Context & Culture

Not a "Tailless Star”: an obituary for leading Afghan intellectual Muhammad Qasim Akhgar


On Tuesday night (28 January 2014), with the passing away of Muhammad Qasim Akhgar, Afghanistan lost one of its leading intellectuals. Ustad Akhgar died after a long illness, only 62 years old and he died as he had lived, in more than modest circumstances. An independent leftist, author and human rights activist, who maintained his integrity in the difficult tide of post-2001 events, he believed in a pluralistic Afghan democracy but also clearly saw the problems his country was facing. AAN’s Co-Director Thomas Ruttig, who knew him well and interviewed him at length about his political life and the history of leftism in Afghanistan, pays his respect with this obituary, as do other colleagues at AAN, national and international, many of whom knew Mr Akhgar as teacher, poet or fellow journalist and will miss him.

Muhammad Qasim Akhgar – born in 1951 in Wazirabad, Kabul – was a dedicated leftist, but an unusual one. He wanted to prove, and did so, that Islam and Marxism could go together. So Akhgar – very fittingly his name means ‘spark’ – described himself as a “Muslim communist”. Demokrasi bedun-e sarmayadari; islam bedun-e mulla; sosyalizm bedun-e diktatori – “Democracy without capitalism; Islam without mullahs; socialism without dictatorship” – was a slogan he and his comrades used in the 1970s.

In a short biography of Akhgar, Afghan poet, writer and civil society acticist Partaw Naderi says Akhgar attended Nejat (later Amani) high school in Kabul but did not finish it because he was arrested for political reasons. Naderi does not mention what year this was and what the reasons of the arrest. He also mentioned that Akhgar lost his father early in his life and had to care for his family from then onwards.

Although Akhgar did not read or speak any European language, he had devoured Marx and Kautsky, Lenin and Plekhanov and Ché Guevara’s Bolivian Diary and Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, as well as Regis Debray’s book about Cuba. e admired Rosa Luxemburg, the non-dogmatic founding leader of the German Communist Party, assassinated in 1919 by the extreme right, and requested, when participating in a meeting with a German diplomat in Kabul some years ago, that the embassy help make her more popular in Afghanistan – somewhat ignorant of the fact that she is not really a figure in ‘official Germany’s’ hall of fame. He said he was happy he had access to the Farsi-language publications of the various Iranian leftist groups of the 1960s and 1970s, from the People’s Fedayin and People’s Mujahedin – who also sought to unite leftism with Islam – to the pro-Moscow Tudeh (People’s) Party. That, he explained, had helped ensure his hunger for reading matter was never limited to just one of the often quarelling leftist sub-currents. Partaw Naderi lists the Iranian thinker Ali Shariati (1933-77) as one of the strongest influences on Akhgar. Shariati had developed a Marxist, revolutionary interpretation of Shiism he called “red Shiism” and was often compared with Christian liberation theology.

After the People’s Democratic Party for Afghanistan (PDPA) came to power in the April 1978 coup, Akhgar organised a small resistance group that criticised “the links of the Parchamis(1) with the Soviets… We did not have an organisation, not much experience and the Parchamis knew about us soon.” Some of his comrades were arrested, he told me during a lengthy interview in 2006, others gave up the struggle and others again “became ikhwani”(2). Akhgar joined Sazman-e Nasr (Victory Organisation), one of the Shia mujahedin organisations whose leaders included Abdul Karim Khalili, now Second Vice President and Muhammad Muhaqeq (a current candidate for vice president). Akhgar became a member of Nasr’s central committee, “responsible for culture and politics” in the underground of Kabul with its large Shia community. He explained why:

Yes, they were supported by Iran – but what to do? We were all fighting against the Khalqis and Parchamis. … In the struggle against colonialism and imperialism, nationalism is the basis of our confidence,” they told themselves. But when they rejected Khomeini’s concept of welayat-e faqi’ (the theoretical justification for clerical rule), they were expelled for takfir (apostasy).”

What the country needed, he told me in 2006, was a “social democratic movement in Afghanistan but not as a party, rather as a current of thought.” In 2004 already, together with other independent activists like Ismail Akbar and Rangin Dadfar Spanta, now chairman of Afghanistan’s National Security Council, he tried to mobilize independent intellectuals in meetings across the country into the Ittehadia-ye Roshanfikran-e Mustaqil, the Association of Independent Intellectuals, sometimes called Khat-e Sewum, the Third Way. In November 2004, after the presidential elections, this group publicly criticized Karzai for his “coalition with the warlords” and called on him to appoint a cabinet “of competent and righteous” people that would “end the rule of the gun” (Hewad daily, 23 November 2004).(3) Their project soon fell dormant, though.

