Afghanistan: Exclusive Narratives and No Norm

By: Shahir Sirat and Ramin Kamangar

1 Jul 2023
alt-white-book 7 minutes
Afghanistan: Exclusive Narratives and No Norm

Afghanistan is a political society with no democratic norm/Photo (Radio Free Europe)

From the establishment of Afghanistan in 1880 to the present day, stability, war and peace, and a justly inclusive political settlement have been the main question. The country has never experienced a consolidated socio-political system to ensure development and social justice. The intellectuals and social scientists draw and argue different causalities behind this terrific status of instability. Some argue in favor of external factors, such as proxy war, intervention, and occupation, while others focus more on domestic elements, such as socio-ethnic conflicts. Mostly, external and domestic variables overlap, providing a more significant and less blurred picture of the conflict in the country.

In this piece, we contend that the country never succeeded in developing inclusive socio-political narratives and democratic norms. Due to this lack of norms and exclusive narratives, the country still failed to seek social justice, stability, and security. To reach a status of stability and security, over and above, the country needs to facilitate a multicultural status of justice and redefine its existential narratives along the lines of socio-politico-cultural democratic and gender-ethnicity-class-inclusive norms. The definition of the “we” as a nation for the citizens of Afghanistan should be inclusive, democratic, and religiously tolerant.


The Exclusive Narratives of Sovereignty

There are two sets of political and social narratives of sovereignty in Afghanistan: 1. The dominant exclusive narratives: mostly held power from the establishment of Afghanistan in 1880, and 2. The opponent narratives: more recent and repressed.

The first group of narratives, which are strongly unsuited and incompatible, have been the main base of the country’s political setting. These narratives are monocultural, ethnically exclusive, religiously dogmatic, and abstract with significantly less diversity. This set of narratives is in the pursuit of building a strong central government on the axis of Pashtun ethnic fascism and Islamist ideology. Hence, two main principles are forming these narratives: 1: ethnic dominance of Pashtuns (Afghaniyat) and 2: religious radicalism (Islamiyat). The idea of a “strong central government” based on religious radicalism in favor of Pashtun’s ethnic dominance started with King Abdur Rahman [1] (1880-1901) in 1880 and continued with his son, King Habibullah [2] (1901-1919), and his grandson King Amanullah (1919-1929).

During the era of Amanullah, the first king of Afghanistan after independence from the British, the very first seeds of lingo-ethnic tension were put in the soil: Mahmud Tarzi, Amanullah’s Foreign Minister and father-in-law manifested “Afghan” (the tribal name of Pashtuns) as the national identity of the country, and Pashtu as the Afghani language, totally excluding other identities and languages [3]. The principles of “Afghaniyat” and “Islamiyat” are the main articles of Amanullah’s constitution that have been kept in the later constitutions of the country as well. This tyrannical notion was followed by King Zahir Shah, the very last monarch of Afghanistan, from 1933 to 1973. During this era, the most intense restrictions and discriminatory policies were against non-Pashtun people and non-Pashtu languages. The monarchy officially followed the Pashtunisation of bureaucracy and government [4]. The Pashtunisation policy of the government failed due to the lack of Pashtu knowledge among government employees and authorities. The first republic of Afghanistan, which was established as a result of Mohammad Daud’s coup d’etat, lasted for five years (1973-1978), and even the leftist communist regime of Afghanistan (1978-1992) followed the same path [5].

However, the resistance level against this dominant narrative has been in oscillation in a historical context but still succeeded in surviving and extending its enforcing power. Now, the Taliban, as a religiously extremist Pashtun power, practice these principles radically at their possible peak. Consequentially, in this narrative, to be someone from Afghanistan means to be sincere to the Islamic government, to accept the exclusive Pashtun-rule sovereignty, and to be proud of this constructed false historical narrative thinking of thyself as zealous.

Writers and Researcher: Shahir Sirat and Ramin Kamangar

Writers and Researcher: Shahir Sirat and Ramin Kamangar

In contrast, the second set of narratives in Afghanistan opposes the first group and is more recent. These narratives protest the idea of a central power government based on ethnicity and religion in Afghanistan and advertise the decentralization and deconcentration of power concerning multiculturalism and diversity in religion, ethnicity, language, and gender. Tahir Badakhshi (1933-1979), the founder of the Revolutionary Organization of the Toilers of Afghanistan, known as SAZA, has manifested the idea of “National Oppression” for the first time by counter-arguing the so-called national narratives explained above [6]. Unlike the first group of narratives, this set carries the following principles: 1. Decentralization and deconcentration of power, 2. Respect for ethnic diversity, 3. Balanced development of all ethnically based regions, 4. Ensuring multiculturalism and non-aggressive religious narratives. Due to its confrontation with the dominant political narrative, these narratives were repressed mainly, followed by mass propaganda. However, the struggle is still alive.

Therefore, the basic narratives of sovereignty and state formation in Afghanistan fails to provide a consolidated and stable base for the country: They disregard any kind of multiculturalism and religious diversity and lead to long-run ethnic, linguistic, and religious antagonism. They prevent the formation of any democratic order and, in contrast, build dictatorship or pseudo-dictatorship socio-political settings. Most importantly, they strongly act against the country’s modernization and stability.


