North Africa, West Asia

Conceptualizing love for peace from below: humane security in Afghanistan

An alternative concept of security is needed based on values of humanity and empathy, a security that is not only ‘human’ but also ‘humane’.

Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh
12 July 2019
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A former Taliban envoy taught me a valuable lesson one day. As we sat in an academic institution in a European capital, he told me his story, or perhaps it was somebody else’s story, but it was representative of the story of his people, living in large extended families in rural areas with minimal facilities and entrenched poverty. A bomb was dropped by a plane on his village one day, he said, killed all of his immediate and extended family members, parents, siblings, aunts, cousins, the whole lot. Desperate, depressed, and raised on a culture of revenge as duty, what could he do, he asked?

He was referring to Pashtunwali, the tribal moral code and rules of behaviors, based on principles such as Turah (courage and bravery and defense of land, property, and family), Nyaw (justice), Nang (honor), Badal (revenge) and Awyaar (pride) but also Melmestia (hospitality), and Nanawatai (forgiveness or giving asylum). Nanawatai could in principle be used to offset the tradition of revenge, but the bomb from high up on the sky, and sometimes from an unmanned drone, rendered obsolete the axiom of looking into the eyes of the enemy while forgiving or settling the score. What could such a person do but pick up arms, asked the former Taliban?

I could think of many other ways to respond to such a personal horror than bombing others’ extended families and committing suicide attacks that inevitably killed many civilians, including schoolchildren. But underlying the question of this Taliban sympathizer was really another more valid query: Having witnessed such a devastating personal loss, no matter who started the war first, how could one avoid the seed of hatred from being planted in one’s heart?

Victims on all sides of the many wars in Afghanistan have the same feelings from similar personal experiences: hatred, pain, loss, fear. After all, forty years of conflicts have lasted long enough for every single person to be affected personally, in some way or another.

Those trying to broker a peace in Afghanistan today may deem it too soon to speak about true reconciliation, forgiveness and transitional justice. But if everyone spoke of their own pains, perhaps something else could start to chip away at the hatred. Something like empathy and compassion, and an understanding that all sides suffer and do so in the same humane way: loss of family, friends, land, home, future. Perhaps this common empathy could lead to a dialogue for a more humane security from below, while national security is being negotiated between caretakers of power. If the wounds are not healed, trauma and pain will persist and may ignite again in other conflicts, rendering any success over agreed frameworks for power sharing and troop withdrawal obsolete in the long term.

I wonder how the problem of pain is being dealt with, if at all, in current discussions held in five star hotels under the auspices of foreign governments. The grand venues of Doha, Moscow or even the Presidential Arg (palace) in Kabul don’t seem to be proper places for the conversation about pain – and its antithesis, love - to start.

That elusive little thing called peace

Yet, a lot of simultaneous conversations are happening in and around Afghanistan these days, all centered around that elusive concept of peace. Seven rounds of talks between the Taliban and US negotiators in Qatar are trying to hammer an agreement on a four point agenda: counter-terrorism, US troops withdrawal, intra-Afghan negations and a ceasefire. Government officials in their personal capacity, other opposition groups, political parties and civil society actors have been sitting in all Afghan talks co-sponsored by Germany and Qatar. If a group is not around the table, it feels it will be on the menu, or at least completely relegated to the kitchen for a thankless job behind the corridors of power.

Peace is being sought everywhere. From an international security perspective, recalling that Afghanistan is strategically located between the interests of global powers, and given the presence of international terror groups on Afghan land (Al Qaeda before and now ISIS-Khorasan province), many may argue that peace depends on the will of global actors. From a regional perspective, some will argue that peace depends not only on cooperation between regional states to defeat the common scourge of terrorism and transnational criminal networks, but first and foremost on ensuring that neighbors do not keep projecting their own rivalries on Afghan soil.

Politicians will argue that national security will depend on the acceptance of the Constitution and the degree of power-sharing that can be negotiated with spoilers. Civil society groups will want to see how much, ultimately, the values of modern and progressive Afghan civil society and of women’s rights can be reconciled with the more traditional values of groups such as the Taliban that have stayed outside of the liberal peace-building project of the past 16 years.

All these ‘conditionalities’ have one thing in common: they treat the peace project as something exogenous to Afghans, as if it were a gift that could be brought, or taken away, by external actors, i.e. the Americans, neighboring countries, ISIS, drug networks etc. or by institutions, i.e. the army, the police, the state, the international community etc. In this cacophony of peace talks, perhaps someone should raise their voice and ask: why do we seek the source of peace outside of ourselves? What is our own individual contributions to this collective peace, starting from making peace with ourselves and in ourselves?

