service broadcaster could do in Afghanistan and how widely needed such a role is in today’s Afghanistan. RTA has the potential to become the space that both the Afghan public and the media sorely needs, and to set the bar for unbiased programming that other media outlets, with viable non-partisan funding, could meet. This could rescue the Afghan media sector from turning into an instrument of polarisation, narrow vested interests and possibly violence which could potentially perpetuate traditional power relations.
It is clear that Afghans and their international partners need to make some choices now to ensure that the media sector fosters an open, non-sectarian and accountable society by drawing on the country’s rich cultural diversity to modernise and redefine power relations in the country.
 See ‘Afghanistan at the beginning of the twentieth century: nationalism and journalism in Afghanistan: as study of Seraj ul akhbar (1911-1918) by May Schinasi
 Gregorian, Vartan, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernisation, 1880-1946
 Lyons, James 'Buffer State' of 1910, quoted by Vartan Gregorian in The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernisation, 1880-1946
Edwards, David B.; “Heroes of the Age: Moral Faultlines in the Afghan Frontier”, University of Californian, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1996
 Coburn, Noah, Bazaar Politics: Power & Pottery in an Afghan Market Town, Stanford University Press, Californa
 Page, David and Shirazuddin Siddiqi, The Media Of Afghanistan: The challenges of transition, page 8, 2012,BBC Media Action
All images © BBC Media Action