First director of Hasht-e Sobh newspaper

At some point during the war, Akhgar was hit by a shrapnell. After that, he was never able to speak fluently. Even so, Afghan electronic media often turned to him for comment, making him one the most quoted political analysts of the country. He was also one of the most concise. He never minced his words, was courageous, outspoken and principled without becoming ideological. He did not join any political party after 2001, but was active in journalists’ and pro-free speech associations and the Afghan section of the PEN club. He became the first director of Hasht-e Sobh (8am), a leading independent newspaper based in Kabul, when it was founded in 2007. He also taught at Kabul University’s law faculty.

Early on, he clearly saw the worrying trends in the development of his country. Before the first legislative elections in 2005, he warned that parliament might become dominated by the “rich and powerful” and that, “if warlords infiltrate the parliament, [it] would lose the support of people … and… decelerate the process of democracy“. He also said: “The presence of women, whatever reason they got in, makes me happy… It’s a statement against fundamentalism and the ways of the past.” In the same year, as the spokesman for the Association for the Advocacy of Freedom of Expression, he warned that the arrest and persecution of Ali Mohaqeq Nasab, the editor-in-chief of a women’s magazine who had criticised the instrumentalisation of religion by jihadi leaders was “contrary to all principles of any democratic society” and demanded a reaction of protest: “Otherwise I assure you, this will be the beginning of their work [against journalists and academic figures]” (Tolo TV, 25 October 2005).

When fundamentalist politicians attacked the broadcasting of Indian serials on private TV channels, he said this dispute had more to do with politics than with morality. “There are some fundamentalists in government, [and] this group of people is trying to eliminate free speech as a way of maintaining their strength and giving legitimacy to their demands. Freedom of speech unmasks their plans and programmes. … People really want these serials to be broadcast. Those who complain about [them] can switch off or watch something else.” He added: “Representing this as if it came from the people is not good.”

Akhgar supported the presidential system but, at the same time, criticised administrative corruption and the lack of the rule of law in Afghanistan. He sharply opposed when ways around existing law and institutions were taken, as in the aftermath of the 2010 parliamentary elections when President Karzai tried to cut through the counting mess with a special tribunal. He was also critical of Karzai’s attempts to talk to the Taleban. “The president’s definition of the Taleban and talks with the group has never been transparent and specific. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Mullah Omar…have committed several crimes against the people. How can the president speak of negotiations with these people? They should first of all be prosecuted and punished (Rah-e Nejat daily, 20 October 2008).” He also pointed out that “[political] differences and corruption” are resulting in a “weak position” for any negotiations.

While openly critical of Pakistan’s support for the Taleban, he spoke in favour of relations with the eastern neighbour as early as 2006. That the Afghan government called Pakistan its enemy and brother “in a single breath” was unreasonable to him. Instead, Akhgar suggested, “The government should bring consistency in its policy vis-à-vis the neighbours and assure them that the present set up was more friendly towards them as compared to the previous ones,” referring to the strained relations over the Pashtunistan issue during the monarchy and the 1973-78 Daud republic (Pajhwok, 22 June 2006).

Akhgar was convinced that “the presence of ISAF troops has prevented possible war”, but he also said that the many civilian deaths caused by foreign troops as well as “abusing detainees’ rights, or torturing prisoners … encourage people toward the Taleban and give the Taleban a chance to turn the situation to their advantage.” He noted that Afghans did not expect human rights violations from the US military: “Violating human rights and torturing people is the emblem of Taliban and terrorists, but not the emblem of soldiers of US army.” (Xinhua, 27 November 2005) He also criticised Western nations for their lack of a clear and transparent strategy. In early 2009, concerning the US surge, he said, “Boosting troops is not the solution. If the US wants to win the war in Afghanistan it has to change the strategy and parallel to military operations has to accelerate the reconstruction process and bring change to the living standard of Afghans, otherwise the instability would continue for the years to come.” He added that Western governments “need to coordinate among themselves and with the Afghan government their military, political and development programs. Otherwise, we will have more failures in the future in Afghanistan.” (Xinhua, 20 January 2009 and here.)

Uncompromising rights activist

But first of all, Akhgar was an uncompromising defender of human rights. When the so-called Amnesty Law, which granted amnesty to all parties involved in past hostilities and any who might reconcile in the future, was passed in February 2010 by the wolesi jirga (see our analysis here and here), he said such a law would increase insecurity rather than ensure security. He said it would rather guarantee security to criminals and encourage them to continue their role as strongmen. “Khalq, Parcham and jihadis coming together – what a surprise!” he quipped. “They fought each other for years, but now they have a common purpose – to escape retribution for what they did over the past 25 years, and award themselves immunity.” He did not even shy away from mentioning names: “How is it possible for Taliban’s commander Mullah Rocketi, former Northern Alliance leader Yunus Qanooni, communist’s general Noorul Haq Ulumi and a technocrat Qayum Karzai to sit on the same chamber and approve a bill unanimously?”

