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Afghanistan: Karzai's Vision -- 'There Is Always A Middle Ground'

  • Ron Synovitz

As Afghanistan's Transitional Authority prepares to draft a new constitution that paves the way for democratic elections, President Hamid Karzai faces conflicting pressures from international donors and an Islamic fundamentalist political caucus at home. From Kabul, RFE/RL examines Karzai's plan to tread a middle path by establishing a moderate Islamic state.

Kabul, 28 June 2002 RFE/RL) -- With the naming of his Transitional Authority cabinet completed, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is now looking ahead to what the Bonn accords have tasked for his government during the next 18 months: drafting a constitution and convening a new Loya Jirga to approve the document in order to create the conditions for democratic elections within two years.

The task puts Karzai in a position where he must balance the calls of the international community against the demands of an emerging Islamic fundamentalist political caucus within Afghanistan.

On the one hand, the international community holds out the offer of desperately needed reconstruction and development aid. An international military presence also is set to remain in Afghanistan at least until democratic elections are completed.

On the other hand are deeply conservative Afghan Islamists from various ethnic groups who are vowing to defend their tribal customs. Despite the collapse of the Taliban regime, this all-male group of Afghan religious conservatives continues to oppose the kind of reforms that are being called for by international donors.

Among the most prominent of these conservatives is Burhanuddin Rabbani, the founder of the Jamiat-i-Islami political party. Rabbani's party is the Panjshiri faction of the former Northern Alliance. It controls some of the most powerful cabinet posts within Karzai's Transitional Authority.

In an interview with the American newspaper "USA Today," Karzai rejected the suggestion that the United States and other foreign interests are dictating details about the kind of Islamic state that his Transitional Authority should construct. "The West has not really offered a vision in terms of the politics of Afghanistan. The West has offered help. And the Afghan people understand that and respect that. That help is vital for Afghanistan," Karzai said.

Karzai insists that his vision of an Islamic state is based upon the concerns of Afghans rather than foreign governments or special-interest groups. "The future shape of the country is a decision of the Afghan people. They want a central authority. They want a united country. They want an end to fiefdoms and warlordism. They want development. They want education. But of course Afghanistan is a Muslim country, a traditional society. All of that is far within the framework of Afghan social and religious values," Karzai said.

Indeed, the clan structure in Afghanistan's independent tribal regions differs from the social structures of other Muslim societies. With these differences in mind, Karzai rejects the notion that the Islamic state being created by his Transitional Authority will be similar to the Islamic state of Iran. "Afghan society is a different society. We have different social structures. This is an Islamic society. We must respect our values, our social structures," Karzai said.

Karzai also rejects suggestions that an Afghan Islamic state must be one where those convicted of violating Islamic Sharia law are publicly executed or mutilated. "The Taliban were not representing Islam. Why do people go from one extreme to another extreme? There is always a middle ground. Life is made through thinking and common sense and moderation," Karzai said.

For Karzai, Malaysia is the first country that comes to mind when he thinks about how to modernize Afghanistan while preserving its traditional cultural values. With some hesitation, he also named the secular states of Egypt and Turkey. And he said that he sees the post-World War II reconstruction of Japan as a model for Afghanistan. "Japan. A country that kept its traditions and values and yet leaped forward as the most developed country now," Karzai said.

Karzai said the best way to achieve his vision of an Islamic state is by balancing the demands of modernization against the preservation of tribal cultural values. "What I want is a balanced development in all aspects. So in 18 months, some work will be completed. Other parts of the work may continue to be there for many, many years before we have results. It is a process with many sides," Karzai said.

One contentious issue that is expected to take years to resolve is that of women's rights. And the question of who should head the Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs is one that illustrates the political tactics of the religious conservatives as they attempt to push through their political agenda.

Interim Women's Affairs Minister Sima Samar had been expected to continue at that post within the Transitional Authority. But the Islamic fundamentalists launched a campaign to discredit Samar after she had complained at the Loya Jirga about the control that Afghan warlords hold over the post-Taliban political process.

The religious conservatives demanded that Karzai keep Samar out of the Women's Ministry. As behind-the-scenes negotiations over the post continued during the last week, newspapers controlled by Rabbani's Jamiat-i-Islami party circulated erroneous reports claiming that Samar had rejected the Muslim faith and that the Afghan Supreme Court had declared her to be an enemy of Islam.

High Court Justice Maulawi Abdul Hadi Shenwari issued a public denial after Kabul Television, controlled by Jamiat-i-Islami, broadcast the erroneous report under the pretext that it was an official statement by the Afghan Supreme Court.

After that broadcast, Justice Shenwari told Western journalists that Samar is a good Muslim who is fit to serve in any government post. The Jamiat-i-Islami newspapers have yet to publish a retraction.

The day after the erroneous Kabul TV broadcast, Karzai announced that Samar would become the head of the Afghan Commission for Human Rights. "With regard to Minister Sima Samar, what was written about her in the newspapers was fabrication. I asked her. She spoke to me about this. It was total fabrication. It was lies. And she denied it. She is a good Muslim. She believes in our values and our religious virtues and social values. She has helped this country in the past very much in the times of war against the Soviet Union and afterwards. And that's why she has the most important job now, in this regard. She is the commissioner for human rights in Afghanistan," Karzai said.

There also are reports that religious conservatives have threatened to kill Samar. For the last three days, since Samar took on the human-rights post, Turkish soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force have been posted around her home.

Their presence is a constant reminder of the difficulties that lie ahead for Karzai as he attempts to follow a moderate course between the demands of reformists and the conservative mujahedin commanders and religious fundamentalists that comprise a large part of the Transitional Authority.

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