Omar Sadr

Interrogating Intellectual Activism and Democracy in Afghanistan

The proposed presentation attempts to identify and examine the role of intellectual social activism in expanding and furthering the democratic sphere in a society undergoing conflict. It does so by analyzing and understanding the role of intellectual activism in redefining the post-2001 public sphere of Afghanistan. Conflictual society struggles to fix its state of fragility, and at the same time, it suffers from the legacy and pressure of wartime social forces. The efforts for democratization and activism in post-conflict society is mediated through the previous social forces. These social forces limit the space for democratic interface among the individuals in society. Interestingly, in addition to the wartime social forces, there are other cultural forces, that cast an influence through cross current social relations. The new cultural and social forces make an effort to transform the post-conflict society through social activism. Intellectual activism plays a determinant role in expanding the democratic process, questioning autocratic state and debating freedom; it establishes a proactive and democratic public space independent of the state.

To show the role of intellectuals in social change and transformation, the presentation juxtaposes the literature on intellectual activism with the literature on the public sphere. The public sphere is a space where citizens enter into a debate with each other upon the common interests and public issues related to their public life. Jurgen Habermas (1989) analyzes rise and fall of the public sphere in the eighteenth century Western Europe bourgeois society. Habermas argues that the public sphere is a space out of the state and the official economy. The aim of the public sphere is to check the autocratic tendencies of the state vis à via society. Public sphere requires access to information, right to free speech, and right to assembly. He argues that the bourgeois public sphere got demolished as the non-bourgeois actor entered the public sphere. The common interest was to compromise to a private interest of groups. With the emergence of “welfare state mass democracy,” the distinction between state and society eroded away. It is definitely not “the welfare state mass democracy,” that demolished democracy in Afghanistan; rather it was the militarization of society, normalization of violence and polarization of identities that cultivated crisis in the ground of Afghanistan society. Continuous years of conflict led to the discontent of democracy. The militarization of society and polarization of identity turned the public sphere to exclusionary sphere where certain groups of people were allowed to appear and represent itself. Also, in the traditional society of Afghanistan, the public sphere became masculinist.

Nancy Fraser (1990) criticizes Habermas’ argument stating that the public sphere is based on certain exclusions. Habermas does not consider non-bourgeois public sphere. The public sphere that he talks is not exactly public. Exclusion of non-bourgeois from the public sphere led to “counterpublics” such as women publics, peasant’s publics, working-class publics and nationalist’s publics, which were not feasible in the current public sphere. She calls for the new forms of the public sphere, which is based on the four assumptions. I use the first three assumptions (inclusivity, multiplicity, and public/private interest) to show the intellectual efforts to change the public sphere in Afghanistan. I suggest that intellectuals have transformed the public sphere in Afghanistan in two ways. First, intellectual activism has broken the monopoly of the traditionalists, religious forces, and majoritarianism over the public sphere. It has opened the space for multiple actors such as women, rights activists, subaltern ethno-national groups, and liberals. The media provides the space to resist the state cultural dominations in Afghanistan. Appearing in the newspapers, televisions, or speaking through radios and social media, intellectuals helped in the creation of “counterpublic.” Even though appearing in public was a taboo for women, there is now a noticeable women participation of women in public life in Afghanistan. Similarly, the presence of women in the State structure, media, and political processes, such as election, has increased. Second, the dominant public sphere has a tendency to homogenize society based on the Pashtun culture. Intellectual activism has faced challenges in formulating and expanding an intercultural dialogue. They have initiated discourse on ways of accommodation of diversity within the political power, but it has challenges in establishing the same.

The proposed presentation, first, provides a brief overview of intellectual movements of Afghanistan. Second, it analyzes the challenges of democratization in Afghanistan. Following that, it presents the nature of intellectual activism in Afghanistan, and finally, it argues how intellectuals have reconstructed the public sphere in different manners.