Q: Eight years after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, fighting continues. Religious extremists in the Taliban and al-Qaeda retain significant power there. What is our moral responsibility to the people of Afghanistan? If religion is part of the problem there, how can it be part of the solution?
What do the people of Afghanistan really want? I am reminded of a cartoon I once saw where Sigmund Freud was depicted lying on his consulting couch. The bubble over his head contains his famous question, “What do women want?” Nearby, Mrs. Freud is sweeping the floor. The bubble over her head shows Sigmund Freud doing the sweeping.
It’s not that complex, really. Afghans want what you want. They want to be able to live without constant war, they want to be safe in their homes and in their streets, they want to be able to make a living and have their children get an education. They want a police force that doesn’t demand a bribe at every checkpoint and they want their government to function. They want road they can drive on without bombs exploding around them. They want a life.
Instead, Afghanistan has been torn nearly to shreds by competing messianic visions. The Bush administration pursued foreign policy of righteousness, a religious zeal to re-make the world in our image. This crashed headlong into the messianic zeal of the Taliban, and of al-Qaeda. Those extremists also have an absolute sense of the rightness of their own vision for Afghanistan.
These two absolute visions are made for each other, because one provides the perfect enemy for the other. For the last eight years they clashed with each other over the bodies of the Afghan people with devastating results.
In the case of the U.S., this led us to confuse a military mission with nation building. Though such misplaced strategy, we committed extraordinary mistakes, both losing the hearts and minds of the Afghans through civilian casualties, and through support for an increasingly corrupt Afghan government.
The world’s major religions contain, within themselves, these competing religious visions. One vision is of a messianic righteousness that justifies violence to create a “perfect” world here, leading to the next life. The other is a vision of justice and peace realized through the lives of ordinary people every day as they work, love and live decently with each other.
Practical peace and justice is a religious vision. It’s what Jesus means where he says “The kingdom is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) It is the Jewish vision that everyone will sit “under their own vine and fig tree. ” (1 Kings 4:25)
It is a profoundly Muslim vision. In the Muslim tradition, social and economic justice is so important in Islam that they are even equated with worshiping God. The value of Zakah (almsgiving) and Sadaqah (voluntary charity) relate to individual and collective responsibility. Zakah is one of the five main pillars of Islam and it is aimed at insuring distributive social justice and empowerment of the weak. Charity is a good deed that every Muslim has to carry out within his or her limits. Charity is prescribed in at least 25 Qur’ anic verses. All encourage Muslims to take more responsibility for the social injustice systems that exist in their communities.
If we worked through this profoundly Islamic vision in Afghanistan, what would our policy be? We would pull back from engaging extremists in far-flung military battles and turn our attention to protecting civilians, paying Afghans to grow soybeans instead of poppies, and re-training the police and the army as was done in Northern Ireland to root out corruption and make these indigenous forces work for their people instead of exploiting and killing them. And we would not prop up another corrupt government that does not have the support of the people.
That’s a profoundly religious vision. And it would work.