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Ahmed, “Afghanistan Rising”

9780674971943-lgGiven the announcement last week that the United States is recommitting to its military strategy in Afghanistan, this forthcoming book from Harvard University Press seems especially relevant. In Afghanistan Rising: Islamic Law and Statecraft between the Ottoman and British Empires, historian Faiz Ahmed (Brown University) argues that at the turn of the 20th Century, Afghanistan attempted to create a modern, constitutional state within the Islamic law tradition. Very few Americans know about this historical episode, or why the attempt to modernize the country ultimately failed. This book looks to be a useful resource for scholars and policymakers. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Debunking conventional narratives of Afghanistan as a perennial war zone and the rule of law as a secular-liberal monopoly, Faiz Ahmed presents a vibrant account of the first Muslim-majority country to gain independence, codify its own laws, and ratify a constitution after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Afghanistan Rising illustrates how turn-of-the-twentieth-century Kabul—far from being a landlocked wilderness or remote frontier—became a magnet for itinerant scholars and statesmen shuttling between Ottoman and British imperial domains. Tracing the country’s longstanding but often ignored scholarly and educational ties to Istanbul, Damascus, and Baghdad as well as greater Delhi and Lahore, Ahmed explains how the court of Kabul attracted thinkers eager to craft a modern state within the interpretive traditions of Islamic law and ethics, or sharia. From Turkish lawyers and Indian bureaucrats to Pashtun clerics trained in madrasas of the Indo-Afghan borderlands, this rich narrative focuses on encounters between divergent streams of modern Muslim thought and politics, beginning with the Sublime Porte’s first mission to Afghanistan in 1877 and concluding with the collapse of Ottoman rule after World War I.

By unearthing a lost history behind Afghanistan’s founding national charter, Ahmed shows how debates today on Islam, governance, and the rule of law have deep roots in a beleaguered land. Based on archival research in six countries and as many languages, Afghanistan Rising rediscovers a time when Kabul stood proudly as a center of constitutional politics, Muslim cosmopolitanism, and contested visions of reform in the greater Islamic world.

 

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

“Afghanistan’s Islam” (Green, ed.)

Next month, the University of California Press will release Afghanistan’s Islam: From Conversion to the Taliban edited by Nile Green (University of California, Los Angeles). The publisher’s description follows:

afghanistanThis book provides the first overview of the history and development of Islam in Afghanistan. Written by leading international experts, chapters cover every era from the conversion of Afghanistan through the medieval period to the present day. Based on primary sources in Arabic, Persian, Pashto, Uzbek, and Urdu, its depth of coverage is unrivalled in providing a developmental picture of Afghanistan’s Islam, including such issues as the rise of Sufism, women’s religiosity, state religious policies, and transnational Islamism. Looking beyond the unifying rhetoric of theology, the book reveals the disparate and contested forms of Afghanistan’s Islam.

Dispatches from Kabul: A New Script

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

Last Friday, as we were driving through downtown Kabul, our car was stopped briefly as the traffic ahead slowed at the checkpoint. Looking out from my backseat window, I was struck by the lack of rhythm, the absence of a familiar flow of city movement. In most places, lights change color, people cross the street, taxis honk, engines rev, and buses stop and go methodically. Instead, dirty, overfilled city cabs sat haphazardly in traffic, their lackadaisical drivers staring into the dusty commotion. Children with dirty clothes and charcoal around their eyes darted in and out of traffic, casting doleful expressions at foreigners in hopes of collecting an Afghani or two. Grizzled soothsayers moved slowly from car to car, wafting incense into open windows and mumbling incantations. In the absence of sidewalks, young men in shalwar kameez walked briskly through traffic, whole groups moving against the disorderly jumble, their prayer beads brushing against the sides of cars as they passed by. Policemen with tired, sun-worn faces ambled around aimlessly, occasionally blowing a whistle or commanding a car to move. Their uniforms looked like costumes from an outdated prop closet, faded and sagging, adorned with meaningless insignia. In fact, everything around me in that moment was reminiscent of a movie set after the cut. It was as if, off-script, no one knew exactly where to be or what to do. There are many metaphors for the state of affairs in Afghanistan, but this one struck me as particularly vivid.

Two years ago, when I was working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Casteau, the streets of Brussels were filled with life. We would spend weekends walking through the city, enjoying quaint cafes, chocolate shops, and the old Dutch masterpieces at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. On winter evenings, we would marvel at the Gothic and Baroque architecture and the beauty of La Grand Place glistening with Christmas lights. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 and the subsequent lockdown in Brussels, I’ve been thinking of the European capital, and about how ironic it is that life here in Kabul, chaotic city of blast walls, checkpoints, and indiscriminate violence, has been less affected by terrorism in the past month than my previous home in the heart of Europe.

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While at NATO, I was writing about humanitarian intervention as applied to the ongoing civil war in Syria. In conversation with military strategists and political advisors from the Alliance, my arguments for intervention, even for the limited purpose of constructing humanitarian corridors, were met with vague statements about the impenetrability of Assad’s air defense and the NATO members’ “lack of political will.” I found such reluctance remarkable; at the time, the United Nations was estimating that more than 100,000 had been killed and millions more displaced.

I still believe there was a moral responsibility to protect the Syrian people, but I am more willing to acknowledge and consider the drawbacks of intervention now, particularly in light of the current situation in Afghanistan. Resolute Support, the follow-on mission to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), still operates from the Green Zone Continue reading

Dispatches from Kabul: On the Banks of the Kabul River

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

A Public Murder

She was a 27-year-old student of Islamic law and a devout Afghan Muslim. After praying at the Shah-e Du Shamshira mosque at the center of Kabul, Farkhunda Malikzada confronted the caretaker about the practice of selling charms or tawiz, amulets containing Quranic verses and incantations. Like many other conservative Muslims, she believed they were superstitious and un-Islamic. As she admonished the caretaker and the confrontation escalated, he began shouting, “In the name of God, kill her! She has burned the Quran!” Within minutes, a mob of hundreds had assembled, and while the police stood idly by, Farkhunda was stoned, beaten, set on fire, and left to die on the banks of the Kabul River. Some of those present filmed the lynching on their mobile phones.

Violence is endemic in Afghanistan and modern political and legal institutions have faltered since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but the brutal murder of Farkhunda – which took place just last March – was particularly shocking given the cultural understanding in Afghanistan that public violence toward women is taboo. Despite the outcry from within the country and abroad, a number of prominent Afghan officials and religious leaders immediately endorsed the murder, highlighting Afghanistan’s complicated relationship with Islam and shattering the cautious hopes of reformers, particularly women’s rights advocates. The official spokesman for the Kabul police characterized Farkhunda’s protestations as a publicity stunt with the aim of attaining U.S. or European citizenship, and during his Friday prayer sermon, Ayaz Niazi, the prominent imam of the Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque, said, “If someone disrespects the Quran, you cannot expect people to control their emotions and wait for judges to decide the punishment.” Mullah Hassam of the Bagh-e Bala mosque argued that mahkama—e sahrayi or arbitrary execution is the appropriate punishment for insulting Islam. Soon thereafter, an investigation by the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs found no evidence that Farkhunda had burned the Quran, and concluded that she had been slandered.

I first read about Farkhunda while weighing the pros and cons of moving to Kabul to practice law. I knew about Afghanistan’s abysmal human rights record, and had read up on the fragile legal protections for women and girls, as well as the “moral crimes” they are Continue reading

Dispatches from Kabul: Warlords and Takeout

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 recently moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she works with a team of local and international lawyers at Rosenstock Legal Services, a commercial law firm. In this series of dispatches from Kabul, she will share her insights on issues of law and religion in the context of practicing law in the Islamic Republic. The following personal narrative is an introduction to the series.

Mostly, I was exhausted. There was the packing and repacking, a sleepless night, the flight from Milan to Istanbul, and a four and a half hour layover in the dead of the night. When I arrived at the overcrowded international terminal at Atatürk International, a dark sense of dread came over me. I ordered a venti chai tea latte, bought two bags of Haribo Gold Bears, and sat in front of the lounge monitor watching GO TO GATE flash across the screen for destinations like Najaf, Sulaimaniyah, and Baghdad. When “impoverished, Taliban-infiltrated, suicide-bombed city” is all you have to associate with your destination, it’s hard to rally. KABUL–3:10–WAIT FOR GATE. I wasn’t overcome by the urge to buy a one-way ticket back to Chicago, but as the minutes ticked by slowly I became increasingly angry with myself for having made this decision in the first place.

I couldn’t quite will myself out of the lounge on time, so I ended up sprinting down the terminal to the gate where all but one anxious-looking passenger had been loaded onto the bus that would take us to the outer reaches of the airfield. I remember passing rows of shipping containers and other miscellaneous cargo and wondering if I hadn’t read the fine print well enough.

The flight was full of Westerners. Men with buzz cuts, prominent biceps, and army green t-shirts; tall bespectacled Dutch men with reporter notebooks; women wearing Western tunics and headscarves and speaking the language of project management. A beautiful Afghan girl with kind and vibrant eyes sat next to me. She looked very stylish in her elegant black tunic and hijab, and we struck up a conversation about Islamic dress. She asked me if this would be my first time in Afghanistan – pronounced in a lilting and graceful accent – and then enthusiastically told me all the things she loves about her country. Later, I fell asleep to her conversation with another Afghan woman, the singsong words bale, bale playing in my head. Dari, the Afghan version of Persian and one of the national languages of the country, is really beautiful.

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I woke in time to see the sun rising ahead of us in the east, and as we approached Kabul, the desert disappeared and the Hindu Kush came into view. I thought about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and his tiny asteroid, and about the surface of Mars and the moon. “Kabul might as well be outer space,” I whispered to myself. From high above, it looked as though you could be stuck forever in this place surrounded by a vast mountain Continue reading

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