Sep 11, 2009

Afghan Diaspora & the Media

What role do diasporas, a nation-state itself, and the media play in an increasingly globalized world where the idea of a 'nation-state' as defined by the Treaty of Westphalia is finding itself increasingly at odds with international developments? That is the central question that binds all of these weeks readings.

As a member of a diaspora who had a brief stint at a diasporic, global media company and studied diasporic culture in undergrad I will address these questions based on my own experiences all the while trying to create connections between statements in the readings.

As Abdul Jan Mohammed stated, the people of a diaspora subject the "cultures to analytic scrutiny rather than combining them." In this sense, I as an Afghan immigrant living in a democratic nation with strong ties to Afghanistan do not accept a single culture over another. Rather than rejecting either Afghan or American culture, I am able to look at Afghan culture through the lens of democracy and American culture from the point of view of a nation that has suffered greatly as a result of poor American foreign policy decisions.

For instance, when I hear about cries for American withdrawal from Afghanistan I see it from the point of view of someone who knows what an abrupt US departure after the fall of the Soviet Union did to Afghanistan. On the other hand, as an Afghan, I do not see America's presence in the nation as a hostile takeover, imposition, Western propaganda, or a Jewish/Christian takeover of a Muslim nation. I inherently understand the importance of what America can bring to Afghanistan if it stays while still knowing that if America simply pulls out of Afghanistan it could reap dire results for both nations in the future, as it did after the Cold War.

I am not willing to accept either Afghanistan or the United States as religious nations because I have seen what Conservative dominance has done to the United States (steered the people away from focusing on the important political, economic, and social issues in the name of religion) and how the example of Afghanistan's closest cultural, historical, and linguistic neighbor - Iran can serve as a warning call to the amount of power that the Afghan people can lose in a top-down system based on the religious views of a certain group. I would have none of these viewpoints had I not lived my life as an Afghan immigrant growing up in America.

Castells talks about the public sphere as a place where people can come together as citizens to challenge the dominant political institutions of a society. Unfortunately, a public sphere like that has not existed domestically in Afghanistan since before the Soviet invasion (which was ironically orchestrated in part by actors within that public sphere) but with the emergence of satellite television, this public sphere has been created through groups within the diaspora. After all, in an industrialized world, media has become the most dominant manifestation of the public sphere (Castells).

Whereas we in the diaspora can assemble on Fremont Blvd (affectionately referred to in the Bay Area as 'Little Kabul'), the citizens of Kabul itself have very little opportunity to do so without fear of retribution or violence. Of course, with the advent of satellite television such a public sphere has been created in Afghanistan for those who have access to a telephone and a television. On these television stations, people in Afghanistan, Iran, Germany, Pakistan, the United States, Canada, and England can all express their views on the government and the role of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan. Thus, these stations become the 'repository' of cultural and informational ideas (Castells). Of course, in a nation where there are vast crises of efficiency, legitimacy, identity, and equity, and a growing distrust of nongovernmental actors, trying to use these debates for positive outcomes is extremely difficult.

Part of the difficulty comes from the dynamics of the groups interacting with each other through the airwaves. On one hand,you have the immigrants who were the educated, skilled, higher classes who left Afghanistan at the onset of the war to profit in "the new world" (Karim Karim) and on the other you have the poor, uneducated masses who have lived through thirty years of war and see those very people who left Afghanistan and profited in "the new world" returning to Afghanistan as translators, contractors, aid workers to further profit as the ones who suffered through the war have little chance of escaping the poverty and destruction around them.

Another issue facing Afghans in the diaspora and within Afghanistan itself is the idea of nationalism. Like many other states controlled at one time or another by imperial powers, the lines denoting Afghanistan as a nation seem drawn in such a way as to constantly keep various groups in contention with one another (Karim Karim).

The new media of satellite television has tried to create a unity among the various groups through children's programming and a diversity of people on the programming, but by and large the government itself has done little to bring the people together. Thus, you have groups like the Taliban using their interpretation of Islam, rather than a unique Afghan identity (Waisbord) trying to force the people of Afghanistan into supporting their political aims. Like many other criminal groups, the Taliban base themselves in poorer areas and came to prominence by offering a sense of security and order in the lawless Afghanistan of 1996 (Castells).

What all of this amounts to is that the Afghan government and the independent satellite television stations must work to somehow create a sense of national Afghan identity (Waisbord). An identity that is larger than economics, various interpretations of religious ideals, war, and politics.

The Afghans of Afghanistan have lost sense of a civil society in Afghanistan and see it as impositions of Western forces not as going back to something that existed within Afghanistan previously. These media outlets, both governmental and independent must find a way to bridge the gap between the experiences of the diaspora and the up and coming cultural and intellectual thinkers of Afghanistan itself. In this way, the Afghans in Afghanistan can see that engagement within the West does not inherently mean the loss of a religious or cultural identity merely the challenging of it to make said identity more potent and able to keep up with the changing world climate without crumbling under the weight of change.

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