My Reply to Matt Weems, Or a 30-Chapter Treatise on Afghanistan as a Victim of Orientalism, Problems of Scholarship and Sourcing in Afghanistan Studies, the Destruction of Buddhas of Bamiyan, and How Don Imus’s “Nappy-Headed Hoes” Comment Relates to Afghanistan

Chapter-I. Prologue – Discovering Warlords of Afghanistan:

A few days ago, following a link from AfghanistanWatch, I discovered the website Warlords of Afghanistan. In general, I found the website and its premise interesting. There are not many websites that are dedicated to illustrations and biographical sketches of “warlords” of Afghanistan. The website is maintained by Matt Weems, who is also the author of all material therein, including the illustrations.

II. A Quick and Easy Read:

I am fascinated by outside perceptions of Afghanistan, and Mr. Weems should be credited for the simplicity and ease of reading of his website. I read most of the pages in one sitting. Most of the biographical and historical sketches are brief and interesting. The picture that Mr. Weems offers of Afghanistan is a straightforward one, though this by no means implies that he evades the complexities of Afghanistan’s history and politics. Therefore even those who know very little about Afghanistan can find the website interesting and easy to understand. In other words, it is “armchair statesmanship” at its best -a term the author himself employs (the irony of which is not entirely lost on me.)

III. My History with Orientalism:

Besides being fascinated by outside perceptions of Afghanistan, I am also very interested in how people here in the “West” perceive the rest of the world, especially the “Muslim World.” This interest has driven me to taking classes on the subject and developing a keen interest in critiques of Orientalist thought and scholarship. My reading of the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, for instance, has left a deep mark on the way I view Area Studies and scholarship in the American academia about the rest of the world (though it must be said that the discipline of Area Studies in America is by no means a match for its European counterpart of the colonial era in its Eurocentrist conception of the world, and its attendant distortions of historical and other facts to match that frame of thinking.) Therefore, it is fair to say that I have grown somewhat of an allergy to all things that bear even a distant aroma of Orientalism and Eurocentrism, or those that tend to generalize and essentialize entire peoples.

IV: My Critique of Warlords of Afghanistan:

Reading some of Mr. Weems’ writing seems to have touched this “anti-orientalist” nerve in me. I should point out immediately that his website is not the only one I have had such a reaction to -incidentally, it seems that Mr. Weems and I agree about some of the things that other outside authors have written about Afghanistan- and it is not by far the worst example. All the same, reading the website led me to question the accuracy and factuality of some of the statements in it. Where I did not find any concrete proofs of falsity, I was taken aback by the certainty with which Mr. Weems advanced his claims. This led me to critique Mr. Weems’ work in an earlier post here. My criticisms fell into three categories: 1. claiming that the writing was solipsist and Orientalist (and Eurocentrist and essentialist), 2. claiming that some of the information were false and the website was ill-informed, and 3. that it was culturally insensitive. I also said that the idea of warlord coasters was a profitable one (though I did not mean this as a criticism,) unfairly singled out two of the authors on Mr. Weems’ reading list, and said that he has romanticized the warlords of Afghanistan, an impression that anybody will get after reading some of the writing.

V. Mr. Weems Replies:

Within a day of writing that initial post, I received a response from Mr. Weems himself who thanked me for having read the website before criticizing it, and responded to all of my criticisms point by point. For the most part, Mr. Weems agreed with the points I had raised about his writings, but pointed out that my problem was that I had taken them in the wrong spirit. He explained that: solipsism would help Americans understand Afghanistan better by drawing analogies from their own national history, the coasters are meant to be insensitive but not to any particular culture, the coasters were not profitable -yet, and the warlords were in fact “adventure story types” -albeit villainous ones. He also corrected me by saying that his reading list was more extensive and credible than I had made it out to be -to which I concede. However, when it came to my criticism that his website was “ill-informed” Mr. Weems found my criticism baseless, and demanded further explanation.

VI: A Disclaimer of Sorts -Before We Begin:

Let it be known that I do not know Mr. Weems personally, and had never heard of him before stumbling onto his website. As such, my initial remarks on his work were made in the spirit of advancing the cause of truth about a subject matter that means a great deal to me, and that I know comparatively more about than other subjects. I am also not under any illusions and am well aware that the bearing of this cross -working to advance the cause of truth- does not win one any friends. For a number of reasons that I will enumerate subsequently, I feel that it is particularly important to raise the standards for research, scholarship, and armchair statesmanship about Afghanistan and its people. I do not claim to be up to this task, and am only doing my small part through this blog. And I feel exhilarated when some of those I critique actually notice. O’ Shall I see the day when Carlotta Gall writes to admonish me? (Well, there are also those who I hope won’t notice – which means I will have to play it as safe as I can by writing only in English.)

