Afghan dialogue, debate on terrorism still weak: expert | Connect Asia

Afghan dialogue, debate on terrorism still weak: expert

Afghan dialogue, debate on terrorism still weak: expert

Updated 28 March 2013, 16:17 AEDT

With fresh details this week about Australia's withdrawal from Afghanistan, there's been considerable reflection about the war and it's impact on global terrorism.

That conversation in Australia often revolves around the strength of Al Qaeda or other major branches of Islamic extremism, and what's being done to fight terrorists.

But how is terrorism discussed in countries with a majority Muslim population?

Presenter: Liam Cochrane

Speaker: Nushin Arbabzadah, author and former BBC journalist, now a lecturer at the Center for the Study of Women at University of California

ARBABZADAH: The situation is actually very interesting, for example when we look at Afghanistan we see a diversity of views. The government media for example insists that the problem is actually that terrorism is not an Afghan problem, that its roots and moral support and financial support for it is actually in Pakistan. So it becomes an issue of foreign affairs and conflict which is essentially over border disputes with Pakistan. The conflict is that, that you're looking at the wrong country if you look at Afghanistan, hence they've been sort of for many years trying to tell the world, the international community, that Osama bin Laden was actually in Pakistan which turned out to be true. So that's the view that they're trying to push for that obviously there are problems with that because Afghans are actually involved in terrorist attacks. Then we have media outlets that are loyal to specific ethno-nationalist warlords, and they view terrorism as a specially Pashtun problem, because the Taliban happen to be Pashtuns. And the President of the government, President Karzai, also is a Pashtun. So they see that as suspected that there is some sort of ethnic solidarity going on, and because of that the Afghan government is unwilling to actually tackle this problem, that they're too lenient. What's actually very interesting altogether is the Taliban's own use of the media to promote their own cause. They make extensive use of Facebook and Twitter. Every time there is an operation, photographs of what they call the martyr, are posted online, often they're smiling, which is very strange because it's like a cult of death that they're promoting. And the Taliban make much more efficient use of the media. If you speak to Afghan journalists they will tell you that they're much more accessible, that no matter how small the outlet or how provincial the outlet, if you're working for the Taliban they're always willing to talk to you. So they're much more accessible, they're much more efficient, they really do make a lot of use of the current freedom of speech that exists in Afghanistan. Whereas the Afghan government is much harder to reach, you really have to be a journalist either well known or working for a very good, sort of, very well-known media outlet, or cultivate relationships with government officials. So the corruption of the government actually means that in propaganda war the Taliban have the upper hand. And they don't describe their operations as terrorist attacks of course, they call themselves martyrs and the operations are called martyrdom operations.

COCHRANE: Interesting to hear those variations and complexities within Afghanistan. I'm interested in the interplay between terrorism, at least what we would consider terrorism from outside, and the Islamic religion, because it's something that is obviously a sensitive issue, it's not always well handled and can lead us into discriminatory kind of territory. But is there a robust conversation within Afghanistan about the links between Islam and terrorism, and also the gap between those as well?

ARBABZADAH: Actually no, as I said before what has happened is that the issue has become ethnicised, so when Afghan looks at terrorism as Taliban terrorism they look at it as an ethnic issue, something that belongs only to the Pashtun population, it's their problem, it's what they're doing and the rest of us, because we have to bear in mind that we are talking about an ethnically diverse society in Afghanistan, we have Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turkmens and because there was no infrastructure these communities remain separated from each other largely, apart from big cities obviously, and of course during the years of war the separation was further exacerbated as communities moved to neighbouring countries where they have relations. So it's looked at through somewhat of an ethnic prism, and as to debate and dialogue it's not there yet because journalism in Afghanistan is essentially advocacy journalism. And that's also true about the rest of the Muslim world. It's because of the history of journalism when newspapers flourished it coincided with a time of independence seeking struggles from colonial powers, and journalism became very politicised and sort of became advocacy and not investigative. So dialogue we don't have, no, people speak out their minds, but it's sort of monologue to each other basically, we're not there yet.

COCHRANE: Is there any move away from that advocacy journalism you're talking about and into something a bit more impartial?

ARBABZADAH: I don't see that yet. Journalism has improved a great deal in Afghanistan, when we think about 2001 we only had one radio station, the Sharia Radio Station, which was a Taliban station and a tiny TV station operating in the north which was not Taliban. And right now we have more than 20 privately owned TV stations, websites. So it's very diverse and it has improved a lot, reporting has improved a lot. But debate as such, we have to change the education system in Afghanistan basically, it's a very authoritarian society where people who know tell others what to think. So for people to have that kind of self confidence to think and debate, we're not there yet, besides the culture is very polite. A debate would be seen as an argument, basically. So there's a lot to do yet.

COCHRANE: And what are the prospects on that front, after the withdrawal, obviously it's a hypothetical at this stage, but after the withdrawal next year of international forces?

ARBABZADAH: I don't think that many of them, these new channels will be able to sustain themselves, because most of them were subsidised and each station is somewhat related to a foreign embassy that funds them and subsidises them, which has somewhat undermined their credibility, but at the same time enabled them to sustain themselves. So I think the numbers will be reduced drastically, and I think also freedom of speech will be curbed just because journalists already are self-censoring for themselves for fear of this unknown future. So I don't think reports of conflict are going to be as insightful as we wish them to be.

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