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Saturday, 09.25.2010, 04:56pm (GMT)
Alan Saunders: The Afghan parliamentary elections are taking place as we speak, though, like the Presidential elections in 2009, they are not proceeding without controversy. Over 2,000 candidates will contest almost 250 seats in the country's parliament. But so far though, four candidates have been killed, as have five people who had been working for a woman running for election.
The Director of Free and Fair Elections Afghanistan told an Australian newspaper that these elections could be more dangerous and violent than the Presidential elections last year, when Taliban intimidation led to very low voter turnout in some provinces.
I'm Alan Saunders, thanks for joining me as today on The Philosopher's Zone we explore philosophy in Afghanistan, both formal philosophy in the universities, and informal philosophy in the broader culture.
My guest is Ehsan Azari who was born in 1958 just outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and now lives in Australia. He studied engineering in Kabul, was a literary editor with The Kabul Times, took part in anti-Soviet activities and then left for Pakistan in 1989. Dr Ehsan Azari is now Adjunct Fellow with the Writing in Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney.
He's also the author of a book, Lacan and the Destiny of Literature - Desire, Jouissance and the Sinthome in Shakespeare, Donne, Joyce and Ashbery.
Ehsan Azari, welcome to the show.
Ehsan Azari: Thank you.
Alan Saunders: Let's start with the President, Hamid Karzai. He's not up for re-election today as it's a parliamentary election. You suggest that he has an antipathy towards the Afghan intelligentsia. Can you explain what you mean?
Ehsan Azari: President Karzai is more in love with the Afghan warlords, because the warlords are who support him, who won him the election, and also who his whole fortune is dependent on these warlords. There is an unending war going on in that country, and this political and social turmoil in that country completely shattered the normal development or natural development of the intelligentsia in Afghanistan. So until Afghan intellectuals are mainly fled the country or those who are still in the country they are still aspiring to flee the country.
Alan Saunders: I guess we need to make a distinction in all this, between formal philosophical debate, going on in universities, and the sort of philosophical discussion that goes on in the broader culture, outside universities. Firstly, what is the state of formal philosophy in Afghan universities?
Ehsan Azari: In Afghan universities before this thee decade of unending war, before that we had a very competitive university, a very famous university in the region, Kabul University was. So we had a philosophy department, it was on a par with the Western philosophical development.
Alan Saunders: And when it was flourishing, Kabul University had the very highest prestige didn't it, people travelled to Kabul University from all over the region, from India, and from other countries.
Ehsan Azari: Yes, that's true, Because we had a very good university; we had thriving intellectual debates within the universities. And intellegensia in Afghanistan is not like university in countries that everything is within the boundaries of the university. In Afghanistan we had a good intellectual culture beyond university as well. And that culture also unfortunately collapsed after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Alan Saunders: You've written that a large number of Afghan intellectuals are working in the booming media industry. Now given that universities and other intellectual institutions that were shut down under Taliban rule, have been re-opened for less than a decade, and are still rebuilding intellectually, is the media industry one of the few places that philosophers and the like, can get reliable and relatively well-paid employment?
Ehsan Azari: Yes, to some extent that's true, because in Afghanistan now we have more than 20 television networks, and also hundreds of radios, hundreds of newspapers and journals. But unfortunately, now the main focus is on war, so people are not much relaxed that they think about philosophy or they think about that sort of thing, because the security situation is deteriorating on a daily basis. So although we have some intellectuals that are still in Kabul, they are living, they are active, but the media industry is the only industry that intellectuals find a home now.
Alan Saunders: You mentioned the thriving intellectual culture outside the universities, in the general culture, before the Soviet invasion. If it was as strong a culture as you suggest, how did it so completely collapse?
Ehsan Azari: One reason was that when the Communist government took over after that Marxism became the official philosophy. And there was another thing was that Communist regime imprisoned hundreds of intellectuals, so every intellectual non-communist was under the threat of being in prison, or being even killed or being executed, or forced to flee the country.
This was an ideological war against our culture, against our old traditions. Afghanistan is a very backward and poor country, but still, we had a very rich philosophical culture. You see the great philosophers like Rumi, which is now the best-selling poet in America, and also we have Sayyid Jamal al-Din Afghani in the 19th century, whose ideas were very much influenced by 19th century European philosophical discourse. And 19th century so we also have Idries Shah. Idries Shah was a Sufi philosopher who lived in the West. So we had a very rich culture of Sufism, and unfortunately within that 30 years, everything gone up the wind.
Alan Saunders: You mentioned a number of figures there. Perhaps you could tell us a little more about them, and specifically what they added to the philosophical life of Afghanistan.
Ehsan Azari: Let's begin with the Rumi. Rumi was a Sufi philosopher, and he was contemporary to Thomas Aquinas and even there are some people tihnk that there was some exchange of views between these two people, because Rumi was living in Turkey, which was at that time part of Eastern Roman Empire. And Rumi introduced Greek philosophy, particularly new Platonic ideas and pantheism into Islamic philosophy. So he bridged this spiritual and intellectual knowledge like St Augustine for instance. And also he wrote a philosophical work and also lots of poetry. So he was the doyen of Afghan philosophy, although he was a mystic, a Sufi, a poet, but his ideas are very much, very strong influence of the Eastern thought. So he brought together the Eastern and Western thinking.
And Sayyid Jamal al-Din Afghani in the 19th century, he was a reformist and also a modernist intellectual, but unfortunately his firebrand form of anti-colonialism became his weak point, that he was always followed by British agents, he was followed from one country to another country. And he was a friend to Ernest Renan. Ernest Renan, French philosopher, and he joined Ernest Renan in his views on religion, and Sayyid Jamal al-Din Afghani says that it is possible that religion can be used for evil objective, not from outside but from working religion. And also he was a reformist. This was his idea, but unfortunately he was expelled from the country, and as you know, that legacy of Rumi and also of Jamal al-Din Afghani was replaced by the worst perverted form of Islam within that 30 years that we are experiencing now. First it was fundamentalism, and then the Taliban, and even now there are all sorts of extremist militants,
Alan Saunders: On ABC Radio National, you're with the The Philosopher's Zone, and I'm talking to Dr Ehsan Azari from the University of Western Sydney, about philosophy and politics in his native Afghanistan.
Dr Azari, back to the 1980s when you were in your 20s and when the Soviets had occupied Afghanistan and Marxism reigned supreme. But there must have been some sort of philosophical debate possible. I mean in the Soviet Union it was possible to have philosophical debates about Marxism, it was even possible to have philosophical debates about Western philosophy, providing that you disguised it as Marxism, or gave it a few Marxian decorations. Was that possible?
Ehsan Azari: Yes, to some extent that was possible. We had party and non-party intellectuals, so party members were mostly people who were Marxist, and they were imposing their will on the non-party intellectuals. The non-party intellectuals divided into different schools of thought. For instance, some, even some Communists once they saw that Marxism in practice, once they saw the Marxism so they became disillusioned with Marxism as well. So then existentialism became a kind of transition from Marxism, because existentialism on the one hand gave enough of materialism and enough of atheism to some intellectuals, that they could keep up with it. And also it had enough of nihilism and existentialism that they could see they express the banalities and all the absurdities that come in Afghanistan with this alien ideology.
And also I myself noticed at that time that for some intellectuals existentialism was a kind of refuge at that time. But for other people, for other intellectuals, nationalism was a kind of ideology. And for others, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic new ideology which was mainly inspired by foreign countries, especially from Muslim Brotherhoods, from Egypt, which was created in the Egypt that Islamic fundamentalism with Sayyid Qutb and also Muhammad Qutb and unfortunately these people had brought an Islam to a stage of perversion, they poisoned Islam, you now.
