Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The essentializing of "Pashtunwali" is dangerous

[revised and augmented 10/28/09]
Recently, in the discussion about what to do about the war in Afghanistan, there have been several essays on how important Pashtunwali is in Afghanistan. [Outside View: Afghanistan's center of gravity, Oct. 15, 2009 By LAWRENCE SELLIN, UPI; "No Sign until the Burst of Fire -- Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier," Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason] These authors seem to have taken the things they have read about Pashtunwali and essentialized their notion of what is going on in Pashtun society. That terrifies me. What these authors are missing is how much is not known about actual social practice among contemporary Pushtun societies.

The term simply means "the Pashtun way of life" and it works well as a way of describing how in theory the various tribal peoples have managed their affairs in the absence of a state [which seeks to adjudicate disputes in its own terms]. And in that context it is helpful to understand that Pashtuns have for generations had traditions of social and political practice that were more or less coherent and that in theory they could allude to in discussions about what to do about specific situations. But to take it a a stipulated set of rules that are always followed without reference to the ways folks deal with the messy problems of actual situations is a grave mistake. [I have an article "Trouble in Birgilic" in a recent work, "Everyday Life in Central Asia" that describes a whole series of ways that some Hazaras and the presiding official in that region falsified the deals they made and the ways they talked about it. We need similar studies of similar practices among the Pashtuns.]

Much of the work on Pashtunwali was basically an essentializing project from the beginning. The Afghanistan government set up a whole institute to essentialize the concept. Let us take it as the way the Pashtuns tell themselves what their rules are, but it is often referred to after the fact, as a way of legitimizing what has been agreed on among those who have the power to make things happen. It is "orthodoxy" [not "doxa] in Bourdieu's terms. In fact, we have very few actual studies of how social and political affairs [disputes especially] are carried out in actual practice. To decide that Pashtunwali characterizes the way Pashtuns always and in every situation carry on their affairs is dangerous, for the concept has been produced by the Afghan government [in the 1960s] as a self-identifying propaganda device.

Yes, we know of situations when it looked like the "rules" were practiced as they say they should [See the second of Farid's stories at http://artsci.wustl.edu/~canfrobt/Farida.pdf]. But what about the contexts in which the rules are disputed? Or situations in which various and contrary rules could be invoked? Those are the kinds of situations of which we have scarcely any actual record. And anyway, are the rules the same among all the Pashtuns?

Bourdieu has pointed out that maps are made for outsiders; for those who grew up in an area a map is not needed. And indeed a lot of what the local residents know is not on a map -- like where you can cut through for a short-cut, or where you can't go even if it looks like you are supposed to. That is, for those who have grown up with Pashtunwali there is a lot that is known about short cuts you can take and ways you can cheat on the system and contexts in which you do one thing and say you did another -- this is the stuff of actual social life, not the strict obedience to official rules. What we don't have, in fact, is many studies that describe how things actually work in a society. And those studies are, it turns out, not so useful to those who are looking for a neat, quick image of how the society works. They should look at the actual studies of what is going on -- I fear to list any for fear I will omit some of the best but here are some authors who come to mind: David Edwards, Jon Anderson, Nancy Tapper [Lindesfarne], Richard Tapper, Christine Noelle[-Rasuly], Fredrik Barth, Klaus Ferdinand, Charles Lindholm. You won't get much essentializing from these sources but what you will get is a better sense of how Pashtuns actually do things. In fact, the various peoples of Afghanistan, including the Pashtuns, are used to making deals. They make deals of various sorts for specific purposes and often they stick to them [and sometimes they don't]. So, for those who would like to project a neat image on the way of life of the Afghanistan peoples we must warn them that on the ground, in real situations they may have many surprises.

Moreover, the Taliban, a Pashtun movement who are supposed to be explained by Pashtunwali, have renounced tribal rules in favor of Sharia, and they have operationalized that in many Pashtun areas by exterminating all those elders who didn't play along with them.

This nonsense about Pashtunwali is terrifyiing.

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