Those of us who remember the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1996 likely recall it as a nightmare. The images that reached us were horrific, suited to a dystopia movie set in a world where extremists and misogynists ruled.
Immediately, women and girls were subject to intense oppression. The Taliban prohibited women from working, shuttered girls’ schools, made the burqa mandatory, and leaving home without a male escort illegal. Breaking these rules meant public whipping or even execution. Minorities were persecuted. Cultural treasures were destroyed.
Now, 25 years later, while we watched, city after city fell to their hordes.
Again, our hearts break for the Afghan people.
Tragically, we at home can only wait to be told how we might possibly help those in Afghanistan. But we can — and must — learn from what is happening.
1- Fundamentalism does not go away. We ignore it at our peril. Fundamentalism follows a strict interpretation of religion or ideals and sacrifices everything — and everyone — at its altar. Fundamentalism may be briefly beaten back, but without intense education to counter deep-seated extremist beliefs, and prevent them from taking root in each generation, it won’t be defeated. It is patient and feeds on itself and others’ dismissal of it. Extremism will resurge when we are least prepared, mainly because we think we have done away with it.
2 – When someone says they want to destroy your way of life, believe them. The Western mind still refuses to understand Middle Eastern culture. The rules are different. For many in this part of the world, culture and enlightenment aren’t values — neither to appreciate nor to strive to achieve. More often, might makes right. And the one with the might makes the rules. Add to this the fundamentalist belief that the ends always justify the means, and you have a holy war. And holy wars only end one way — with the “infidels'” total defeat.
3 – Women and girls are the first victims of fundamentalism. When you see a movement that represses women, know that it is an unhealthy one. It will prove to be repressive for society as a whole, not just women. It will maintain itself on the backs of others and at all costs, for the rules of fundamentalism mean that nothing — not even human freedom — is as valuable as the cause itself. Fight extremism the moment you see it, even if it doesn’t affect you. Even if you may benefit from it…for unless you are as fervent in your belief as the fundamentalists are in theirs, they will eventually come for you too.
4 – Where women and girls are secondary to men, have value only in relation to men, when men restrict women’s movement, deny girls and women education, and dictate their dress — this is not culture, this is control. The noble Western call for “cultural sensitivity” cannot be applied when it comes to abuse. There can be no tolerance for abuse in the name of culture. When a society cannot make room for women at the helm, when it chafes at women’s accomplishments, when it removes their rights and freedoms, it is deeply, deeply flawed.
5- Do not analyze conflicts, issues, and situations solely from your own lens. Understand that the way that you see something, from your perspective, with your history — individual and collective — with your education and experience, is not the way others will. Listen to the people affected by the issues and help if you can, but don’t dictate your solution to the people who live the problem. This applies just as much to your local community as it does to the global one.
6 – Recognize the stakes. Understand your opponents and what will happen if they win. People are shocked at the Taliban’s success, and at the speed with which they achieved it. But, recall #1, fundamentalism doesn’t die on its own. They have waited, stockpiling both weapons and fervor for decades, for the moment they could strike. In a power vacuum, the strongest, most ruthless, most committed will win. Remember that when someone screams, “End the occupation” or “Free, free Palestine.” What is the plan for this demand that Israel withdraw on its own? Who comes in to fill the breech if Israel moves out, as it did in Gaza…? Slogans are great for protests and the ego of the social justice warrior. But real change needs real planning, as well as a reality check– see #7.
7- Understand reality. Accept what *is* and not what you wish would be. Policies and decisions cannot be made on ideals alone. They must be grounded in fact. No matter how much we might want things to be different, we need to deal with what is — and plan for when things go wrong.
What does this mean for us, for those of us who are lucky enough to be far from Afghanistan? To what extent, if at all, we will be able to help the Afghanis remains to be seen. But we can learn from their experience of the past weeks, on the heels of the past 20 years. We can identify areas of our own worlds that need improvement, recognize when we are up against a version of fundamentalism (as above), and focus our energies on the change we want to see.
- What do we see — what is the problem we want to solve?
- What are the policies that bring harm?
- Who needs help and what do they need?
- How can we suggest changes that will be accepted?
- Who are our allies in this struggle?
- Who are our opponents and what are their goals?
- What are the challenges in our path?
- How do we set goals we can actually achieve?
- What does change look like practically — and how do we get there?
Whether fighting antisemtism, advocating for peace, championing minority rights, or even fighting the Taliban — whatever your cause, these questions are the foundation of what must be asked and answered.
If we want to do something with the pain we feel for the people of Afghanistan, we should choose something local to sink our teeth into. While we may not be able to help the Afghanis right now, we can make a difference for the people around us.
Turn off the news. Look up. Go change your world.