And actually, in my view, there are many Western scholars and Western commentators think that this Islamic fundamentalism was a reaction to Western imperialism, but in my view this Islamic fundamentalism that originated with Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt, that was in fact making a parallel to Marxist intellectualism. So they wanted an Islamic alternative to Marxist ideology, because in the '60s, '70s and '80s, Marxism was very influential in Asia and Middle Eastern countries.
Alan Saunders: Let's talk a little more about the popularity among intellectuals at that time, of existentialism. More specifically, what did they get from existentialism and who did they read? Did they read Sartre, or Camus?
Ehsan Azari: Yes, Sartre books were read secretly, they read books by Sartre because Sartre was not acceptable for the Communists in Afghanistan because it was completely a Stalinist version of Communism. Even Sartre was an enemy for them. So Sartre gives them lots of food for thought.
Alan Saunders: And what about the nihilism, where did that come from?
Ehsan Azari: The nihilism came mainly from a reflection to the new social and political environment, I believe, because thousands of intellectuals and thousands of educated people were killed during the first decade of the Communist rule. Nihilism was a kind of reaction to the current political situation at that time.
Alan Saunders: Now I've been talking about these intellectuals who are opposing Marxism. I've been talking about them in the third person. I wonder whether in talking to you I should use the second person. I mean were you one of these people?
Ehsan Azari: I was interested in existentialism at that time because I thought it was the most developed and the most sophisticated the thinking at that time. But later on of course, when I migrated, I myself was in prison twice. When I was in Kabul Times as a literary editor, I was imprisoned and I saw with my own eyes the tortures and killings, and all that kind of tragic situation. Intellectuals of all thoughts except Marxist, and even Marxists of Chinese trends were also being tortured.
Alan Saunders: Two spells in prison; was that why you left?
Ehsan Azari: When I was released the situation was deteriorating, and we intellectuals in Kabul created a kind of resistance to the ruling ideology, so we were using very difficult metaphors in our writing. We were making difficult our writing in order to pass on our message.
Alan Saunders: The Mujahideen period also involved a bloody and protracted civil war, and then in come the Taliban, mainly powerful in the south and east, and very much dominated by the ethnic Pashtuns of those regions. They sweep across the whole country, closing the universities and schools as they go. Now that doesn't look as though it's good for philosophy, although I mean was there any intellectual element in the Taliban? You mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, I gather that the work of Sayyid Qutb is actually intellectually quite strenuous. I mean you could study that at a university.
Ehsan Azari: Yes, to some extent it is intellectually charged, but I think there is a very creeping kind of revolutionary ideas in Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad Qutb, but Taliban is completely a new version of Islamic perversion, I would say, because the Taliban come out of the blue, out from nowhere. In 1980's in Pakistan particularly, in Pakistan cities Peshawar and Quetta, these two main cities, they established hundreds of Islamic schools. And these schools were funded by Western taxpayer money, and also Saudi money. They were giving money to the worst fundamentalists, and the worst extremist element in Afghanistan. Because they wanted just to get rid of Russians in Afghanistan.
If you look at the Taliban ideology, the Taliban interpretation of the Qur'an, even if you look back in the history of Islamic philosophy, even Qur'an is subject to interpretation, so there is even difference between interpretation of the scripture in Islam.
But once the Taliban come into power, then everything changed into a very fanatic and a very repressive system. I was thinking that if Michel Foucault had a concept of power and knowledge and biopolitics, and when I look that even Taliban were within your body that you grow a beard, you should have a turban, even they were setting the rules for eating and for praying, for everything. So that was a complete kind of biopolitics in Afghanistan during the Taliban time.
Alan Saunders: You visited Kabul in 2008, it was your first trip since you left in 1989. I wonder whether you can tell us about it. You were invited to go and speak about modern Western philosophical ideas, most notably post-structuralist, or post-modern continental philosophy.
