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Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2001/ 22 Kislev, 5762

Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent
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American Taliban member is wake-up call -- SHOCKED as we are by the American Talib John Lindh, a.k.a. John Walker, a.k.a. Abdul Hamid, his defection may give us the crucial insight we need to understand what's wrong in Afghanistan and to propose a stable successor to the Taliban.

Until we found this 20-year-old Californian voluntarily starving in a basement in Qala-i-Jangy, we didn't really understand fundamentalist Muslims.

We have preferred to think of it as a local or culture-specific problem created by an unfortunate combination of circumstances that are commonplace in the Arab world: a proliferation of madrasas, or Islamic religious schools; widespread poverty; an overpopulation of idle young men with little hope of gainful employment; years of political chaos and inveterate ethnic conflict; and the intractable bellicosity of Muslim dogma itself. These all have been environmental accelerants that have warmed and moistened the petri dish in which the fungus of Islamic fundamentalism has grown.

But they are not the cause. The cause, alas, as Walker's defection makes painfully clear, is human nature.

Perhaps like so many native Central Asians, Walker was in effect "brainwashed" in a Pakistani madrasa and later in an Afghan camp. But his conversion to strict religiosity happened here in the United States. His susceptibility to its clean absolutism had nothing to do with his upbringing and bore no inherent relation to Islam.

No, this was a generic conversion. The joiner's instinct was his own. The need for an all-encompassing, ready-made identity, a life purpose to die for, was all too typical of intense young people the world over.

It was, in short, all too human.

So what does all this have to do with nation-building in Afghanistan?

As the Bonn conference has shown, we insist on seeing both the history and the future of Afghanistan in tribal terms. There's talk of power sharing and skin-deep accommodation, a kind of well-meant multiculturalism--diverse, but fiercely chauvinistic.

We figure if we include the Pushtuns and the Tajiks and the Uzbeks in a slapdash coalition government, we'll at least have made a pretense of cleaning up the mess. But, of course, we suspect, as do the salivating warlords, that this is a papier-mache edifice.

If, however, we can learn to see this conflict as a human failure, we might push for the Afghans to adopt a viable remedy: American-style democracy, the only form of government idealistic enough to be cynical and realistic enough not to trust people to their own devices.

This sounds obvious and hideously patriotic. But it is neither.

Lately, all the sensible experts have beaten the drum for democracy in Afghanistan. But not just any democracy will do; representation is not enough. There are two other necessary ingredients if political stability is to have a prayer in Afghanistan.

The first is checks and balances, a proven antidote to the baser instincts of human nature.

Without it, our democracy would have collapsed long ago under the weight of greed and folly.

Likewise, without it, the new Afghan government, if it ever coalesces, will regress again into warring factions.

The second is a dose of benign nationalism. We call it e pluribus unum: out of many, one. It means that regardless of our ethnicity, we are all American, just as we are all human.

Similarly, Afghanistan will not see itself as a nation until each member of each ethnic group sees himself as an Afghan first, as well as a human being partaking in a common global stability.

None of this may come to pass. The task is huge and the will to change perhaps insufficient. But whatever the smart explainers say, the Afghans are not some savage "other," culturally predisposed to hate. They are simply us without the restraining bureaucracy.

JWR contributor Norah Vincent is a New York writer and co-author of The Instant Intellectual: The Quick & Easy Guide to Sounding Smart & Cultured. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Norah Vincent