The murder of Afghanistan’s Farkhunda and the distorting lens of Islamophobia

The murder of 27-year-old Farkhunda by a mob in Kabul last month has reignited widespread debates about the ongoing violence in Afghanistan.

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Farkhunda, who was known by one name as is often the custom in Afghanistan, was beaten to death in full public view in the Afghan capital on March 19 after a mullah accused her of burning the Holy Koran. Her family, and police investigating the case, dismissed the allegation against her as false.

This shocking case has generated an outpouring of commentary in the West. Neoconservatives and New Atheists increasingly dominate the conversation with a contrived attempt to blame Islam or Afghan culture for this hideous act of violence.

NATO officials have repackaged the war in Afghanistan throughout its 14-year duration with a variety of justifications: a War on Terror fighting Al Qaeda, an offensive against Taliban and insurgents, a quest to bring democracy, liberate women, and train the Afghan army. Each one has been used to disguise the extension of the occupation.

The current anti-Islam rhetoric and advocacy of collective punishment of Muslims as a solution to violence in Afghanistan is simplistic. It’s clear those making these arguments are detached from the sociopolitics of Afghanistan.

In the conversations I’ve had with Afghans, by contrast, I have found a narrative that comes from a place of genuine respect for Afghanistan’s development.

No one was more outraged at Farkhunda’s murder than the Afghan community. Following her death, thousands of women and men marched in cities throughout Afghanistan calling for justice, while countless more organized vigils and protests throughout the Afghan diaspora.

Meanwhile, misrepresentation in the media about Afghan men and their complacency towards violence reinforces stereotypes, adding further toxicity to an already painful event.

‘Afghans are not savages’

I spoke with Faiz, an activist with the Afghan Peace Volunteers, who took part in a Kabul demonstration last month with a group of men donning burqas to protest violence against women. “Non-violence is the best solution for peace and justice,” he told me.

After Farkhunda was killed, Faiz said he felt “insecure” about how men in Afghanistan are generally viewed. “The world will think all Afghan men are violent, but I join the walk for justice for Farkhunda every day. I say no to violence.”

Faiz and his colleagues, some of whom have lost family members to Taliban attacks, have campaigned to humanize Afghan people, while calling for national reconciliation.

In Toronto, Afghan spoken word artist Anies Omari shared similar sentiments, “Afghans are not savages. . . . We’ve been subject to indoctrination in disturbing amounts.”

He called out gender inequality in a patriarchal system, saying, “As men, benefitting from a dominant, controlling, and linear power system, it pisses the living f--- out of us when we see women taking the stage, and I sincerely believe that Farkhunda was a demonstration of butthurt men seeing that more women are in parliament, television, and slowly progressing towards freedom.”

Afghanistan is a prime example showing that systemic violence is not exclusive to members of religious communities. In an effort to justify their Islamophobia, New Atheist writers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali point out crimes committed in the name of religion in Afghanistan, while omitting historical facts like the Soviet-backed communist government of Afghanistan’s brutal secular reformation of traditional Islamic and cultural values from 1978 to 1992.

Following the Saur Revolution, tens of thousands of Afghans were kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the ruling communist government. In 2013, Dutch prosecutors released documents known as the “Death List,” which include names of 5,000 Afghans who were tortured and executed without trial at the Pul-i-Charki prison after the communist coup d’etat. Number 128 on the list is my grandfather, Obaidullah Kakar.

A journalist and secular Afghan, Obaidullah had a saying: “Tah ke reesh ast, jahan dar tashweesh ast.” It translates to “As long as there is a beard, the world is full of worry.” The use of the word beard is metaphorical for mullahs and the Islamic far right. But it was not bearded religious fanatics who assassinated him. Later his cousin Hassan Kakar, a scholar and historian, was imprisoned and tortured for five years by the same regime. Their subjugation was part of an attempt to suppress opposition to the Soviet invasion and communist government. The Mujahideen later continued this legacy of targeting academics on suspicions of being affiliated with the enemy government.

The arrival of forces from the USSR in Afghanistan brought chemical warfare, endless land mines and war crimes. Soviet soldiers frequently visited my mother’s village in Logar, where they raided homes, killed livestock, and put farmers in trucks to be executed without prosecution. During their patrols, they would find women, children, and the elderly hiding in kandus (mud storage units for flour) and, using their rifle bayonets, would stab through the containers, piercing people’s skulls and torsos, and leaving the corpses to be found later by locals.

I suppose, by the logic of today’s Islamophobes, atheism is to blame for these Soviet atrocities.

Meanwhile, USAID sent billions of dollars to aid the Mujahideen guerilla resistance, who were also supported by their Wahabi and ISI counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Most people don’t know that the United States didn’t just send weaponry. They also sent religious textbooks written at Nebraska University to further radicalize the Afghan population to fight a Holy War against the godless enemy.

Afghan textbook
Made in the USA

This is an example of one of thousands of U.S.-funded textbooks sent to Afghanistan. It translates as, “Jihad: Often many different wars and conflicts arise among people, which cause material damages and loss of human life. If these wars and disputes occur among people for the sake of community, nation, territory, or even because of verbal differences, and for the sake of progress. . . .”

If you’re wondering what happened to those books, a good place to start looking are the madrassas still operating under Taliban control on the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. The Soviet war cost the lives of 1.5 million Afghan civilians. The civil war that followed claimed more than 400,000. The current U.S.-led war in Afghanistan has taken the lives of tens of thousands of civilians; the exact figure is impossible to calculate because body counts were not recorded during the first five years of heavy bombing in the country.

Our violence and theirs

Exactly one week before Farkhunda’s death was the third anniversary of the Panjwai Massacre, when U.S. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales massacred 16 unarmed civilians, including women and nine children, before their bodies were set on fire. War crimes against civilian populations have been a recurring theme for NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the case of Bales, his surrender was immediately followed by reports that he suffered from mental illness and PTSD.

I can’t help but wonder if the Afghan mob who killed Farkhunda would be analyzed in the same way. Bales endured four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, while many Afghans have endured close to four decades of war. For some, war has encompassed their entire lives.

Surveys conducted by health organizations over the last decade have found that over 60 per cent of Afghans suffer from mental disorders. Despite this alarming figure, there is a lack of mental health professionals available to diagnose and treat patients, and limited medical facilities operating throughout the country. According to the World Health Organization, there has been “no demonstrable improvement in the mental health status of the population in the post-Taliban years.” Over the last 37 years, Afghanistan has been struggling not just with war and insurgency, but also massive numbers of refugees and internally displaced populations, instability, and unsustainable development.

The overwhelming focus by some commentators on religion leaves out key factors, most notably the political and power dynamics that have contributed to the ongoing violence in Afghanistan. Well funded Islamophobic organizations continue to push this narrative. It is shamelessly opportunistic and a ploy to profit off of Afghan suffering.

The same Western Islamophobes who feign outrage over a slain Afghan woman in Kabul simultaneously ignore their governments’ long history of fanning the flames of violent radicalization overseas, not to mention the use of their taxpayers’ dollars to invade, occupy, and bomb Muslim countries. War by its very nature damages the pillars of a society. It’s absurd to blame religion alone without deconstructing the complex historical, sociopolitical and psychological consequences of warfare.

Countering any form of violence requires, foremost, an analysis informed by historical context and free from prejudice. The reality is that the Afghan community is in a constant state of trauma. We aren’t allowed to even catch our breath before the next round of violence is inflicted.

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