The special report on Afghanistan (MER 202) left me somewhat bemused. The author, Olivier Roy, may be a skilled anthropologist, but his political analysis can be seriously flawed and quite inconsistent. I was glad to see his article identify US economic and political interests (the oil and gas pipeline) in Afghanistan, but Roy never before questioned American motives — certainly not when the US government and the CIA were aiding the mujahidin during the 10-year civil war (1979-1989) and afterwards.

In the present article he writes that the resurgence of the Pashtuns is linked to the “dual legitimacy of the Talibans — religious and ethnic,” and that this “reflects the failure of the modern and ideological Islamist political model promoted by [Ahmad Shah] Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, head of Hezb-e Islami.” But Roy does not say why the Islamist political model that he had earlier praised has now failed. After all, in the 1980s, he was telling the world the following:

One might ask whether the Afghan resistance is the last war waged by the basmachi, traditionalist rebels fighting a rear guard action against Soviet expansion, or the first stirrings of an Islamic revival organization that are, at one and the same time, both modern and rooted in tradition. The members of the Afghan resistance are no longer basmachi, [and] we should acknowledge innovations… (Olivier Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 8-9)

What, pray, were those innovations? Were not the “modernists” in fact traditionalist rebels incapable of overcoming factionalism?

In his article, he writes: “The Islamist ‘engineers’ must give way to the traditionalist mullahs, whose program is limited to the exclusive rule of the shari‘a and the expulsion of women from the public sphere.” But Roy seems to be pretending that the mujahidin — his “Islamist engineers” and so-called modernists — introduced democratic political institutions, and that they warmly welcomed women to the public sphere, in contrast to the Taliban today. In the 1980s, he went out of his way to defend the “social customs” of the men of the Afghan “resistance,” as in the following passages, taken from the introduction to his book, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan:

Value judgments on Islamism need to be revised, and its modernity must once more be emphasized…. Its outdated views on social customs need not engage us unduly. The most controversial question, the role of women, involves a cultural element which goes far beyond Islamism, and even Islam itself…. The fact that such attitudes are commonplace in Muslim countries leads to the conclusion not only that the problem is often posed out of context, but that the virulent polemics one hears so frequently in the West concerning the treatment of Muslim women conceals a deeper preoccupation. In any case, we should make a distinction between two quite different things: the position of Muslim women in traditional society, which cannot be blamed on Islamism, and the way in which Islamism is attempting to ensure that urban, educated — and therefore, emancipated — women should come to accept the dictates of Islam.

Apart from its sophistry, the above statement indicates Roy’s error in presenting Islamism as a unitary and undifferentiated phenomenon. (This is in contrast to that other anthropologist of Afghanistan, Louis Dupree, who vigorously distinguished Afghanistan from Iran and often declared that Afghanistan would never descend to the fundamentalism of Iran!) In fact, there is a world of difference between the Afghan Islamists and the Iranian Islamists: divergent outlooks rooted in divergent social structures. The mujahidin and the Taliban make Ayatollah Khomeini look like Voltaire (almost).

Val Moghadam
Normal, IL

Roy Responds

Why not read before writing? Moghadam wrote that “Roy does not say why the Islamist political model…has now failed.” In fact I wrote a whole book on the topic, namely The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995) [first published in French in 1992, now available in paperback]. The incoherence that Val Moghadam saw between what is written in my first book and the article published by Middle East Report comes simply from the fact that she missed what I wrote between both. If she had read my last book she would have seen that I did not wait for her comments to expose the US/Saudi and Pakistani joint venture to support Islamist groups in Afghanistan (see pp. 117-120).

As far as the analysis of the Islamist movements is concerned, I thank Moghadam for quoting my book on Afghanistan, because I am proud to say that there is not a word to change. I never of course considered Islamism as an undifferentiated and united movement (see the chapters on Iran in The Failure of Political Islam). By the way, I never wrote or said that the Islamists created “democratic institutions.” This did not preclude the fact that the Islamist wave has been from the 1960s to the 1980s a “modern movement” both in sociological and ideological terms. The Islamist Afghan mujahidin were not “basmachi,” and the difference of attitude today between them and Massoud (who, when he took Kabul in 1992, allowed women to work, even as airline attendants or TV anchors) shows clearly that the gap between Islamism and traditional fundamentalism still makes sense. What failed is the ability of the Islamists to create new and efficient political institutions. The sudden emergence of the Taliban (who are not Islamists but fundamentalists) is a consequence of that failure.

I maintain that Islamists had a more positive approach towards women than did old and traditional fundamentalists, even in their post-Islamist resurgence. The last speeches of the newly elected Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, confirm that true “Islamists” are eager to distinguish themselves from fundamentalist circles on the issue of women. Whatever the late and respected Professor Dupree said 15 years ago, it is better, nowadays, to be a woman in Tehran than in Riyadh or Kabul under the Taliban. In Iran women can work, drive a car and vote. They deserve better, of course, but my analysis remains inside the Muslim world.

Olivier Roy
Dreux, France

How to cite this article:

"Letters," Middle East Report 204 (Fall 1997).

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