Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Special Reports

Afghanistan’s Early Reformists: Mahmud Tarzi’s ideas and their influence on the Wesh Zalmian movement

Thomas Ruttig 2 min

This paper of its Senior Analysts Thomas Ruttig represents the opening of AAN’s new series of occasional papers. It addresses the influence of the thoughts of Afghan nationalist and moderniser Mahmud Tarzi (1865-1933), foreign minister under reformer-king Amanullah (1919-29), on Afghanistan’s 1940/50s pro-democratic opposition movement, the Wesh Zalmian (Awakened Youth).

Mahmud Tarzi and the movement of the Young Afghans he inspired, used their newpapers Seraj-ul-Akhbar, to define Afghan nationalism in a modern way for the first time. The members of this movement aspired to create an Afghan identity that would go beyond notions of (sub-national) tribal and ethnic contexts, and to generate a positive feeling amongst Afghans about being part of the Afghan nation.

Progress in the education system and first steps towards a constitutionalist political system can be counted amongst their major achievements. As a result, access to education was not limited to the court, the aristocracy and the Ulema any more; the urban middle-classes and tribal leaders sent their sons (under Amanullah also some daughters) to the new schools. This way, modern thoughts slowly also penetrated the tribal society. As a result of the Young Afghans’ educational reforms, the educated class grew considerably over the following decades.

After the fall of King Amanullah and two decades of stagnation, the movement of the Wesh Zalmian picked up Tarzi’s reformist ideas, inspired by former Young Afghans who joined their ranks. In 1950, it generated Afghanistan’s first political parties that crystallised around some independent publications, another first in Afghan history. Five Wesh Zalmian leaders were elected into parliament where they formed a reformist faction that attracted some 30 to 40 more MPs.

The Wesh Zalmian, however, soon faced the dilemma between being critical but constructively supporters of a rather open-minded government or presenting itself as a clear-cut opposition. It was also soon divided along ethnic lines, a political danger that periodically surfaces in Afghanistan’s political class and undermines the work in progress on Afghan nation-building.

Nevertheless, Tarzi’s Young Afghans and the Wesh Zalmian represent two link in the long chain of the Afghan constitutional, democratic and reformist movement towards modernization and political liberalization that started at the beginning of the 20th century, was frequently suppressed after short periods of regime opening and resurfaced again after the fall of the Taleban regime with some political parties claiming the modernist values of both movements.

The paper can be downloaded  here

Date of publication: 27 April 2011.