VII. And One More:

It is my firm belief that a majority of the problems faced by Afghanistan today are rooted in extremism, tribalism, irredentism, narrow-mindedness, and lack of tolerance for diversity, including diversity of ideas. Therefore, as a personal value, I eschew all such unpleasant isms and tendencies, both in my personal life and my work. It is important to point this out because the particular topic in Mr. Weems’ website that I am about to address concerns my ethnicity. In the context of Afghanistan, because the national discourse is so plagued by some of the above tendencies, it is normal to be skeptical of a person’s real motives.

VIII. A Personal Mea Culpa:

In his latest comment in answer to the same post, Mr. Weems has also claimed that he has read some of my other posts critical of others and feels that I “make scathing comments a little too easily, and fail to give others the credit they do deserve.” I appreciate this critique and will watch this tendency in my future writing. I should also reply to more comments and more promptly. The handful of readers who comment on this blog know that I rarely reply to comments. But this one commenter has proved a resilient one and has vowed to take me to task for “spouting off” without back-up. Indeed, I should thank Mr. Weems for providing me with the occasion to spout off even more about an important topic. As the frustrated reader has no doubt already found out, I am using this but as an excuse to write my views about the subject. I plead guilty to the charge, with the explanation that the topic is an important one and warrants the seeming digressions and extraneous comments. Last but not least, I also have a ton of work to do and find writing this the most perfect of escapes. Yes, this is my idea of fun. On a Friday afternoon no less.

IX: A Preambulatory Note -Before We Begin, Really:

Because of limitations of space and time (as if this perfunctory excuse is believable anymore) I will limit my response to the topic of Hazaras. More accurately, because I am a Hazara myself, and because I have devoted a research paper or two to the study of Hazara history and society, I am less ignorant about this topic than I am about others. A survey of Mr. Weems’ website might reveal to others more familiar with Afghanistan’s history, the history of its many ethnic and linguistic groups, and with the personal and political histories of its dominant political players in recent years that my remarks about this single topic is but a sample of the rest of Mr. Weems’ works, and that in turn, Mr. Weems’ writing is but only a sample of a wider problem that exists with regard to reporting and research on Afghanistan. Or, it might not. At any rate, the Page that I am about to comment on is “Hazara – The Bottom Rung”.

X: A “Document-Poor” Nation, a “Least-Studied” People:

The problem starts with sources and documentation. As Mr. Weems has pointed out, there are simply not many of them around to begin with. Afghanistan is a “document-poor” country. This is particularly severe with regards to the Hazaras of Afghanistan, a people that according to Dr. Askar Mousavi, formerly of Oxford University, are the least studied people of Afghanistan. This problem is further compounded by the peculiar nature of ethnic and power relations in Afghanistan, and the particular experience of the Hazara people.

XI. The Nexus of Knowledge and Power:

The late Edward Said points out in his book that more problematic than the distorting tendencies of Orientalism is the “nexus of knowledge and power,” and the way facts -in this case the distortions of facts as filtered by the prism of Orientalism- find their way into policymaking. The old adage says that knowledge is power. This statement holds more wisdom in it than can be gleaned from it superficially. The relationship between knowledge and power is in fact two-way, and more complex. It is a promiscuous and intimate relationship. Power enables knowledge, and knowledge enables and shapes the exercise of power. Another interpretation of the same saying is found in the statement “history is written by victors,”: power creates knowledge.

XII. A Pervasive Historical Fiction:

It is only against this background that one of the grandest and most pervasive historical fictions of our time, invariably parading as historical truth, that Hazaras are the remnants of Mongol armies has been created and sustained. It is also only by resorting to the same revisionist and doubt-casting framework that this myth can can be understood and debunked. For centuries, from the earliest days of the British colonizing of India to this date, it has been taken for granted that the historic origins of Hazaras in Afghanistan go back to the Mongol invasions. According to Mr. Weems:

“The Hazara are supposed to be Mongols left in Baiman (sic) after Ghengis Khan (sic) had it depopulated.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

XIII. The Late-Mongol Origin Theory and My Claims to Mongol Principality:

There are many variations of the theory of Mongol origin of Hazaras. The most extreme of these portray the Hazara as an essentially martial race descended directly from Genghis himself – all of the four million or so odd Hazaras. We will call this the theory of the late-Mongol origins of Hazaras (to distinguish it from those that allow that Hazaras are partially Mongol, but that these Mongol roots date back to long before Genghis and his armies arrived in the region.) As will become clear, the theory of the late-Mongol origins is really a myth. Incidentally, this myth is also actively promoted by some among the Hazara themselves who, perhaps, find the the tendency to valorize their ethnic origins too overwhelming. (This also entails the clear benefit of endowing one with the grand and honorific surname of “Changizi” – not uncommon among the Hazara of Quetta.) There is an annex at the end of in Dr. Askar Mousavi’s book The Hazaras of Afghanistan where a Hazara cleric residing in Quetta, Pakistan has drawn up an elaborate genealogical chart tracing the roots of all Hazara people everywhere back to the four sons of Genghis, and ultimately to Genghis himself. (I should report that the name Zeerak is also not withheld this distinct honor, thus making me a potential heir, and a Mongol prince of imperial blood. To paraphrase Phantom Planet: Ulan Bator here I come, right back where we started from.)

XIV. The Late but No-Direct-Descent Theory:

Another, less extreme version of the late-origins theory has it that the Hazaras are direct descendants of the garrisons of Genghis’ troops that were left behind in modern day central Afghanistan (but not of Genghis himself) and who intermarried with the local population and gave rise to the modern Hazara. This idea is further adorned with etymological and philological explanations, including one that states that the name “Hazara” (meaning thousand in Farsi) is clear evidence of the divisional structure of Genghis’ army. Never mind the fact that Genghis armies encountered fierce resistance by the local population in central Afghanistan who bore clear Asiatic and Turko-Mongol features. (see Bacon and Timorkhanov as cited in Mousavi, S.A. The Hazaras of Afghanistan)

XV. The Dead Prince and the Disloyal Princess:

According to one locally popular tradition cited by a number of authors, the grandson of Genghis, named Motochin, was killed in the battle for one of the forts in modern day Bamiyan province. I visited this place 2005. It is now a high mound of earth atop a hill with crumbling walls and and outposts and clear signs of military defenses. The locals refer to it as Shahr-i Ghulghula (the City of Wailing) and say that it was razed to the ground on Genghis’ orders. In yet another tradition, cited by Nanci Dupree among others, the daughter of one of the local Khans in Bamiyan betrays the location of the source of water -and the city’s only vulnerability- to the Mongol armies laying siege to it. Upon surrender, Genghis orders all the inhabitants killed and metes out a particularly brutal form of punishment for the disloyal daughter. I will not inundate the reader with citations -which can be found in abundance in Dr. Mousavi’s footnotes- but by a consensus of historians and anthropologists (including the Russian Timorkhanov who has arguably done the most extensive anthropological studies of the Hazara people) all these pre-Mongol invasion and pre-Genghis local people were the ancestors of modern days Hazaras. They had Asiatic features – as evidenced by the many Buddha statues in Bamiyan that far predated, and occasionally suffered destruction, as the hands of the Mongol armies.

XVI. So Why Did the Death-Eaters Really Destroy the Buddhas?

Some people believe that the Turbaned T-Word’s (I am avoiding that name – see previous post) destruction of the Buddha’s of Bamiyan follow a similar pattern, albeit it has a more sinister motive. Save for those who are intimately familiar with Afghanistan’s history, others are not aware that the Terrible Terrorist’s final destruction of the statues in Bamiyan in early 2001 was not the first of such attempts. Attempts at destruction and particularly at defacement of the statues have been made by various rulers of Afghanistan in the past, albeit with cruder instruments -hence the failure to entirely obliterate the earthen giants. One motive behind all these efforts -in addition to objections of nudity used by earlier rulers and the idol-worship story that the Tentacled Taranchulas successfully fed to the rest of the world, and that could not be taken seriously because their were no Buddhists or other Buddha-worshiping people in Bamiyan at the time- was that the millennia old statues with their overt Asiatic features and what Mr. Weems has called the distinctive “Mongol eye fold” were a firm stake in the ground affixing the Hazaras as native to the region long before the Mongol armies descended on the region.

XVII. The Late-Mongol Origins Theory in Literature Inside Afghanistan:

The debate about late-Mongol origins of Hazaras is far from settled among local scholars too. One instance of the debate about this theory pitted two preeminent scholars of Afghan history against each other – with Dr. Hassan Kakar on one side (supporting the theory) and famous Afghan historian and writer of the grand 3-volume “Afghanistan in the Last Five Centuries” (Farsi) M.S. Farhang on the other. The exchanges between the two scholars on this subject were part of Kakar’s wider criticism of Farhang’s history, and are published as an annex to the latest edition of Farhang’s magnum opus that was published in Virginia. Unfortunately no English translations of this work exists so far. Aside from Mousavi’s book, the exchange in Farhang’s history, and and wealth of sources each cite, there are several other good sources in literature that challenge the theory of Mongol origins, including a recent book that seems to be well-researched and is published in Iran that I have pointed to in this post. In the past this theory used to hold a wider sway over academic and historic discussions in Afghanistan. However for some time now, as more research is done on the subject and as scholarship and research is relatively decentralized and is not subject to the pressures that it once was, the theory of Mongol origins not taken as seriously anymore, and is commonly viewed to be historically falsifiable.

XVIII. Hazaras as a Turco-Mongol People:

Of course the demise of the late-Mongol origins theory does not rule out the fact that elements of the invading Mongol forces may have settled in the area and intermarried with the local Hazara population (just as Alexander’s troops did in other parts of Afghanistan) and that there is some late Mongol admixture (late as in circa Mongol invasion) in the Hazara ethnic makeup. The genetic evidence that has recently come to light (and which Mr. Weems has pointed to) therefore seems to support this theory. This also makes sense in the context of the modern and most widely accepted ethnic categorization and nomenclature of Hazaras as a “Turco-Mongol” people, and not exclusively Mongol and descended directly from Genghis or his armies. Still, the internet and other undocumented writing by western journalists remain the last strongholds of the urban legend about the Genghis roots of Hazaras, a story that if not for its poverty of truth, satisfies just about everything else one would want to believe about a remote and exotic people whose ancestor once terrorized and conquered the known world and who have fallen upon hard times more recently.

XIX. Why the Resiliency of the Late-Mongol Origins Theory?

If the theory of late Mongol origins of Hazaras is false, why is it so widely held? Certainly there must be compelling reasons to believe that the Hazaras are in fact descendants of Genghis, or else so many people would not subscribe to the idea.
To answer this question, it is important to remember that these debates are not merely a matter of historical or scientific-anthropological interest in Afghanistan. Indeed, such debates are not about “facts for the sake of facts” anywhere. The old dog of history rears its head often in debates about national identity and national politics even in the most advanced of nations with the most tranquil national discourses. Especially in multi-ethnic societies with recent histories of internecine conflict, such as Afghanistan, such debates often makes their way directly into policymaking: representation at the national level, discourses on identity, cultural and educational policies, resource allocation, entitlement, etc.

XX. An Alien Race:

For a long time the theory of late-Mongol origins of Hazaras was actively promulgated as a state policy with the aim of somehow proving that the Hazara people were not native to Afghanistan, but were rather an alien race. One can imagine the ramifications of this on national discourse. Who is the truer Afghan or Afghanistani can become (and has become during tumultuous periods of our history) as much a contentious and bloody question as the question of who is a true Iraqi, and how much of Iraq is Shia or Sunni or Kurd -and further, what this should mean in real political-material terms- has become today. Sometimes, they can be used as a justification for ethnic cleansing and genocide. (Luckily, three knocks on wood, it seems that we in Afghanistan are beginning to regain our senses about this as of late.)

XXI. The Numbers Game:
For much the same reasons, the lack of proper census data and statistics about demographic and ethnic make-up of a country, and the unreliable conduct of such censuses is a problematic issue. In his website, Mr. Weems states that Hazaras constitute:

“About 10% of the overall population…”
-M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

While the figure of 9-10% seems to have effectively taken hold on the internet (largely because of the CIA Factbook on Afghanistan and thereby the Wikipedia) a wide array of other sources and books put the figure much higher, including most commonly at 19%, and sometimes at 24% or close to a quarter of Afghanistan’s population. Because of lack of reliable census data, and for the reasons stated above, and until such a time as concrete and reliable statistics become available, it is important that all of these figures should be read skeptically and cited as a range figure.

The above conclude the key things I wanted to say on the subject of the origins and numbers of Hazaras, and why it is important to get the facts right especially in these two areas. Below I will comment more briefly on a few other statements found on the same page on Mr. Weems’ website.

XXII. Where Do the Hazara Live?

“The Hazara live in the mountains and valleys of Bamiyan Province, central Afghanistan. Many also live in the cities, especially Kabul and Mazar.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

While Bamiyan is most commonly thought to be the only place where Hazaras live (inside Afghanistan,) in fact, it is not the only province where they live, and it is not the only Hazara-majority province either. In addition to Bamiyan and in cities, Hazaras live in a number of other provinces geographically concentrated in central Afghanistan. This is the area known as Hazarajat which is gerrymandered into several administrative divisions for reasons similar to why districts in Texas and New Jersey are often divided up in odd shapes and slivers -political reason. Bamiyan is not synonymous with Hazarajat. Outside Bamiyan and the urban areas, Hazaras also live in large numbers in Uruzgan, Ghor, Zabol, Dai Kundi, Ghazni, Wardak, Logar, Sar i Pol, Balkh, Parwan, Herat, Kunduz, Samangan, Baghlan, and in cities in Kandahar and Helmand.

