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A Good Life For Afghan Women

Looking back on this era of history, the gravest threat of the hour will probably not be understood to be Islamic extremism or Western neoliberalism, or whatever one's preferred party-fashionable bogeyman might be. It will likely be certain strains of … Read More

By / December 7, 2007

Looking back on this era of history, the gravest threat of the hour will probably not be understood to be Islamic extremism or Western neoliberalism, or whatever one's preferred party-fashionable bogeyman might be. It will likely be certain strains of Western philosophy.

Ian Buruma and Paul Berman have been among the most prominent figures who have tried to show the connection between Islamic radicalism and it's having absorbed ideas from European thinkers, although Stephen Schwartz has out-muscled both of them in his explication of the historical and ideological debt that modern Islamic radicalism owes to that infamous people of the Najd. Islamism doesn't stand a chance in the long run because depraved nihilistic movements always burn themselves out. The question is only how much ground they'll gain and how much damage they'll do before then (no small matter in view of the power of 21st century weapons technology). The ears their claims fall upon and the responses of the societies they attack and wish to destroy play a large part in determining the course of events. As one can quickly gather from reading Anja Havedal's review of Afghan Women by Elaheh Rostami-Povey in this month's issue of Democratiya, the particular Western incarnations of philosophy that inform certain current understandings of multiculturalism are poisoning "Western" minds just as much as the screeds of kaffir beheaders are infecting the minds of Muslims. According to Havedal, Rostami-Povey thinks that just about every effort to help women in Afghanistan is a failure and/or a ploy disguising colonialist arrogance and avarice in the cloak of rights and freedom. But what's nonsense in all the talk about us and them, Western and non, is that while Elaheh Rostami-Povey claims that "an alien imperialist culture and prefabricated identity wrapped in the rhetoric of 'security, development, women's liberation and democracy' has [sic] been imposed on Afghan women and men alike" she herself speaks as one educated in the halls of British academe. Her CV is impressive: a BSc in Applied Economics (University of East London), an MA in Agrarian Studies (University of Sussex), and a PhD from the Open University. According to Rostami-Povey's view of things, she is herself imposing the philosophical insights of Western thinkers on Afghan women. Culture is a notion that only has meaning through alienation or distance from one's way of life–the kind of alienation experienced in modern multicultural societies. Much widespread understanding of the moral evils of imperialism derive from the European-American experience of having been imperialists. The critique of imperialism most preferred by academics to this day was hatched by a German Jew steeped in the work of the monumental German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. So when Rostami-Povey mounts her high horse of anti-imperialism and cultural preservation, shall we accuse her of making Afghan women Hegelians or Marxians? Individualistic self-determination, one could argue, is decidedly a product of European political philosophy, and the modern understanding of authenticity from Trilling to Taylor is American and Canadian, respectively. Isn't Rostami-Povey's argument just an imposition of a tapestry of "Western" ideas? One doubts that she would welcome this critique. Certainly Rostami-Povey believes that Afghan women deserve a certain quality of life that is universally appreciated by our species. Freedom from war, loss, starvation, coercion, and suffering. This was precisely the political project from Hobbes onward, to see that humans improve their lot beyond the short, brutish one it has potential to be. But was Hobbes unique? Muhammad was himself a sort of political philosopher and conflict resolver proposing a way of organizing life both personal and political so that suffering might be decreased and goodwill promoted. More likely, these figures spoke in different places to the same need. But Afghanistan is one of the most recently converted majority Muslim countries in what can only rightly be described as an Islamic empire. Prior to the arrival of Islam, and in many ways even after, Afghans adhered to centuries-old patriarchal tribal traditions. So when Rostami-Povey insists that Afghan women should be allowed to " struggle against local male domination in their own way and according to their culture," to which 'culture' can she possibly be referring if she hopes to maintain an ethic of anti-imperialism and women's rights? People like Rostami-Povey must decide whether they believe it is a universal good that women be free and persons have a right to self-determination. If she does, then she must also accept that Western philosophers' ideas were not ethnically bounded, but considerations of human beings attempting to create what used top be called in less relativistic times "the good life." Those ideas are no more culturally specific than is the basic need to live free of the horror that Afghan women have been experiencing for centuries under male, Soviet or Islamist domination. Instead, she suffers from the cancer in Western philosophy–the popularization of two absurd notions in particular. One, that the preservation of culture is an end in itself, even if that culture espouses ideas that are inimical to the good life; and two, that quest for the good life is a conceit to be replaced by instating the regime relative values. That regime is, by Rostami-Povey's standards, a German (read: Nietzschian) one. I prefer to say it's just a bad idea. Her system of designations is undesirable. That regime is, according to the standards of anyone interested in bettering of the lives of others, at best a hindrance and at worst a recipe for the kind of liberal nihilism, despair and self-hatred that will say when thousands of its countrymen die at the hands of illiberal murderers, 'We deserve it.' But in Afghanistan, it makes the best the enemy of the good, positing failure due to the 'self interest' part of enlightened self interest. It declares the messy business of aid a fiasco where there are instead some lives improving, even if not all at the rate and to the degree that Rostami-Povey–and any decent person, I might add–would like to see.

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