H.A. Hellyer is a Cambridge University fellow, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
As the United States and other NATO members depart Afghanistan, what is clear is that the vast weight of the consequences are being faced by the people of Afghanistan – regardless of what one thinks about the West’s conduct over the past 20 years of conflict.
But there are also related repercussions – if far less damaging ones in comparison – on our domestic discussions on Muslims of the West. Our lack of religious literacy on Islam is not insignificant, and the combination of that with our reactions to coverage of Afghanistan at present is increasingly having a negative effect on how we look at our Muslim communities.
When a Taliban spokesperson said that the new regime would protect women’s rights “within the framework of Islamic law,” for example, many within the international press reported that statement without context. Was the implication that “the framework of Islamic law” would be new to Afghanistan? Are we, the public, meant to believe that under the former government the “framework of Islamic law” was absent? That’s nonsense: Islamic law was never declared insignificant. On the contrary, it was at the bedrock of the Afghan legal system.
This does not mean that there shouldn’t be a great deal of concern about how the Taliban will engage in Afghanistan; the organization’s nearly 30-year record is hardly reason for exhilarating optimism, despite the positive statements expressed by different spokespeople. At the same time, there is also the reality that the Taliban’s governing will be constrained and defined by other factors, such as a different population than when they were last in power, economic realities facing the country and relationships with other states.
This kind of uncritical coverage also has consequences closer to home. There are already efforts in many of our own Western societies to dehumanize our own populations of the Islamic faith. Lord Pearson, a British member of the House of Lords, for example, last week declared: “So I submit that it is not phobic to fear Islam, which is responsible for by far the most violence on our planet today.” It was an appalling statement, though true to the record of the individual in question, who is infamous for expressing such anti-Muslim bigotry on a regular basis. But it will be no surprise if, after the Taliban takeover in Kabul, people like him find new, unnuanced ways to invigorate their audiences.
This is the truth about anti-Muslim bigotry today: It is not only increasing, it is also leaving the fringes and heading toward the mainstream. That, in turn, has an effect on our public policy discussions. If those who shaped public opinion in the West viewed the people of Afghanistan as fully deserving of dignity, the history of Western involvement there would look very different. That’s true if you consider the initial decision to invade in 2001, the way in which Western forces engaged over the past 20 years, and the way in which they withdrew.
It’s also why we see so many politicians, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, raising the spectre of Afghan refugees swarming Europe. If there was simple, basic empathy for this population, that kind of attitude would be unthinkable. To put it bluntly: Imagine Afghanistan was a white, Christian, European state, and what our conversations would look like then.
We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. I began my academic vocation only days after. My entire career, then, has been indelibly wedged between having to navigate the repercussions of 9/11 on the one side, and attempting to make a positive contribution to the understanding of Muslim communities of the West and the politics of the Arab world on the other.
So many of today’s public discussions about Islam and Muslims are through the lens of security, and that has led to an absence of nuance and understanding around engaging domestically with our own Muslim communities of the West.
I wish I could say that after 20 years, things have improved. If anything, it seems that matters have become tremendously worse. And if we do not engage in a massive course correction, that trend will simply intensify.
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