Liberalism vs. Islamism: a new front in Afghan society
Alongside its language and ethnic boundaries, Afghan society is now facing a new frontier: the “ideological polarization”. Although this ideological polarization is currently mild and overshadowed by other variables, it can be revealed by anatomizing Afghan society. This polarization is more obvious in major cities, between cities and villages, and between the older and younger generations. Symbols of this phenomenon can also be seen in some rituals in the society or in cyberspace, but in Afghanistan’s presidential election which was a race for power, confrontation between these two intellectual currents was more visible than before.
Despite multiple candidates running in Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential election, it was almost clear that the main challenge was between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive of the National Unity Government. The results announced by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC) also revealed stark differences between these two candidates and the other eleven candidates, with Ghani won 50.64% of the votes and Abdullah 39.52%.
This article seeks to study the campaign between these two top teams, by focusing on two Intellectual Currents: Liberalism and Islamism. The author's hypothesis is that Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential election was a mild scene of confrontation between two different intellectual tendencies; On the one hand, there was the first generation political leaders and jihadists with Islamist tendencies, and on the other hand, there was a liberal person, around whom young supporters with liberal tendencies were gathered. While several variables had influenced the formation of these two teams, such as the individuals’ interest and ethnicity, but one of the variables was ideological confrontation.
Ideological polarization of Afghan society
Earlier, the cause of bipolarity and sometimes multi-polarity of Afghan society was ethnic and linguistic divisions, but in post-2001 era, a mild form of bipolarity can be felt in the Afghan society due to differences in a set of values and beliefs, or more simply, the Ideological differences which exists within the society. This polarization is more obvious in major cities, between cities and villages, and between the older and younger generations. Its instances can also be well seen in some rituals in the society or in cyberspace.
The prevailing ideology in pre-2001 Afghan society was largely based on local and Islamic traditions and values, but two decades after the formation of modern Afghanistan, liberalism has arisen among some parts of Afghan people and elites. After 2001, the influx of returning migrants, media abundance and public access to them, increasing levels of education and awareness, and Western countries’ public diplomacy in Afghanistan were factors which caused the expansion of liberalism in Afghan society. The effectiveness of each of these factors is different, but the U.S.-led Western diplomacy has been more effective than others.
Given that the spread of liberalism is a legitimate goal in the foreign policy of liberal countries, they use diplomatic, economic, cultural and even military tools to achieve this goal. But among these four tools, cultural and propaganda tools are used directly to influence nations and change their behavioral patterns, mindset and living styles in a way that meets the interests and demands of liberal and influential countries in the long-term. In this case, the influential country try to create a kind of empathy and alignment between its own government and the targeted nation by using advanced methods of psychology, anthropology and sociology as well as symbols and folklore of the targeted society. Cultural-propaganda tools gradually influence the behavior of nations and, slowly, bring about a change in the mindset of people.
This change in public opinion and behavior will force political elites to carry out political, economic and social reforms. This is a complex and continuous process and its effects will appear in the long run in the form of new domestic and foreign policy orientations.
In post-Taliban Afghanistan, the United States and other Western countries promoted liberal values and mindset in different ways. Financial support for the establishment of audio-visual media, awarding scholarships, and support for the establishment of various NGOs have been among direct and indirect ways of promoting liberal values. While a separate study needs to be conducted in order to determine the exact extent of the effectiveness of this macro-policy, but some of its effects can be seen in today's Afghan society, including the fact that a range of people and elites have become liberal.
This mindset has caused a kind of bipolarity in Afghan society which one of its obvious manifestations can be seen in the country’s 2019 presidential elections. Afghanistan's 2019 presidential election, besides reopening old wounds of the ethnic divide within the country, revealed the bipolarity caused by liberalism and Islamism.
Although the voter turnout was low and there was controversy over the number of each of the two candidates’ votes, but the formation of two fronts - one led by Abdullah with a majority of jihadi leaders and the other led by Ghani with the support of young people from differentethnic groups- is a symbol of Afghan society’s bipolarity. Ashraf Ghani, as a technocrat with liberal views, has gathered supporters of this thinking around him. In Abdullah's team, an individual does not play such a central role, but a group of people with Islamist ideas have formed this front. Meanwhile, it is necessary to mention three points: * First, given the context of Afghan society and the ideological polarization, as well as the share of liberalism values among influential Western players, especially the United States, both teams sometimes exhibit contradictory behaviors, i.e., Islamists show a tendency toward liberalism and vice versa.
* Second, in both teams, there are people with tendencies contrary to the team’s dominant mindset, for instance, the presence of Atta Muhammad Nur, Fazal Hadi Muslimyar and Sarwar Danesh in Ghani’s team and Anwar ul-Haq Ahady in Abdullah’s team. But the presence of these people does not violate the proposed hypothesis, and various factors, including the personal interest of them can be considered a reason for their presence in one of these combinations. * Third, the role of ethnicity should not be ignored in this division, and this variable has played a significant role in this demarcation.
Nevertheless, with a careful evaluation of these two teams, one can well find the contribution of ideological bipolarity in them.
Islamists’sense of danger
In the 2019 elections, unlike the previous three presidential elections, we witnessed the gathering of jihadi leaders around Abdullah Abdullah. This aggregation is due to the promotion and consolidation of liberalism, which has disrupted the safety margin of jihadi leaders. Ashraf Ghani's government tried hard to dismantle the power islands of these jihadi leaders, albeit selectively, and even Abdullah Abdullah's 50 percent share in the National Unity Government was ignored.
The continuation of this situation could further marginalize jihadist leaders and limit their power. Thus, the Islamists, by putting aside their internal divisions, formed a cohesive front to oppose the Ghani-led liberal ideology. So, they united to maintain their survival. Regarding the success of this intellectual front, it should be said that if 300,000 disputed votes were deducted from Ghani’s votes, his votes would be almost equal to Abdullah Abdullah’s. However, due to the low voter turnout, it is not possible to make an accurate judgment about this.
Confrontation of ideologies and the Afghan peace process
Although power is now in the hands of liberals and the Islamists have been marginalized following the liberals' policies, the Afghan peace process, if successful, will bring a large part of modern Islamists (Taliban) into the Afghanistan’s power structure. Part of liberals’ sense of danger stems from this fact, and for this reason they are trying to make the Afghan peace process compliant with government engineering.
Also, the tendency of jihadi leaders towards the current peace process is partly due to the common values between them and the Taliban in the Islamist dimension, which could weaken the power of liberals. Therefore, the inclinations and disinclinations towards the peace process should also be considered from this point of view.
Afghan society is now facing a new frontier alongside its traditional language and ethnic boundaries: the “ideological polarization”. The ideological polarization is currently mild and overshadowed by other variables, but it can be revealed by anatomizing Afghan society. The policy of liberalizing the Afghan society has so far affected young educated people in major cities, and if the current situation continues, it will affect more sections of society. The political mistakes of jihadi leaders and the movement of a group of them towards amassing wealth, has been one of the reasons turning away Afghan society from Islamism. Currently, the safety margin of Islamism (as a decades-old ideology in Afghanistan) has been attacked, and this has led to the reunification of Islamists.
In fact, confrontation between these two currents of thought in Afghanistan’s presidential election was a struggle for the survival of Islamists as well as a power struggle between these two currents of thought.
Javid Hosseini is a member of the scientific council of the Institute for East Strategic Studies