"Utterly Alien?"


A reader writes:

While I share some of your skepticism (but not your despair), I reject your description of the Afghan and Pakistani people, their institutions, culture and religion as "utterly alien." I have spent time in Afghanistan myself and met many people who share the same basic values as most Americans and Europeans and Arabs and Africans and Chinese, etc. They want to live in peace, security and prosperity. They are proud of their faith, heritage and history. They want their children to have a better future. They dislike foreign intrusions, but deeply desire normal relations with the other peoples of the world.

Sure, there is the bizarre death cult of Al-Qaeda and the benighted hardcore Taliban, and pretty much everything about them is alien to modern existence. But you seem to be painting the whole region and culture of Central Asia as utterly unknowable, incomprehensible, and sinister. Of course we cannot turn the whole region into a network of Jeffersonian democracies, and I don’t see anywhere in the new plan that this is our objective. 

But in your view Afghans and Pakistanis are "utterly alien." Their institutions (Families? Tribes? Village councils?) are "utterly alien." Their religion is "utterly alien." Sunni and Shi'a Islam? Do you find ALL Muslims "utterly alien?" And their culture is "utterly alien" as well, so let's not bother to seriously attempt to understand it. This is not just an isolationist sentiment - it's xenophobia. And it is in many ways as naive as the worldview that got us stuck in Iraq.

I take the point and should perhaps have ratcheted back the hyperbole. No human is utterly alien. But we fool ourselves if we under-estimate profound cultural, religious and political differences in other cultures.

(Photo:An Afghan girl looks on as she waits to receive medical aid in Kabul on Febuary 6, 2009. After seven years of US-led and NATO military support and billions of dollars in aid, security in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Another 30,000 US troops are due to arrive by mid-2009 to combat an expected Taliban surge. By Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images.)