XXIII. A Despised People?

Mr. Weems says that the Hazaras are:

“…despised by Pashtun, Tajik and Uzbek alike. As such they (the Hazara) are free game for abuse, their women are not respected and they frequently are employed in jobs that resemble their former slavery.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

It is one thing to be historically marginalized, quite another to be widely despised by all. This statement is as erroneous as it is offensive (and not only to Hazaras but also to Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks.) Perhaps it will help Mr. Weems to make another of his American analogies: Blacks in the United States have been historically enslaved and marginalized by Whites. The recent Don Imus incident and issues of structural discrimination (e.g. homelessness and death-row statistics) present further evidence that racism in America is far from over and that African Americans remain a marginalized and disadvantaged race. Would it be fair then, in view of the history and the prevailing mentality, to say that blacks are “despised” by all other races in the US, and that they are “free game” for, let’s say the law enforcement community, and that their women “are not respected” by, oh say, talk radio show hosts? Notwithstanding all the evidence, I would find such a characterization in the case of the United States unfair, as I am sure would Mr. Weems.

XXIV. Revolt Against the Iron Amir:

“In the 1880s they revolted against the Pashtun Amir, Abdur Rahman Khan, and he destroyed them.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

Once again facts are not so straightforward about this dark period of Afghanistan and Hazaras’ history. Abdul Rahman Khan wanted to consolidate a country, and the Hazara people of central Afghanistan who had enjoyed virtual autonomy for centuries regardless of what went on at the border regions of Afghanistan to the South and the North with, respectively, British India and Tsarist Russia. The Hazara Mirs and Khans were a thorn at the Amir of Kabul’s side, and a challenge to his sovereignty. Mass mobilization in the name of Jihad against the Shi’a heretics, population movements (of the rival Ghilzais from Kandahar to Hazara-populated areas in Urozgan, for instance) and the round-up and mass killing of Hazara political leaders, and the subsequent house-arrest of the rest in Kabul by Abdul Rahman Kahn prompted the Hazara rebellions of late 19th century that led to further massacres, enslavements, and the eventual conquest of these areas.

XXV. The Shi’a Heretics:

“Hazara are Shiite, which makes them heretics in the eyes of other Afghans.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

While a majority of the Hazara are Shi’a, there are also vast numbers of Hazaras who are Ismaili (which some have said are a branch of Shi’a, but others, including some among the Ismaili beg to differ) and yet other not insignificant numbers are Sunni. Furthermore, saying that being Shi’a makes Hazaras heretics in the eyes of other Afghanistan is symptomatic of very shallow understanding of Afghanistan and its people. Relations between Shi’a and Sunni have been particularly tranquil throughout Afghanistan’s history (unlike Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and most everywhere else where the two exist in large enough numbers) except for when such differences are used for political purposes. Ordinary people of Afghanistan do not view Shi’as as heretics, and often cross theological borders on occasions such as Ashura and Muharram (open season for truck-bombing Shi’a mosques in, say, Iraq or Pakistan) to commemorate these important Shi’a religious ceremonies. Religion in Afghanistan, especially before the recent episodes, was highly infused with local cultures and was a syncretic blend of schools -before turbaned Mullahs became determined to bring in the correct, bookish Islam from Egypt to Afghanistan.

XXVI. The Persian Connection:

“The Hazara have only one friend in the world, the Persians. Because they speak a Persian dialect, and especially because they are Shiite, Persians resent it when Sunni murder them. When the Afghan state broke down and the Soviets arrived, the Persians helped the Hazara arm, organize and throw the Pashtuns out of Bamiyan.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

Contrary to popular belief, the Persians are not all that sympathetic to the children of Genghis! (This is the mistaken way that a lot of Iranians do in fact view the Hazara today.) If anything, the unmistakable “Asian eye-fold” gives them away as remnants of the same scourge of god that destroyed Iran. The abuses that any Hazara in diaspora in Iran would be more than glad to tell you about and their treatment in Iran as aliens and guest workers (or as prisoners in border dungeons like Tal-i Siyah or Sang-i Safid -the modern Gulags that the world failed to see and where many died and many more became mentally ill) is symptomatic of this way of thinking. In reality, geopolitical alignments in the region are quite different today than what they used to be- and when it comes to Iran’s policies towards Afghanistan, they are along cultural, linguistic, and racial-ethnic lines rather than religious ones – all three of which places them closer to the Tajik people of Afghanistan.

As to Hazaras throwing the Pashtuns out of Bamiyan -with Persians’ help- around the time of the Soviet invasion, this could not have happened, because Pashtuns were not in Bamiyan.

XXVII. Hazara Mayhem:

“Hazara in the cities had a more difficult time, but they did manage arm themselves and cause enough mayhem that they can no longer be treated as slaves.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

I don’t know why but I get the uncomfortable feeling that the clause “cause enough mayhem” (and its many attendant connotations) sounds far too reminiscent of some of the racist discourse in Afghanistan than to have come from a neutral outside observer who may not even be aware of those connotations. The statement has clearly made its way from an interested point of view from within Afghanistan and is reflect of deeply held biases against Hazaras. Mr. Weems might have as well gone to the gruesome details of such alleged “mayhem” -more to the liking of some people. It is true that some Hazaras took up arms during the years of civil war, and following the withdrawal of the Soviets and the subsequent fall of Kabul, widespread atrocities did take place at the hands of all paramilitary forces from all ethnic groups that were involved in that madness, and against civilians of all ethnic groups. But to say that the Hazara “caused” the mayhem in order that they may “no longer be treated as slaves” clearly reflects strong bias of the sort that the unsuspecting Mr. Weems may not be aware of when consulting such sources. In all fairness, this happens to be a perennial shortcoming of a lot of western commentators on Afghanistan, and it is only after the suspicious eyes of an Afghan falls upon such instances, the unmistakable evidence of bias becomes clear.

XXVIII. Conclusion – Problems of Sourcing and an Interested Point of View:

This brings my critique of just one page (three paragraphs) of Mr. Weem’s website “Hazara – the Bottom Rung” to an end. I have not commented on other pages, and though I have found some of the statements in them questionable as well, I am not in a position to comment on those. Perhaps in those other cases, the mistakes are not as consequential. They are in the case of “Hazara – the Bottom Rung,” and I hope that Mr. Weems will choose to correct them. I should point out that I am not alleging any ulterior motives on part of the author of Warlords of Afghanistan -in fact, reading many articles in the website one gets quite the opposite impression, as he has in fact raised points not often mentioned in official histories- but this does not preclude the fact that some of the statements, such as those pointed out above, may reflect the views of, or play into the hands of some entrenched points of view in Afghanistan who may have other interests at heart than the future harmony of inter-ethnic relations and the cause of national reconciliation in Afghanistan. Here is one more case where good intentions alone do not guarantee the best of outcomes.

XXIX. Acknowledgements:

Lastly, because this summary does no justice to the topic at hand, and because Mr. Weems had something to do with sparking the thoughts that I have expressed here, when in a few years’ time I write a book-length treatise that adequately treats subjects as diverse as Afghanistan as a victim of Orientalism, problems of scholarship and sourcing in Afghanistan studies, the destruction of Buddhas of Bamiyan, and how Don Imus’s “nappy-headed hoes” comment relates to Afghanistan (though in all fairness I threw in this last one in the title to see how many more visitors I lure in,) I shall remember to acknowledge him.
I would also like to acknowledge my neighbor for the password-free wireless connection we seem to share, and the good residents of Bekaa Valley, Lebanon for their fine work in making this possible.

Chapter-XXX. The End.

I, too, like round numbers.


13 Responses to My Reply to Matt Weems, Or a 30-Chapter Treatise on Afghanistan as a Victim of Orientalism, Problems of Scholarship and Sourcing in Afghanistan Studies, the Destruction of Buddhas of Bamiyan, and How Don Imus’s “Nappy-Headed Hoes” Comment Relates to Afghanistan

  1. Shaharzad says:

    Dear Safrang,
    I really liked your argument and to be honest some points made by Mr. Weems made me angry. About the “mongol roots” of Hazaras, I knew some people who claimed so and I always had questions about it.. thanks for clarifying..

  2. Matt Weems says:

    It does seem that ethnicity always ends up an important part of the discussion for any Afghan. I can usually guess on my forum page what the ethnicity of the contributer is based on the issues they raise.


    As you have pointed many Hazara are not Shi’a, but part of the challenge I faced was how to get real information that would help the American public, who know nothing about Afghanistan usually, into a blurb I could fit on the back of a coaster. I started writing sentences like “The Hazara are mostly Shi’a, with some Sunni and other sects. They speak a Persian dialect, although some speak Dari, another Persian dialect and some, no doubt, speak Pashto.” But I found the qualifiers ate up too much space. As a result the coaster text is very determined, it says what it says and doesn’t then back track, apologize or qualify. If I were writing a book I could do those things as I would have more room. Surely it is better that the public learn something about Afghans rather than nothing?


    As for the mythology of Mongol ancestry. The story of the death of his favorite grandson is in the Mongol history – so that part of the story is true. And the Mongols did try to kill everyone in the area, but aside from the disease driven eradication of the native population of the Americas, geneticists think that most conquests normally leave the bulk of the natives population in place and just overlay it with the victors. Even the Mongols could not completely depopulate a place like central Afghanistan with it rough terrain and places to hide. So if the stories are correct, and the Mongol armies left men behind in central Afghanistan, these people would probably be half Mongol-Turkic at most, and the other half native. As far as I can tell from photos, which is not all that much, really, Hazara do look like they are only partly Mongol-Turkic. And since they ended up speaking a Persian dialect and mostly dropping the Asiatic language, the native portion of their ancestry is probably greater than %50.

    The genetic data suggests that the Hazara are descended from Mongol armies, but that doesn’t mean Ghengis Khan left them behind on his way through there. Mongol armies stayed for hundreds of years and could have settled people in Afghanistan anywhere in a long stretch of time.


    I can’t find the place where I read this yet, although hopefully I will soon, but the Hazara benefitted in a way from the collapse of the state. Pashtun and other nomads were in the habit of moving their animals through Hazara territory and the passage sometimes was damaging. After the Hazara armed they were no longer easy to take advantage of.


    You write

    “Blacks in the United States have been historically enslaved and marginalized by Whites. The recent Don Imus incident and issues of structural discrimination (e.g. homelessness and death-row statistics) present further evidence that racism in America is far from over and that African Americans remain a marginalized and disadvantaged race. Would it be fair then, in view of the history and the prevailing mentality, to say that blacks are “despised” by all other races in the US, and that they are “free game” for, let’s say the law enforcement community, and that their women “are not respected” by, oh say, talk radio show hosts?”

    My answer to that is, broadly speaking, yes, and I think Afghan attitudes towards Hazara are analogous. Rubin and other authors are explicit about how the Hazara were seen as low social status and the abuse that resulted from this. This is the kind of judgement that is sure to make people angry – but it is still true.


    Rubin has the numbers for 1979 like this: Afghanistan 15 million, Hazara 1.5 million. Maybe he was wrong – but I have to go with the best source I can – and Rubin is it.


    The problem is that facts like these have political weight, as you mentioned. But does it make a difference if the Hazara are the same people they were in 550 AD when the statues were built? or if they are those people roughly matched with an equal amount of Turkic-Mongol ancestry? Or that this new composition is only 800 years old versus over 1500?

    The Hazara have more to gain from western concepts of equality and human rights than other ethnicities in Afghanistan. In the next fifteen years they will be disappointed, of course, because change comes very slowly everywhere. On the up side I noticed this in an article on the Taliban comeback in Afghanistan. The governor berated Pashtun villagers for not letting their children go to school. He said they would all end up working as laborers for the Hazara a few towns over who were learning to read. I’m guessing he was trying to shame them. But there is some truth to that. It may be easier for the Persian speaking half of Afghanistan to embrace new ways and prosper in the world as it is now.

  3. Ronin says:


    Just some random thoughts:

    “Surely it is better that the public learn something about Afghans rather than nothing?”–Depends on the “something.” For instance any trait that may seem to affirm any of the vicious stereotypes about any given group of people is of no service and may actually be harmful.

    “The genetic data suggests that the Hazara are descended from Mongol armies”–descended from Mongols (rather than “Mongol armies”)? As far as I understand, they do possess the highest concentration of genetic code to affirm their Mongolian origin. But that says nothing about whether they are the remnants of the Mongol armies, sheepherds or what have you, and does not date their arrival in Afghanistan (unless some other markers are identified).

    Yes, the Hazaras did benefit from the collapse of the state. The Pushtoon nomads and other pastorialists were all too glad to play their role for a century as the tools of state oppression. Their historical claims to pastures is for the most parts, false. One can learn that much from the ethnographic studies of the nomads. So for the Hazaras the collapse of the state was a return to the days of old, and since the government didn’t provide much of a service anyway, they were all too glad to forget about it.

    You are right. Hazaras were at the bottom of the social totem pole. Everyone picked on them, and still do. But I am not sure if “despise” is the proper term to frame this. Unfortunately, I do not have a word that will condense the attitudes appropriately. Quite frankly, I don’t think as a Hazara I fancy being “despised” and all the venom that this particular word entails. Anyway, my reaction is visceral.

    Hazaras understand very well the benefit of human rights and equality. No disagreements there, nor after centuries of disappointments, they are likely to be given to too much naivety. In fact, some Hazaras areas have the highest literacy and school enrollment rates in entire Afghanistan. Being the dominant ethnic group and getting the best of everyting without trying does get you into bad habits of thinking and behaving, but this was a luxury Hazaras didn’t have. Also, Hazaras formed the backbone of the anti-Soviet Marxist movement in Afghanistan, and the most formidable theoreticians of this movement were Hazaras. So they have been around the block.

    All things said, I think that most of what you said (or have represented on your products) is fairly consistent with the general working idea of “Afghanistan” that everyone (except a handful of experts) carries and is echoed in the media. Nor do I think you have any “orientalist” designs per se, but in as much as you try to engage the question constructively, then I am sure we can manage to educate anyone else through this discourse. For that, I do applaud you.

  4. jay says:

    Mr Weems,
    It is better to know nothing, than to know something wrong/ false. And I guess any sensible person will agree to this!


  5. Matt Weems says:


    Of course wrong information is usually worse than none. But that isn’t relevant here. This is what Javaid says about the factuality of my work – after a little prodding on my part: “Where I did not find any concrete proofs of falsity…”

    My information is condensed and insensitive, if you like, but not “wrong / false”. This is the problem with being so free with criticism of other peoples work on the web – you can’t take it back.