A No-Norm Political Society

The disputes caused by the dominance of religious-ethnic narratives and the repression of diversity and tolerance institutionalized a ruling principle: No norm is acceptable and respect-worthy. Afghanistan is a political society with no democratic norm, where there is no national consensus over the rules of the game. The sovereign only plays with its own rules of repression and is not bonded to any legal or moral accountability procedures. It is a game with the rules of the one dominant player, in which other players do not have enough space for emerging, breathing, and practicing self-determination. Therefore, the sovereign crosses any line to consolidate its power.

As Georgio Agamben argues, the sovereign is the one who is making decisions in the state of exception and state of emergency [7]. Afghanistan has been in an all-time state of exception since its formation in the late 19th century as a modern state. The sovereign has always used this frail, fake, and deceptive justification, labeling it as “protection of national interest” to practice the repressive enforcement of power.

Additionally, such harsh practice of power in Afghanistan denied the formation of progressive and democratic institutions, for instance, a transparent election system, and norms, such as mutual toleration and institutional forbearance [8]. Unlike any democratic rule, the game of politics in the country has always been discriminatory, aggressive, and repressive, where diversity and tolerance cannot breathe. This state of repression is deeply rooted in the already-discussed narratives shaping the politics in the country around ethnic fascism and radical Islamism.

Accordingly, building and enforcing norms that define the rules of the game, limit the use of violence in politics, and ensure diversity and multiculturalism is achievable by the three means of constitutionalization, legalization, and socio-moralization: First, the constitution of the country should recognize and define democratic norms in which a relatively high consensus of the people is attainable. Second, the country’s legal framework should ensure democratic & diverse entities and institutions that enforce those norms. Third, society should naturalize those norms as inescapable political and moral values in a long-term cultural process. Pragmatically, every player in politics and every citizen in society should practically be able to identify when the sovereign is crossing the line and how to stop it.

In conclusion, the dominant political narratives in Afghanistan are exclusive and discriminatory, making them unsuited and incompatible with addressing the necessities of a modern nation-state. At a greater level, such narratives are not providing enough space for forming norms that ensure diversity, tolerance, and social justice in the country. Hence, there is a need to advertise and support just narratives and, based on that, build strong democratic and diverse norms. The process of naturalization of norms should be followed from two dimensions: 1. Up to the bottom (Constitutionalisation and legalization) and 2. Bottom to up (socio-moralization). In other words, Afghanistan, if it is supposed to exist as a country, needs to redefine and change its existential philosophy from a monocultural and repressive government to a multicultural and diverse government where every ethnicity, gender, and class can identify itself equally and justly.



[1] Abdur Rahman massacred the Hazaras, a non-Pashtun and non-Sunni ethnicity of Afghanistan. Asif Ahang, a prominent Afghanistani historian, narrates that “Abdur Rahman and his subalterns committed any possible felony against Hazaras. Thousands of Hazaras were beheaded… their lands and properties were confiscated and given away to Pashtuns[1].” See page 171 of Ahang’s book “History of Afghanistan,” published in Kabul (2020) by Vazha Publications.

[2] King Habibullah focused more on the narrative of political Islam and put solid discriminatory policies against women, non-Sunni Muslims, and Sikhs of Afghanistan. “The king ordered Hindu men to wear yellow turbans and Hindu Women to wear the yellow burqa, so they appear distinctive from others.” See page 176 of Ibid.

[3] Amanullah also signed and ratified the law of NAQILIN, allowing and supporting Pashtuns to move and resettle to the central, northern, and other non-Pashtun areas.

[4] “Pashto will be our only official language [Before that, both Pashto and Persian (Aka Farsi, Dari, Farsi Dari, and Persian Dari in Afghanistan.) were the official languages of the country]. Throw away Persian. Our myths and poems will be known and understood by everyone. We will attain pride from these myths that will unite us.” so said Hashim Khan, the prime minister, and uncle of King Zahir Shah, in 1937.

[5] The only exception in the communist regime of Afghanistan breaking this narrative was the era of Babrak Karmal, the only non-Pashtun communist president (1979-1986) that excluded “Afghan” as the national identity of Afghanistan from the constitution.

[6] The manifesto of SAZA states that: “The regressive dominance of Pashtun fed on the enslavement of other ethnicities. The center of this regression is in the hands of people of all ethnicities. The freedom of the people of Pashtun [from this regression] is dependent on the freedom of enslaved people of other ethnicities… we support the formation of a “Federal Republic” in which people of all ethnicities, such as Tajik, Pashtun, Hazara, Turkmen, Nuristani, Baloch, etc., are building their own republics using their rights to self-determination.”

[7] See his book “State of Exception.”

[8] We borrow these norms from Steven Levitsky & Danial Zibllat, who discuss them in the context of US politics in their book, How Democracies Die. According to Levitsky and Zibllat, Mutual toleration refers to the idea that as long as our rivals play by [Democratic] constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern. Institutional forbearance is avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit. The norm of institutional forbearance declares that those in power won’t use that power to harm their opponents, which is an exercise of respecting restraints in power.

Subscribe for Newsletter

Related Topics