Religion and Democracy at Odds for Some Afghan Youth

by Katherine Davis

In what was widely lauded as a sign of increasing stability in Afghanistan, 7 million Afghan voters headed to the polls this week.

The Taliban had pressured Afghans not to take part in the vote. They even threatened that anyone with blue ink on their finger—signifying they had voted—would be a target for violence. But, with the exception of a few minor attacks, the polling took place relatively peacefully. Many publications wrote about the event optimistically.

Thijs Berman, from the European Union’s team in Kabul, told the Associated Press, “This in itself is a victory over violence and a victory over all those who wanted to deter democracy by threats and violence.”

To be sure, the election is a large step forward for the war-torn country. These elections will replace Hamid Karzai, who has been in office since the Taliban was ousted in 2001. Karzai has now reached his term limit. In the country’s most recent elections in 2009, Karzai is believed to have rigged the vote for his own reelection. It is just one of many incidents that gives Afghanistan its reputation for being one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Not surprisingly, the frontrunners in this year’s election are all making anti-corruption promises in their campaigns.

So as the world looks on, many hope this election will mark a new era in Afghan politics, one in which democracy reigns and a new, fairly elected leader will be able to negotiate with the United States over a withdrawal of foreign troops so that the country can peacefully rebuild.

But are these interpretations of events in the Western news media overly hopeful? Are we imposing a Western school of thought on the situation, assuming that all people—Afghans included—must want democracy?

The Atlantic’s coverage of the election offers another point of view, one which many publications fail to consider—that of some young Afghan voters.

Uri Friedman wrote, “What lessons will young Afghans—the country’s future leaders—draw from the last decade and a half of war and instability? Will they work to improve Afghan democracy and elect more effective and accountable leaders, or will they spurn the democratic process in favor of a system they perceive as superior?”

Demographically speaking, Afghanistan is an extremely young country. Nearly 70 percent of Afghans are under the age of 25. That means the majority of the country was either not born, or a small child when post 9/11 U.S. involvement in the country began. As the Atlantic explains, for many young voters in Afghanistan, “democracy” is something they can only associate with more than a decade of foreign involvement, war and corruption.

That is why for some young Afghans, alternatives to a democratic government have major appeal. The Atlantic quotes Borhan Osman, a political analyst in Afghanistan: “Religious groups have often offered as an alternative the form of an Islamic state based on sharia law. This discourse pits an ‘Islamic’ system against a democratic system.”

For a small but growing group of educated young people in Afghanistan, where more than 99 percent of the population is Muslim, Osman says, an “Islamic state” feels more patriotic than the imported, Western concept of democracy.

Osman also wrote on the Afghanistan Analysts Network, “For these youths, democratic elections are part of jahiliyya (paganism) and against Allah’s hakimiyya, the rightful sovereignty and rule of God.”

If no clear winner comes out of the April 5 elections, a run-off vote will be held in May. For now, Afghanistan is on the path to democracy. But the direction the next generation will decide to take their country in years to come has yet to be determined.

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