The Afghanistan-born Ansary followed up that email by publishing a memoir in 2002, West of Kabul, East of New York, exploring the cultural divide between his life growing up in Muslim Afghanistan and moving to America at age 16. Ansary, whose books dealing with Islam and the West include his 2009 Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, will be speaking this week at the World Affairs Council in Portland. It’s a city he knows well from an eight-year stretch starting in 1968, when he studied literature at Reed College and wrote for the underground newspaper Portland Scribe.
Now living in San Francisco, the 62-year-old author and lecturer is planning his first trip in nine years to Afghanistan this fall. WW spoke with Ansary before his March 11 lecture and before a U.S. House committee holds hearings March 10 on “radicalization” of U.S. Muslims.
WW: What’s the best example of how an Islamic-centered world narrative differs from a Eurocentric one?
Tamim Ansary: The Western world is what came out of the many societies that emerged from around the Mediterranean. This other world is the world that emerged out of the many intertangled caravan and trade and invasion routes that sewed together Persians, Turks, the people of Northern India, Afghans and on into the Middle East, encompassing finally the Arabs. I’m saying that’s a world, too. If you look at the history of the world with the Mediterranean-centric point of view, it seems as if the Muslims were important in the Dark Ages and maybe a little bit in the time when the European colonialists first went across the world. But I’m saying it’s perfectly viable for people that live in that area as seeing theirs as being the heart of the world. And if you do, then the influx of colonialism and the emergence of the West instead of being the central event of history, is something that was happening to you, from the peripheries. And that’s the story that I want to tell.
What are Americans’ biggest misconceptions about Afghanistan?
There is a tendency for Americans to think of Afghanistan as being a nation of sinister men with beards. And to think Afghan women are timid, oppressed, cowering creatures. That misses that there are different demographics within Afghanistan. There are millions of people who live in the big Afghan cities and want to develop the country. They want to be part of the world. And there’s also a failure [by Americans] to realize that, in the old traditional Afghanistan of the rural countryside, there is a whole social system in which everybody has a certain part to play. In the old days that was a workable and fairly peaceful kind of society. Now some of these terrible things that we see in Afghanistan in these last 20 or 30 years, it isn’t an expression of Afghan culture. It’s an expression of Afghan culture’s post-traumatic syndrome after 2 million people were killed, 8 million were rendered refugees and the entire countryside was bombed to slivers and the cities were destroyed by the post-Soviet civil war infighting.
And what are Americans’ biggest misconceptions about Islam?
It’s a misconception to equate Islam with Islamism. There is a movement in the world which is, I think, anti-colonialist in its routes or anti-imperialist that goes back about 200 years. And that’s a movement that has chosen to adopt Islamic discourse, mythological references, ideas as a platform for pursuing a political program. That’s a movement that can loosely be covered by the term “Islamism.” I think most Muslims are not Islamists. Most Muslims, what Islam means to them is, you try to perform your five daily prayers, you give some of your money to charity, you try to go to Mecca if you can, at least once. And you observe the fast in the month of Ramadan. And you testify that there is only one God.… Islam is not as Christianity is: a plan for the salvation of the individual person. In its very essence Islam is, in part, a plan for the building of a just and harmonious community. Islam directs itself a lot toward the question of how can Muslims be at peace with one another. And it’s up to Muslims to enlarge that to inquire as to how Muslims can be at peace with non-Muslims.
How religious are you?
I’m not religious. I’m a secular guy.
What’s your best guess as to how Afghanistan will be different, if at all, in 20 years?
It will be different, there’s no question of that. Time doesn’t stop, and the difference will depend on how the configuration of world power changes. Because Afghanistan has always been the nexus of the competition of the great global powers: between the Soviets and the U.S.-dominated bloc of the Cold War, between the British and the Russians in the 19th century, between the U.S. and the punitive Jihadist enterprise to destroy Western civilization, of al-Qaida, right now. I don’t think as some do they’ll always be fighting. Whatever this thing is, it’s going to be resolved in five or six years. There just might be some terrible moments along the way. And I don’t know if there is a way to really avoid those. I hope there is.
What do you think about the current American approach to Afghanistan?
If you were to ask Petraeus and Obama what they think they’re doing, I think they’d say they are putting in enough troops to rescue the population from the Taliban. And at the same time, they’re trying to train the Afghan army and security apparatus to take over that job so that we can leave and Afghans can take care of themselves. The shortcoming there is that the presence of American troops in the most troubled parts of Afghanistan creates the insurgency that we are in Afghanistan to fight. We are not quelling the insurgency by being there. We’re inflaming it. I think there’s also a component of the American strategy which is to plug these so-called provincial reconstruction teams into Afghanistan and help with rebuilding Afghanistan, in the hopes that by building a civil order that will cut the insurgency. I think the idea there is great. That would have been a great and workable thing that would have done wonders if it had been pursued from the start by the Bush administration. I think it’s a little late to come in with that now, but I do hope it works.
What’s your take on American diplomatic efforts to engage the Taliban?
Well, it isn’t clear what the diplomatic efforts are right now; you know there are a lot of things going on in Afghanistan. It isn’t that specific as to who the Taliban is. The Taliban is just the cover for all sorts of insurgencies that are active in Afghanistan. Taliban—it does refer to an attitude, an orientation; it’s associated with rural, religious, conservative fundamentalism in Afghanistan. And you know, if there is a reconciliation process that puts the Taliban back in charge of Afghanistan in some way, then I think you are going to see some results for Afghans that certainly urban, progressive Afghans like myself will be pretty uncomfortable with. There will be a reactionary backlash to the advances made by women in the times since the Taliban were overthrown. On the other hand, there is no military solution to this. So in some form or fashion there is going to have to be some diplomatic process that’s going to end the fighting there.
GO: Ansary’s lecture, “Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes,” is at noon Friday, March 11, at the World Affairs Council of Oregon, 1200 SW Park Ave., 3rd floor. $5 members, $10 nonmembers. Preregistration required; go to worldoregon.org/events/registration/tamim_ansary.php.