Afghanistan's Brand Of Democracy

by Patrick Appel

Anna Larson and Oliver Lough's research team interviewed Afghans about their attitudes towards freedom:

A central theme that emerged from the responses was that many Afghans have negative associations attached to the word "democracy" itself. In the view of many Afghans we spoke to, the idea of democracy extends far beyond elections and parliamentary politics to encompass an entire package of Western liberal values, where freedom is equated with an absence of rules, immorality, and secularism. As one interviewee put it: "some people think that democracy is unlimited freedom, or doing anything you want to do, or wearing any type of clothing." Or another: "for the youth in the cities, the word ‘democracy' just means having a good life and watching TV."

This is not to say that these Afghans have a problem with representative government-they'd just prefer to do it on their own terms. Even as people expressed deep concern over the encroachment of western-style "freedom" on Afghanistan's moral and social landscape, they expressed strong support for the kind of "freedom" that allows them to elect their rulers and hold them to account.  Many of our interviewees sought to reconcile this tension by arguing for a democracy placed within an "Islamic framework"-one that protects their strongly-held values and ideals from erosion. While the boundaries of this framework fell in different places for different people, it emerged repeatedly as a reference point for judging the successes or failures of Afghanistan's democratization process as a whole.