Peace in the long term is not contingent on international, regional or national security. A new paradigm is needed to guide society towards lasting peace, and it should rely on ‘responsibilizing’ those for whom peace matters: people. The concept of Human Security, coined in the 1994 Human Development Report of UNDP, reminded us that the security of the state is not an end in itself, but a means to the security of individuals. The state is responsible not just to protect its territory from other states, but also to ensure the survival, livelihoods and dignity of its citizens. But what about each individual’s responsibility to be a good person, to act and behave against moral principles? An alternative concept of security is needed based on values of humanity and empathy, a security that is not only ‘human’ (centered on people) but also ‘humane’ (centered on values of humanity, empathy, love etc.).

“Humane Security” is not one that descends upon us from the international system or from the state, but one that springs up from us, and more precisely, from our hearts. While the state has a responsibility to be good, just, equitable, protective and empowering, each person is also responsible towards that collective good to be kind, to respect others, to show compassion and empathy. In other words, to combat hatred with love, fear with kindness.

Behind that elusive little thing called peace there is a crazy little thing called love.

A history and rich culture of love

Peace, enlightenment, harmony, and ultimately love are not alien to the cultural, philosophical and spiritual tradition of Afghanistan and the region surrounding it. This was the main message of the Second Symposium of the Herat School of Security organized by the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies, held on June 20-21st in Kabul.

Speaker after speaker recalled that the region of Khorasan, encompassing today’s Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia physically, and India, Pakistan and Turkey culturally, has been the historical birthplace of enlightened intellectuals, literary and mystic movements. Mystic poets such as Rumi (1207-1273) and Attar (1145-1220) sang in praise of spiritual love in a contemporary language that still speaks to people worldwide. Numerous Pandnameh (book of councils) have been penned by scholars throughout the centuries which counseled the kings of the region to rely on justice and wisdom as the backbones of their just rule. The region is even home to the Pashtun independence activist Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Badshah (1890-1988) (known as the Frontier Gandhi) who instigated a non-violent movement called Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) to end the rule of the British Raj in India.

Today, however, the inheritors of this vast cultural geography are not relying on their rich tradition to create adapted models and theories that explain, predict and prescribe every day security in their daily lives. Instead of adapting their own legacy to modern life, policy makers and theoreticians of the region have been busy with either copying or contesting theories that have come from outside the region - mainly the west. Models of socialism and liberalism, including the liberal peace model, have been imported, adopted without questioning or rejected without reasoning.

The Herat School of Security is an attempt to revive the soft power of the region. It is an idea inspired by what Herat represented until the 16th Century as the capital of the Timurid Empire. As the “Pearl of Khorasan”, it was a robust regional center where trade but also the arts, miniature painting, music, architecture, calligraphy and poetry flourished. It is an irony that the appellation of Khorasan, which for centuries evoked connotations of enlightenment within the Islamic world, has now been associated with the activities of ISIS who calls its branch in Afghanistan as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province. Today, when the region is under pressure to put an end to four decades of war and prevent the growth of new extremist groups and ideologies, there is a need to develop indigenous theories and practical tools to counter the narrative of hatred.

Peace in spirituality

As much of Afghan society is deeply religious, and Central Asian societies are becoming increasingly so, values of non-violence and love also ought to be sought within Islam. Religion continues to provide a moral compass for many Afghans, and as such, may need to be revisited as a source of peace.

Hundreds of religious figures who gathered in Kabul for a three day international symposium on Imam-e-Azam (the great imam) Abu Hanifa (the 8th century founder of the Hannafi school of Sunni on jurisprudence which Afghans follow) on June 18-20th recalled that Abu Hanifa’s ideology and teachings could be a paradigm of fighting terrorism and extremism. The symposium, possibly part of the election campaign of the current government to extend a hand to religious scholars, was also a reminder that Islamic teachings today cannot be left in the hands of those who preach intolerance towards those who don’t adhere to their strictly narrow interpretations. As one of the clerics from the city of Mazar i Sharif who had come to Kabul to participate in the symposium told me, this gathering was seen as a blow to the teachings of Wahhabis and Salafis that were alien to Afghan society.