When, in 2007, parliamentarians attacked the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, he said that it had been in revenge for the commission’s vigorous calls for the prosecution of suspected war criminals. “The human rights commission has stuck like a bone in the throats of the parliamentarians with its call for justice”, he said. “Those who murdered more than 60,000 Kabul citizens and looted the capital – have they ever admitted that this was against Islam? What evidence do they have for calling the commission un-Islamic?” (IWPR, 20 September 2007) In 2011, he cooperated on another important Afghan human rights report, A First Step on a Long Journey: How People Define Violence and Justice in Afghanistan (1958-2008) published by the Afghan Civil Society Forum in 2011.

It was at this time that he started to become increasingly ill. A media report last year pointed out his deteriorating situation and made officials rush to his sickbed. Mubariz Rashidi, then acting minister of information and culture, called Akhgar an “outstanding personality” and “one of those people who never seek power and wealth for himself but preferred to be in his people’s service”.

That Akhgar did not speak English, French or German made it difficult for him to become better known beyond Afghanistan’s borders. His publications are in Dari only, and I am not aware of any translation so far. Even in Afghanistan, his works are not widely known. As my AAN colleague Borhan Osman emailed when he heard of Akhgar’s death: “He needs public recognition, his works being revived, distributed, awarded. His thoughts, his struggle and his life need to be made known, also to the young Afghans who never heard of him. Casual symbolic visits by some of his close friends and followers, and others by officials, hardly did the job.”

“They made our blood run like water in the streets”

Akhgar’s most significant work was initially called Political Impressions (Khaterat-e siasi). He had to write it three times. The first time, he wrote in exile in Pakistan. His house was broken into and the manuscript stolen. (He always thought it had not been an ordinary burglary.) Fortunately, he had not been at home. After the second writing, in 1993, mujahedin factions who controlled Kabul bombarded and stormed Afshar, a Shia neighbourhood west of the university, where he had stored his papers with a friend. He lost his book. His friend lost his whole family. “They made our blood run like water in the streets and [the people responsible] are still alive, but no one dares to arrest them because of their power,” Akhgar told the Australian newspaper The Age years later.

Akhgar finally wrote his book for a third time. He also gave it a new title. One night, he told me, he had been standing on the roof of his house in Kabul, watching a comet together with his small daughter. She was afraid because she knew that such a star, in Afghan folklore, bode ill. So he soothed her, saying it was a “star without a tail” – be dumbala in Dari. He liked this allegory which reminded him of Afghanistan’s leftist leaders and their iqtedar-gerahi  – striving for power – at all costs; even the PDPA, ruling from 1978 to 1992, he said, was close to the USSR not for ideological reasons but because the Soviets helped it defend its power. The leftists parties in Afghanistan, both pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing, he maintained, paraphrasing Rosa Luxemburg, “sometimes spoke about freedom but they only referred to themselves and not to the freedom of the others”. Akhgar chose the star allegory for the title of his book, subtitled “the History of the Intellectual movement in ‪Afghanistan”: Setaraha-ye be-dumbala – Tailless Stars or Stars that are not Comets.

 

Other obituaries:

By Reporters without Borders, printed in Daily Outlook Afghanistan (Kabul), here.

An article about Akhgar (by Partaw Naderi) and an interview with Akhgar (in Dari) here.

 

(1) Parcham (‘Banner’) and Khalq (‘People’) were the two main – and often quarreling – factions of the PDPA (founded in 1965), named after their respective, short-lived newspapers in the second half of the 1960s. Among the post-1978 PDPA presidents, Nur Muhammad Tarakai (killed in September 1979, by his ‘disciple’ Amin) and Hafizullah Amin (killed in December 1979, by the invading Soviet troops) belonged to Khalq; Babrak Karmal (died in 1996 in exile in Moscow) and Najibullah (killed by the Taleban in 1996) belonged to Parcham.

(2) Ikhwani means Islamist, but literally refers to the (Muslim) ‘Brothers’ who inspired many of Afghanistan’s leading Islamists who studied at al-Azhar in Cairo, including late Ustad Borhanuddin Rabbani.

(3) More on this, and the other political currents in Afghanistan, in a 2006 paper (“Islamists, Leftists – and a Void in the Center. Afghanistan’s Political Parties and where they come from (1902-2006)”) by the author, here.

 

Akhgar’s works (in Dari only)

‪An Introduction to the Political Evolution of Afghanistan in the Last Two Centuries

‪Statue of Anger: the Biography of Khaliq Hazara

‪Tailess Stars (or Stars that are not Comets): the History of the Intellectual movement in ‪Afghanistan

The Political Analysis Method

‪The Position of Women in Tawhidi’s Theory

‪Dissertation about Understanding Quran Methodology

‪The Basics of Religions and Human Rights

He also wrote numerous articles in a range of publications.

 

A youtube video with Akhgar speaking can be found here.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture