Pamphleteer Anthropology and the Production of Knowledge about Afghanistan
The military occupation of Afghanistan by the United States and its partners has spawned floods of popular and academic writings and visual effects about the culture, history and politics of the country. A leading contributor to these stores of information about Afghanistan is Thomas Jefferson Barfield, currently professor of anthropology at Boston University and president of the US-government sponsored American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS), also headquartered at Boston University. Barfield has served as an advisor to the top tiers of the American occupation machinery of Afghanistan. His 2010 Afghanistan: a cultural and political history has been vended as a “scholarly” work despite the fact that the book is a compendium of ethnographic and historical distortions, misrepresentations and falsehoods about Afghanistan (see its review in Critique of Anthropology 31: 256-270, 2001, republished on Zero Anthropology). Misrepresentations of Afghanistan by Barfield can be found in virtually all his writings and other public expatiations. Unfortunately Barfield’s (and one of his Kabuli informant’s) intellectual poverty and pseudo-knowledge about the ethnography and history of Afghanistan degrade the authority of a widely circulated 2011 documentary film about the historical role of British colonialism in the destabilization of Afghanistan. The documentary titled “Afghanistan: The Great Game—A Personal View” (AGGPV) is produced by Rory Stewart, a British MP with research and extensive travel experience in pre and post occupation Afghanistan. Rory Stewart is the author of the 2004 New York Times bestseller The Places in Between. The book includes informative accounts about Stewart’s encounters with various cultural communities in the highlands of central Afghanistan.
Rory Stewart in his BBC documentary on Afghan history.
The documentary film provides an historical overview of the causes and consequences of the 19th century Anglo-Afghan wars and the subsequent cycles of foreign intervention and political instability during the 20th and 21st centuries in Afghanistan. Embedded in Stewart’s otherwise informative documentary are false and distortive comments by Thomas Barfield and one of his Kabuli informants, Omar Sharifi, former director of AIAS in Kabul and currently a student at Boston University.
In attempting to create a historical and cultural framework for his documentary, Rory Stewart introduces Barfield by stating, “I have come to rain-soaked Boston to meet a world authority on Afghan anthropology and history, Professor Tom Barfield. Appropriately, I meet him here at the Helmand Restaurant and I wanted to ask him about some of the many differences between these (European and Afghan) cultures” (parenthesis added). Ever since he conducted “fieldwork” in Afghanistan during the 1970s and received a Ph.D degree in anthropology from Harvard University in 1978, Barfield has cleverly manipulated his bizarre and confused understandings and pseudo-knowledge about Afghanistan into “a world authority on Afghan anthropology and history”. Unfortunately, the overall austerity of Western scholarship about Afghanistan, especially the poverty of the Anglo-American anthropological ethnographies of the country, are the chief reasons for Barfield to so easily promote himself to this undeserving (imaginary) high rank. I have personally met Thomas Barfield twice during the past twelve years at academic conferences. Based on my personal interaction with him and familiarity with his writings about Afghanistan, Barfield has no competence in Farsi and Pashtu, the two major languages of Afghanistan.
Thomas J. Barfield speaking with Rory Stewart.
With a haughty demeanor and sarcastic arrogance Barfield responds to Stewart’s question:
“If you go to an Afghan feast people are very religious but they are religious at the end of the meal. You thank God for having eaten a wonderful meal. Here is what one of my Afghan friends said to me: why do you Americans pray before the meal? You haven’t eaten it yet. You have no idea whether God deserves the praise or not or the (unintelligible). But the lesson I took from him is that we foreigners are too keen to praise the fact that the feast is here then the Afghan says there is one more step, an eaten feast, and decide whether it deserves it. So the Afghans tend to look more at the outcome than at the intentions”.
From Barfield’s interchangeable use of “feast” and “meal” we can assume that he has in mind the food eaten (in a private or public space) by an individual or a group at a customary time—a ritual feast at a wedding or the celebration of an ‘Id or the three daily meals. His claim that Afghans are only “religious at the end of the meal” is a violent misrepresentation of the realities of the food culture of all Muslim societies including the Muslim population of Afghanistan. This includes the so called “Arabs” in northern Afghanistan among whom he claims to have conducted “fieldwork,” and his Kabuli informants, some of whom have migrated to the United States and with whom Barfield continues to be in regular contact.
Muslims believe that their food is a sacred blessing from Allah. If an Afghan comes across a scrap of bread on the ground (vulnerable to being stepped on by a defiling foot or shoe [think of the dirty shoe flying toward George W. Bush in Baghdad!]), he or she will pick up the bread, touch it with one’s lips and forehead while silently reciting a word or a sentence from the Quran and then place it in a crack in a nearby wall. (A piece of paper on the ground is similarly honored because Islamic sacred texts are assumed to have been or may be written on paper or its equivalent [e. g. dried deer skin]). The effect of pieces of bread and scraps of paper tucked in cracks of walls, especially in traditional mud and mud-brick walls, can be seen throughout Afghanistan.
Contrary to what Barfield states, Afghans are explicitly religious “before the meal” and “at the end of the meal”. As a provision of the Islamic Sunnah (deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) Afghans, with sincere intention, individually and sometimes communally, acknowledge food as a blessing of Allah in a voice slightly above a whisper. Before the meal Afghans invoke the name of Allah in a prayer (Arabic, Du’a [for details see the entries for Du’a in the Encyclopaedia of Islam and Encyclopaedia Iranica) by reciting Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim (Arabic [from the Quran], in the name of Allah the beneficent the merciful) or simply Bismillah or a phrase that includes the word Bismillah. After the meal the phrase Alhamdullillah (Arabic [from the Quran], praise be to Allah) or a linguistic construct that includes this phrase, is recited. Unlike Barfield and his Christian community, Afghans do not “thank God for having eaten a wonderful meal”; they simply acknowledge the food they eat as a blessing of Allah whether it is an elaborate feast or a poor person’s stale bread (Farsi, nan-e khoshk; Pashtu, wacha dodai). (Another Sunnah food eating ritual is washing both hands before and after the meal).
It should also be noted that Americans often do not thank God before or after their meal. And, in a symbolic, albeit secular form, the American custom of leaving a “tip” after the meal in the market contradicts Barfield’s understanding of his own culture—“Americans pray before the meal”. The amount of a “tip” is based on the quality (and quantity) of “an eaten meal” and how this meal has been served to the eater by the waiter including the waiter’s demeanor and interaction with the eater. This contradicts Barfield’s claim that “we foreigner’s (Americans) are too keen to praise the fact that the feast is here”—a kind of putting the cart before the horse. Moreover, the American ritual of “grace”, as it relates to eating a meal, is not an offering of thanks to God but an acknowledgement of food as a blessing of God and/or a request from God to bless their food in the name of Jesus Christ—“in Christ’s name we asketh, amen”. Barfield is distorting culture at both ends of his crude attempt at cross-cultural comparison. He is misinforming his “Afghan friends” about American food customs as well as placing false information about Afghan food eating rituals before the audience of Rory Stewart’s documentary. However, Barfield sounds confused and off the Afghan cultural mark.
It may be that the subject of discussion between Barfield and his “Afghan friends” was not a meal (as a blessing of Allah) but the force-feeding of Afghanistan with American “democracy”. Barfield expected the Afghans to prostrate themselves and thank imperial America right away, at the front end of the dark-minded “democracy” tunnel, while the Afghans wanted to wait for the “outcome”, to see what is lying at the far end of this ill-conceived and misplaced imperial tunnel in the construction of which our “world authority on Afghan anthropology and history” has played a prominent role.
Barfield’s “lesson” that Afghans, compared to Americans, are not “keen to praise the fact that the feast is here” (emphasis added) is a violent distortion of the realities of the cultural values and religious beliefs and practices of Afghanistan. In portraying Afghans as distrusting of Allah and cynical about his “intentions” and blessings, Barfield produces a glaring ethnographic falsehood. He probably imagines pre-industrial Afghanistan as a place full of neo-modern scientists bent on empirical cosmology and the proof of “outcome”—“an eaten feast”—before praying for or praising Allah. A “common sense” level of familiarity with the cultural and religious terrain of Afghanistan categorically rejects this falsehood.
Barfield’s confused and false reading of Afghanistan misleads Rory Stewart into another ethnographic and historical dark alley. Stewart uncritically observes: “And that logic applies to how the Afghans choose the perfect leader”. The “wonderful meal” becomes the “perfect leader”! The “world authority” on Afghanistan responds by tossing up another package of distortions:
“The ideal ruler says to the Afghans that without me these foreigners would invade or occupy our country; without me and my skill Afghanistan would not be independent. I am defending a Muslim nation. At the same time he turns to the foreigners and says: only I can keep control of the Afghans and I can only do that if you send me money and weapons”.
Who does Barfield have in mind as an example of this “ideal ruler”? Based on the historical record, none of the about twenty five rulers of Afghanistan (or fragments thereof) from 1747 to 1992—from Ahmad Khan Abdali (1747-1773) to Dr. Najibullah (1986-1992)—exhibit Barfield’s characterizations. The only so called “ruler” whose policies, practices, rhetoric, and demeanor approximate closely Barfield’s imagery of the “ideal ruler” of Afghanistan is Hamid Karzai (2001-present), the American-installed puppet CEO of Kabul with whom Barfield must be personally acquainted. In fact, it is likely that puppet Karzai, directly or indirectly, has received political and cultural advice from Thomas Barfield and/or other “specialists” of similar ilk in the service of the American war machine in Afghanistan. The presidential wardrobe of Karzai is designed by American “authorities” on Afghanistan. It is widely known that the Afghanistan Studies Center at the University of Nebraska-Omaha is the author of Karzai’s public uniforms. These bizarre presidential garments are totally out of place in the political and cultural locations of Afghanistan, much like Barfield’s distortions and falsifications about that country.
Rory Stewart moves on by asking Barfield’s Kabuli informant, Omar Sharifi, about the first European-installed puppet ruler of Afghanistan (Shah Shuja’) during the 1839-1842 Anglo-Afghan War: “…I ask an Afghan academic, Omar Sharifi, about how Afghans perceived Shah Shuja”. Like his American mentor and employer, Sharifi rolls out a historical distortion about his own country by stating “when Shah Shuja’ came in his era as king, the tradition was that you mint a coin with a poem that describes who you are and what you mean. I am Shah Shuja’, the great king, and I am the one who rules from the depth of the sea all the way to the height of the skies”. Yes, Afghan rulers minted coins with poetry and/or religious phrases of their choice on them. But in Shah Shuj’a’s “era”, the “tradition” and style of phraseology Sharifi cites had long disappeared and forgotten. The phrase Sharifi incorrectly recites did not appear on Shah Shuja’’s coins. To my knowledge, the phrase first appeared on some of Ahmad Khan Abdali’s coins (1747-1773). No subsequent ruler of Afghanistan has used this or a similar phrase on his coins. The correct format of this Farsi poem on Ahmad Khan Abdali’s coins was “Hokm shod az qader-e baychun ba Ahmad Padshah, Seka zan bar seem wa zar az posht-e mahi ta ba mah” (Order came from the almighty to Ahmad the king, mint a coin from silver and gold (for use in the space) from the back of fish (the sea) to the moon) (Ghobar 1967: 360).
Commenting on the historical record about the destruction of the British army in Afghanistan during the first Anglo-Afghan War leads Rory Stewart to place before Barfield a popular stereotype of the encounter between Afghans and foreigners: “For Afghans this had confirmed that they were a warrior nation, one even capable of staying off a great power like Britain. But Western historians point to another legacy that resonates today”. Moved by these generalizations, Barfield’s cloudy understanding of Afghanistan erupts into another set of imaginings unconnected to the historical and cultural realities of the country: “The first time was only a feeling of Jehad inside Afghanistan, it is the first Anglo-Afghan war. After that it never really goes away. Beginning with the British invasions Afghans began to perceive themselves as fighting an outside non-Muslim war. They have known this before when they raided India. That was Jehad—you know, you have got to go into infidel lands and take home a lot of its stuff. But inside Afghanistan you could not do Jehad. Now when these foreigners invaded people would say, yes we are fighting non-Muslims”.
What is “a feeling of Jehad”? Jehad (Arabic, struggle) is a verb, not a noun; nor is it an adjective or an adverb. One performs Jehad. For Muslims, struggle in defense of Islam is a sacred religious performance. In this sense Jehad is a reactive or defensive “holy war”, a war of resistance on behalf of Islam and a Muslim community. An aggressive or unprovoked war against outsiders by Muslims or a war not inspired by Islam does not qualify as a Jehad. Thus, when rulers in the area presently known as Afghanistan (e. g. Sultan Mahmoud Ghaznawi, 11th century; Babur, 16th century; Ahmad Khan Abdali, 18th century) “raided India”, they were not performing Jehad. This is confirmed by the extensive volume of historical writings about the excursions and raids from Afghanistan into India by these and other rulers. See for example, the chronicle histories titled Tabaqat-e Nasiri, Tarikh-e Yamini, Baburnama, Tarikh-e Ahmad Shahi, Seir al-Mutakherin, Tarikh-e Shahi, Tarikh-e Sultani, Tarikh-e Janakusha-ye Nadiri. Nowhere in these texts are the invasions and raids into India by rulers originating in Afghanistan called Jehad.
Local resistance to the British invasions of Afghanistan during the 19th century (First and Second Anglo-Afghan Wars) was largely energized by the defense of Pashtun tribal autonomy in southern, southwestern, and eastern Afghanistan—rural political economies connected to the urban markets of Qandahar, Ghazni, Kabul, Gardaiz, Jallalabad, and Peshawar. Violation of local cultural standards in Kabul by the British army (e. g. encouragement of prostitution) also played a role in the resistance. Thus, not surprisingly, in the historical writings by Afghan and European writers about the Anglo-Afghan wars one does not find the use of the word or concept of Jehad as a form of resistance articulated solely by Islam.
At no other time in history and in no other corpus of historical and political writings about the Muslim world can one find such profuse and distorted use of the label Jehad as in the Western historical and political scripts about Afghanistan during the last twenty years of the 20th century. This cycle of exaggerated, distorted, and misleading use of the label Jehad (and its derivatives) was seeded by the American intervention in Afghanistan in response to the entry of the armed forces of the USSR into the country during the 1980s in support of its revolutionary government led by the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The purpose of the American intervention in Afghanistan was to reciprocate the American humiliating defeat in Vietnam. America entered pre-industrial Afghanistan in order to embarrass, dishonor and humiliate the USSR; it did so with total disregard for stability, justice and peace in Afghanistan. The major tool for this disruptive undertaking was the invention of an artificial Jehad by the United States in opposition to the infidel USSR.
During the 1980s millions of Afghan men and women were encouraged by the United States and its regional and European partners to migrate from Afghanistan to Pakistan and become political “refugees”—helpless Muslims running away from infidel Russia. The United States recruited, paid, trained and equipped tens of thousands of these migrant men and sent them back to Afghanistan to engage in criminal acts of terrorism against the people and government of Afghanistan. History has yet to see terrorism and terror on such a massive scale. But true to form, the American government and its propaganda machine dubbed these terrorist gangs Mujahedin (Arabic, strugglers, warriors) distorted into “holy warriors” for Euro-American consumers. President Ronald Reagan invited the leaders of these barbaric terrorists to Washington and called them “freedom fighters…the moral equivalent of our founding fathers”!
The Soviet armed forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. The American objective to embarrass the USSR was thus fulfilled. However, the price for this fulfillment was the fragmentation of Afghanistan and the destruction of its state apparatus. Having accomplished their objective, the Americans withdrew from Afghanistan and the surrounding region in the early 1990s leaving behind hordes of orphaned terrorist Mujahidin and the Jehadi terrorist structures and ideologies they had created in South Asia. Soon these structures, operations and ideologies of terrorism were reproduced in several brands and styles all aiming to conduct Jehad against the infidel Zionized Euro-Americans themselves all over the Middle East and beyond. Mr. Reagan’s “freedom fighters” started a Jehad aimed at their American creators who had abandoned them. On 9/11/2001 some of the terrorists fathered by America found their way to the towers in New York. In response America freaked out; it furiously invaded Afghanistan and imposed another cycle of bloodshed on the tribal Pashtuns in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The American “war on terror” in Afghanistan is fundamentally a war on tribal Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand line. Through the agency of the Taleban movement, the Pashtuns have assembled a powerful bastion of resistance to the American occupation of their homelands. This bastion is resisting not only the American military savagery but also the presence of the defiling American way of life including the uncouth version of American “democracy” and “elections”. That the American outsiders are “non-Muslims” (Christians or Jews) is not an important factor in the production of the rapidly expanding resistance to the contaminating Euro-American military and cultural presence in Afghanistan (and throughout the Middle East, Central and South Asia, Africa and beyond). The primary source of energy for the resistance is the consciousness that Americans are outsiders. This is similar to the situation in Palestinian. Palestinians reject fascist Israel not because it is populated by Jews but because it is a European colony imposed on Palestine by Euro-America. Religion is not a prominent element in this calculus—Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lived peacefully together in the Middle East for the past fifteen hundred years. Of course, the heroic Palestinian resistance to the fascist European colonial presence in Palestine is the inspiration for all forms and ideologies of resistance (including the Taleban revitalization movement) to Euro-America during the past seven decades in the Middle East and elsewhere. .
In 2001 the earlier American terrorist crimes in Afghanistan evolved into the American “war on terror” in which Barfield has been, from the very start, serving as a scout and anthropological authority. We will never fully know the full impact and consequences of Barfield’s bizarre understanding of Afghanistan on this wasteful and bloody imperial venture in Afghanistan by the descendants of Ronald Reagan through his many political and ideological wives. But given what we know about memory cultures, the victims of the destruction of Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, Syria, and Somalia by the United States will never forget the American savagery in their homelands. Destruction, instability, fragmentation, division, war, separation, and violence—what Arabs and Farsi speakers call fesad (horror, violence, depravity, perverseness, malignity, corruption)—are in the genes of the political and popular culture of the United States. (There is a substantial amount of anthropological and sociological literature about how these genes of fesad are produced and reproduced in America; see for example McGriffert 1970) America and Israel are the largest producers and exporters of means of destruction. Weapons of war constitute the largest export of these two countries.
America receives with drool and joyful glee every instance of disruption, disunity, and instability anywhere in the world, especially in the Muslim world. Destructive and disruptive conditions even in continental Europe produce this drooling effect in America. In every such instance of drooling and glee America imagines, and often seeks and grabs the opportunity to interfere and destroy human life and property. The disunity, instability, blood, pain and misfortune of Others in West Asia, Ukraine, and West Africa are the current reasons for drooling and joy in American political and media cultures. The American media, popular culture, and politicians cannot hide their joy in discourse about these human tragedies. They go out of their way to create a context in which to ask “can the world do without the United States?”. With uncouth and vulgar condescension they create a pretext in which to answer “no” to this narcissistic question. They are totally disinclined and ideologically unable to confront the global (including continental European) answer to this question which is a firm and categorical YES. When Mr. Dracula and Ms Frankenstein got married in 1776, did they think their great grandchildren would populate and rule post-WWII North America and roam around the world in a braying fury and raged stupor killing anyone in sight who did not have nuclear bombs and could not bow to the ground?
Ever since 1945 when America acquired nuclear weapons it has continually engaged in the destruction of non-European Others as its favorite pastime. This is what the American warfare state knows best. Starting with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombs during August 1945 and moving on to the installation of the fascist European implant called “Israel” in Palestine during 1948—the Euro-American original sin in the Middle East—followed by the destabilization of Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Central America, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Iraq again, Afghanistan again, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq again—every place touched by the United States has turned to blood, chaos, and dust. Marshall Sahlins best articulates this deadly dynamic of the diseased American state apparatus and political culture: “Developing countries, with American help, never develop” (2002: 53).
Unfortunately, the cultural value of Rory Stewart’s, otherwise informed documentary about the colonial history of Afghanistan, is stained by Barfield’s ignorance about the cultural, historical, and political realities of Afghanistan. Barfield’s ignorance about Afghanistan and his pamphleteer imaginings about Islam and the cultural and social realities of the global Other mirror the overall intellectual and moral poverty of the ruling machinery and popular culture of his beloved America.
Encyclopaedia of Islam (New Edition).
Ghobar, Mir Gholam Mohammad. (1967). Afghanistan dar Masir-e Tarikh (Farsi, Afghanistan in the course of history. Kabul: Government Printing.
McGiffert, Michael (ed). (1970). The character of Americans: a book of readings: Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.
Sahlins, Marshall. (2002). Waiting for Foucault, Sill. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
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