Today, while interpretations of what is the “right” or “wrong” Islamic way are dominating intra-religious discourses between Hanafis and Salafis or between Sunnis and Shias, neglected is the opportunity to revive the essence of religion as a moral force to guide people towards a more kind and peaceful spiritual (co)existence. Forgotten in the exercise of religion as submission and restrictions are the doctrines of how to lead an ethical, kind and compassionate life. The harsh adaptation of Islamic principles, without the essence of love, can lead to a culture of obedience, sectarianism, exclusion and “othering”, distinguishing between those who follow the dogmas and the others.

If the culture of violence is widespread in the region, it is a manifestation of the crisis of values and spirituality in society. The true essence of religion, embodied in the ethics of doing good and loving God, has been silenced between two extremes: Fanaticism and reactionary secularism.

The vacuum of spirituality, which is at the source of violence, is not only a problem of Muslim societies. The west is similarly undergoing a crisis of ideology, identity and morality. The roots of violence are the same everywhere: lack of knowledge about the self, decrease of kindness, affection, tenderness and compassion. Ultimately, the roots of violence lay in the death – or at least the deficit - of love. The remedy is what the French call “émerveillement”, a spiritual awakening and awareness of the healing power of love. If radicalization starts in the mind, it may perhaps be defeated with love that springs from the heart.

In the tradition of the region, the awakening of the heart to allow divine truths is known as the Sufi tradition of “kashf” (unveiling). It is, simply put, the ultimate experience of falling in love. Hence, the esoteric facet of Islam, embodied in mystic traditions, has the potential to encourage the development of a personal moral code of conduct that can be transmitted in society as a practical remedy against extremism and violence. Unveiling love (kashf e eshq) can be a down-to-earth principle of compassionate relations between people, based on kindness, dignity and empathy, a guide to behavior that is arefaneh (mystical) and asheghaneh (loving), and an alternative to relations in society that are based on power, competition and hatred.

Finding love for Humane Security could draw inspiration from the distinct culture of Persianate sufism of Great Khorasan which cultivated the art of esthetics, expressed through poetry, coupled with moral etiquette (adab), service to others and chivalry as an ethical duty (javanmardi or futuwat). These values and acts are supposed to lead to a personal ethic that creates the necessary impetus – that energy of love –for thinking good, doing good and saying good (associated with the Zoroastrian maxim of Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta), and for reaching the agape, Greek for the «love of God for man and of man for God" which appears in all religions through kindness.

Relying on love does not need to juxtapose reason (the use of logic, facts, rationality and the intellect) against mysticism (spirituality, embracing the unknown, the gnostic, intuition) etc.

Wisdom and the submission to the sacred combined could give rise to a more humane world. The call to the heart definitely touches a vast number of people. Love speaks to all of us.

Humane security: empathy for mutuality

The concept of Humane Security ultimately softens politics by interjecting some soul and compassion into rational calculations of security. It also recalls mutual connectivity between people. A much cited Persian speaking poet of the 13th Century, Saadi Shirazi (1210-1291) expressed this in his poem ‘Children of Adam” which happens to be woven into a giant carpet which Iran gifted to the United Nations in New York :

All human beings are members of one frame,

Since all, at first, from the same essence came.

When time afflicts a limb with pain

The other limbs at rest cannot remain.

If thou feel not for other’s misery

A human being is no name for thee."

Peace in essence, starts with each of us, and love is its conduit. It is only a natural reaction, the next swing of the pendulum, that from four decades of war, from all the hatred, from a land where so much blood has been spilled, homes shattered and lives destroyed, only love can spring. Rumi has said it, as have countless others: “Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.”

But is this a message that Afghans can hear at this junction? While they are involved in talks about talks with their adversaries while jockeying for the parties defending their political interests and their favorite candidates for the November elections, is it naïve to talk about love as a response to pain and hatred? The message sounds hollow when one considers the fears and suicide attacks that Afghans have to endure in their everyday lives.

Can one morally tell someone who has lost all their family and friends to love their adversary? It would be justified to respond with sarcasm: “If the enemy is coming down the hill to kill me and my entire family, what shall I do, hug him?”. The point is however, that the enemy will keep coming down the hill until we stop the cycle at one point, and that could start by showing empathy for why that individual has had to come down the hill. Is it greed, as in the promise for power, booty, territory, or is there some grievance in terms of humiliation, fear, hatred. It would be humane for Afghans to try to have a discussion about their common sufferings. As James Doty, founder of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education puts it, “The ills of the world are a manifestation of individuals’ responses to wounds of the heart that haven’t healed.” The conversation about pain, and its antithesis - love - should begin sooner rather than later. The alternative would inevitably bring more enemies down the hill for years to come, no matter how many agreements are signed between political leaders.

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