In July 1973, Afghanistan's King Mohammed Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin Daud, who then abolished the monarchy and declared himself the president of a republic. The New York Times sarcastically editorialized that Afghanistan had just "leaped into the sixteenth century." Radio reports soon brought news of this slight even to provincial northern Afghanistan, where I was working at the time. Daud's government in Kabul expressed its displeasure, but an Afghan friend familiar with the region's complex history saw it differently. "We may have acted hastily," he joked. "The 15th century was pretty good around here!" Indeed, the Timurid dynasty that had its capital in Herat during that period was internationally renowned for its fine arts, monumental architecture, classical poetry -- and effective governance.
I was reminded of this story last month when the Afghan government accused Britain's new defense minister, Liam Fox, of insulting Afghanistan by describing it as a "broken 13th-century country." One Afghan official told the London Times that Fox's comments "show a lack of trust" and prove that Britain is a "colonial, orientalist, and racist country."
But Fox was hardly the first Westerner to reach for the medieval analogy when attempting to get a handle on Afghanistan. Something about Afghanistan conjures up the medieval period in the Western mind in an unreflective way, if only to express the idea that "they are not like us." For some it is a simple insult. Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince declared that the Taliban were "barbarians" who "crawled out of the sewer" with "a 1200 A.D. mentality." (Given Prince's own fixation on the medieval Christian crusaders of the same era, perhaps the Taliban aren't the only ones with that mentality.) Yet medieval Europe, where religion still played central role in culture and politics and state power was highly fragmented, isn't the worst analogy for understanding contemporary Afghanistan. And Europe's experience during this period might even provide some useful lessons for the country going forward.
Secular Westerners who spend any time in rural Afghanistan are struck by the continuing power of religion there. Islam still permeates all aspects of everyday social relations in rural society; nothing is separate from it. Its influence is ever present in people's ordinary conversations, business transactions, dispute resolutions, and moral judgments. There is no relationship, whether political, economic, or social, that is not validated by Islam. In such a society it is impossible to separate religion from politics. Rural Afghans cannot even conceive of the separation of religion and government because in their minds, the two are so intrinsically linked. The declaration of Afghanistan as an "Islamic Republic" upon the fall of the Taliban provoked neither domestic discussion nor concern. Any regime in Kabul that does not seize the Islamic banner for itself is vulnerable to being branded as illegitimate by its enemies, as the Soviet-backed communist government learned during the 1980s.
Christianity once played a similar all-encompassing role in medieval European life, and it took many centuries (and the emergence of rationalist secular ideologies beginning with the Enlightenment) for church and state to disentangle themselves. By the mid-20th century, Joseph Stalin could derisively ask how many divisions the pope had, but no medieval ruler could afford to be as cavalier when his legitimacy was challenged by the pontiff, even a venal one.