Ehsan Azari: Actually I was invited by the Ministry of Education to write and edit an English textbook for the secondary schools. This was my job. But when I went back there at first I was really enthusiastic that after 17 years living in exile, I am now going back to my ancestral country, to help them to work for them. But unfortunately I was disillusioned. Within weeks I'd become very disappointed because they did not want work actually. So they were very much interested to just grab Western money and just to spoil it or put it on their own personal coffers.
And I immediately after three months working there, I wrote my resignation letter and sent it to the Minister, but Minister did not accept it. Then I was totally disappointed to work in that environment. Then some friends asked me to do something good during my stay there: I had to give some seminars. There was a German sponsor, NGO, called Mediathek, so I started fortnightly seminars on new thinking in Western philosophy, particularly the French theory. I give five lectures there, so many people coming there were lecturers, and some students of philosophy and literature and also some poets you know, some writers.
Alan Saunders: And what sort of response did you get?
Ehsan Azari: They were really much interested. My objective was not just to parrot in Western philosophy, new continental philosophy to my audience. My idea was just to make a bridge between these schools of thought, just to explain to them. And one problem was even in Europe and other countries as well, it was too difficult to present French theory in the local language, as we even in English sometimes we have difficulties to present Derrida, Michel Foucault, but especially Jacques Lacan. And when you translate these things into Persian or Pashtu, the two languages that are being spoken in Afghanistan, it was extremely difficult. But people were very, very much interested to hear about new ideas, new concepts.
Alan Saunders: And did you choose ideas and concepts to talk about that you thought would particularly be of interest to an Afghan audience?
Ehsan Azari: Yes, yes, especially I gave two seminars, one on 'mirror stage' in Jacques Lacan's theory that the basis of poetry goes back to our early childhood. In the mirror stage, when we are introducing ourselves to language, so the signifier or the language is making us ourself. At that stage, the genesis of poetry became solid and then later in life, it became poetry. So I found from my own culture, for instance I found lots of similarity between Rumi's thought and Jacques Lacan's thought.
Alan Saunders: And of course poetry is hugely popular in Afghanistan, isn't it?
Ehsan Azari: Yes. Everyone is a poet. If you ask an Afghan, even a peasant, when they are talking, in their daily conversation, they will use one or two poems from classic poets.
Alan Saunders: And are there specific ideas or philosophies from amongst Western post-structuralism or post-modernism, that you think could be helpful to intellectuals and others in Afghanistan today?
Ehsan Azari: Yes, they can give them the power to find new meaning in their own literary text and their literary discourses in philosophy and everything. For instance, there is Deluze and Guattari have a concept of Rhizometic growth that's taken from botany. So I use the present growth of media in Afghanistan in the light of Deluzian activity because now there is more newspaper and there are more radios than their audience. This is to some extent because the Western agencies are investing more money in that area, and they think that they will do some positive work, but sometimes produce adverse reactions, even counter-productive in many ways sometimes.
Alan Saunders: Did these discussions help to lessen a little the disillusionment that you had been feeling on your return after so long?
Ehsan Azari: Yes, this was a relief for me, because I was preparing each fortnight, working and then translating these new ideas and then coming to my audience and talking to them. That was a very exciting moment for me, when I was talking to my own people, to the intellectuals. But unfortunately, at that time, insecurity was the main reason that all intellectuals were feeling a kind of insecurity, they were feeling anxiety about the future because they thought that the Americans will eventually withdraw from Afghanistan, and then back we will be at the hands of the Taliban. So what will happen next?
Alan Saunders: Well what will happen next to you? Do you regret leaving Afghanistan, do you intend to return?
Ehsan Azari: Well at the current circumstances unfortunately there is no opportunity for me to return to that country at the moment. But in future if something happens and if peace returned to that country, why not we go. But unfortunately at the moment I don't think there is good news from that country.
Alan Saunders: Ehsan Azari, thank you very much for being with us today.
Ehsan Azari: Thank you very much, and it was a pleasure to be with you.
Alan Saunders: Dr Ehsan Azari, is Adjunct Fellow with the Writing and Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney.