The crush of civilisations

The Afghan peasant has a faith that has tunnelled mountains and smashed cities. Can anyone really ho

You can sit in Kabul next to an Afghan woman in the lone, sporadically working, internet cafe. Her face, but not her head, is uncovered, and she bats away on the keyboard with intensity, even fury. Then you might pass her mother or sister in the street, only the eyes partially visible behind the grill of the burqa's eye-slit. You may see a warlord expertly handling a mobile phone - then see him toss it, when done, to a retainer whose job it is to carry the phone, and learn that he has called a tribal council of the kind that has determined policy for centuries.

You might talk to an American-raised and -educated high official in a ministry and be shown the PowerPoint presentation he is preparing for an international symposium. In the corridor, as you leave his office, you step over the crossed legs of a legion of men in robes and turbans with papers in their hands, there to press their cases as their forebears have through the generations.

The clash of civilisations? Yes, but compressed. Compressed into one country, into one family, into one head. The clash of civilisations is not only, as its author, Samuel Huntington, saw it, between distinct territories with historically determined views and ideologies. Rather, it is a crush of civilisations. In the virtual, globalising world, civilisational ways of life do not stay behind their borders. They break out, surge over the airwaves, are read in books, heard in stories, observed in fashion.

Women at computers and warlords on mobiles are the easily apprehended sights of a society with a thousand bloodless struggles being waged behind the walls of workplaces and homes (if the home has a wall: in Kabul, millions squat in ruined buildings). They are outward signs of the civilisational battles, those which will determine whether or not Afghanistan will "make it" - that is the phrase the modernisers use when they mean: will it become, or continue to attempt to become, modern?

In Afghanistan, three main civilisations fight for leadership: the modernisers, the warlords and the Islamists. It is perfectly possible to have a modernising Islamic warlord; indeed, most warlords do have a bit of the other two categories under their cartridge belts. But many people see themselves as wholly or mainly defined within one of those categories, and regard the others with suspicion, even loathing. The modernisers often became modern abroad. Through the wars of the past two decades, Afghanistan's greatest exports were poppies and people. The largest part of the people fetched up in neighbouring Iran or Pakistan. But many of the better-educated settled in North America and western Europe, some 80,000 of them in Germany alone. A very few have given up the good life and gone back to put their talents at the disposal of the new republic - still called, to the modernisers' distress, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Many more, educated in schools rather than in the madrasas of Pakistan or Iran, also want to haul the country out of the medieval dust.

They are not strong: there are only four in the cabinet who are unambiguously modernisers. But they have the west behind them, and the west - in the diverse and often squabbling forms of the US army, the international peacekeeping force (at present Turkish led), the 16 UN agencies spread about the country and the more than 100 NGOs - is powerful. Since the country is bankrupt, the west has formidable powers of patronage. It is true that the Afghans have been the least economically rational people in the world - destroying, in a variety of wars, what fragile infrastructure and network of services had been built in the relatively peaceful reign of King Zahir Shah (to 1973). But, as all will tell you, they are now war weary as never before, and will support - without going so far as paying taxes to - a national government that can keep onside those who will help to rebuild the country.

They also have youth on their side. They include the twentysomething woman punching into the internet; the thirtysomething man with whom I spent some time in the half-ruined shops and the medieval market looking for a charger for his Nokia that would fit into his car's cigarette lighter; the fortysomething man, formerly a chef in an Italian restaurant in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, who has opened the Popo'lano Trattoria on Peace Avenue and hovers over the waiters, chivvying them into pronouncing "arrabiata" and "puttanesca".

But the warlords are the most powerful single group. They control the territory and the people. The most powerful man in the government (including President Hamid Karzai) is the vice-president and defence minister, Mohammad Qassem Fahim, now the leader of the Northern Alliance coalition, the on-the-ground force that, under US air cover, routed the Taliban.

The warlords run their territories as an extension of their already extended families. The close family can be up to 100 members; the tribe is measured in tens of thousands. The reciprocal loyalties and obligations look like oppression and extortion to the outsider. It no doubt often feels so, too, to the tribesman, but there is at least the promise of protection and there is, anyway, no choice: Afghanistan is not the place for the individual life.

Most of the warlords have been fighting for many years. Ismail Khan, the governor-warlord of Herat in the west of the country, was a young army officer who became a guerrilla when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. Since then, he has fought the Soviets, other mujahedin and the Taliban. He is still fighting - or was until a truce was brokered in July - against a rival commander. Such people see the modernisers as soft men who spent the hard years of war in universities or businesses or taxis.

Islam seems to unite them both: it would be a bold moderniser who did not claim at least a formal submission to the state religion. The mullahs no longer rule and punish, but they are the strongest ideological force over a largely ignorant population - and are usually themselves ignorant, taught by rote to view their faith as exclusive, hostile to others and surrounded by foes. On a trip to Kandahar, in the south, my young interpreter tried, amiably but insistently, to convince me that I was a fool to have no faith, and a double fool to have no faith in Mohammad. His pitch was rather like that of Jehovah's Witnesses: that something rather than nothing must have given the human race an origin, and that something must be divine. And he was one of the highly educated elite.

Even those handful of sturdy women who are reviving the cause of women's rights (supported by western organisations, but regarded even by most modernising men as extreme) are careful to quote the Koran in support of equality for women. The former minister of women's affairs, Sima Samar - a deeply divisive figure, largely because of her insistence on standing for office - told me that people must come to faith, or renounce faith, without coercion, adding that "even when Mohammad became the messenger, he did not use violence to coerce people".

The justice minister, Abdul Rahim Karimi, suggested that sharia law (amputation of thieving hands, stoning to death of adulterous women) might be reintroduced. He quickly backtracked but not to the point of denying that Islam should influence the justice system. Islam remains the way in which many Afghans see the world. It is used both as a comfort for the oppressed and weary and as a tool of oppression for the powerful and ruthless - just as Christianity was when it was a proselytising, empire-forming faith.

The west has decided that it cannot leave Afghanistan alone again; that it was culpable for having done so after the Soviets left in 1988, and that it is now its duty to ensure that the country "makes it". But that entails an authoritative central state, able to keep the peace and weaken tribalism, to govern in a secular manner while allowing the expression of religious faith, to collect taxes and to secure a monopoly of violence and coercion. We see it as the prerequisite for freedom and the good life. But many Afghans, presently, see it as meaningless.

Can they put up with the crush of these different civilisations for any length of time? Modernisation now has its best shot: the westerners have arrived bearing very large gifts; they are, for the moment, generally trusted and they have ended a dictatorship of zealots that was widely detested - in part because it was seen as foreign (Saudi) led. But the burqa, the Kalashnikov and the mullah remain the certainties, as against the possibilities, of life. The sheer harshness of life enforces a rigid conservatism; the hole in society where a middle class or a technocracy should be is very wide and deep.

Like any other westerner, I could not but see what passed before my eyes as prejudice, bigotry and cruelty. But like many other westerners, I accept that life has no meaning, and that the decency of advanced societies derives largely from a lack of belief. The Afghan peasant or stallholder, jerking his skinny body up and down on his prayer mat with a dollar a day to his name, has a faith that has tunnelled mountains, smashed cities and caused half of the adult population to be publicly invisible.

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