  6. J.Z. says:

    I would like to thank Shaharzad, Ronin, and Jay for their input to this conversation. I especially appreciate the comments from Ronin, whose balanced tone we would all do well to try to emulate.

    I would hate to disappoint, but this is not going to be another lengthy response (that is, if I can help it… after all, as Mr. Weems has figured it out about me, as just another Afghan I am sure to follow a similar line of ethnocentrist thinking as those who comment on his website’s forum and engage in name-calling and ethnic slurring against other groups!)

    I think that I have done my best through the post above to address all of Mr. Weem’s concerns about my initial post and provide some backup of why I felt that some information on his website and products were misleading. All I have done since is to try to substantiate the critiques in my initial post with evidence from his website, and not to back-track, or as Mr. Weems suggests in his last comment above, to “take it back.”

    However, it seems that Mr. Weems subscribes to the preferred mode of discourse in some American circles who view inflexibility -even in the face of truth- as a virtue, and view any changes of position or qualifications of initial statements as weak, or at best, flip-flopping. If you think I am being unfair, please refer to Mr. Weem’s comment above (first paragraph) where he says about his website: “…it says what it says and doesn’t then back track, apologize or qualify.” I am aware that this this biting statement is at least partly directed at me. This does not bother me at all, because I view myself as a gladly spineless follower of Gandhi and Mahmoud Dervish, who also took delight in the way their thoughts fluttered freely the more they learned the truth -in Dervish’s words, as if a leaf flutters with the wind.

    To this end, and because of my commitment to truth and to civility in discourse, I have conceded that my initial statement was critical without sufficient specific citations from the source I was critiquing, and that I was unfair to single out two of the poorest sources on Mr. Weem’s reading list. Similarly I would have gladly backtracked and taken back my criticism -even if it is on the web for all to see- had I had found evidence that, for instance, Hazaras are exclusively or predominantly Mongol in their ethnic make-up; that they are all Shi’a (and unlike Mr. Weems I tend to think that such nuances are important to point out -after all, most of the biographical and other sketches on just about every other group and “warlord” on Mr. Weem’s website -including the ones on Jezail and the Burqa- are lengthier: surely a few crucial qualifications would have not rendered his three paragraphs about the Hazara too long for what I assume to be coasters of similar dimensions); or that Hazaras have historically enjoyed the friendship and military support of the Persians and continue to do so today; or that as Shi’as, the Hazaras are seen as heretics by other Sunni Afghanistan; or that all other ethnic groups in Afghanistan despise the Hazaras; or…

    While we are on that note, I would encourage Mr. Weems to think deep and hard about his own sentiments about race relations in the US and his perceptions of his African-American compatriots, because, notwithstanding issues of structural discrimination or incidents of racial slurring such as the recent one with Don Imus, African-Americans are not “despised” by ordinary people of other races in the US, and one might risk giving away one’s own deeply-held prejudices by insisting that they are.

    Others have amply made it clear why Mr. Weem’s statement that “surely it is better that the public learn something about Afghans rather than nothing?” is problematic. I should just point out that what is at issue here is precisely falsity and misinformation. My qualification that “Where I did not find any concrete proofs of falsity…” comes after the sentences preceding it, that “reading the website led me to question the accuracy and factuality of some of the statements in it.” It is entirely possible that my failings as a non-native English speaker might have led Mr. Weems to read other interpretations into this (and with many other statements on my blog -where, at times, he has extracted far-fletched “insinuations” from my writing) but it seems to me that in the first sentence I have made it clear that some statements on Mr. Weems website are subject to question on grounds of factuality and accuracy; and then after that, and separately, I point out that where factuality is not at issue, some statements are questionable for their certitude in tone even though they are not backed-up. And because in such cases counter-factuality is also not possible, I have inserted the qualification that Mr. Weems singles out, i.e. “where I have not found concrete proofs of falsity…”

    All in all, I feel dragged into the kind of out-of-context and selective quoting and point-scoring that, as I pointed out earlier, gives the air of electoral politics and election-cycle partisanship. Had I been less patient with such debates, or had I been insecure in my claims and sources, I would have shied away from participating in it. But as it is, I welcome it. In the spirit of my two gurus, Edward Said and Michel Foucault, I embrace the task of challenging the inherent authority of authorship on behalf of people on the periphery, and say that: Beware! the native has started to speak out!
    Of course I am aware that I am flattering both myself and Mr. Weems with such sloganeering, but let there be no doubt that I view the task quite seriously and see Safrang as a small start, and my career as focused around this goal (forget for the moment the fact that I am intern and consultant with DC think-tanks; or if you can’t ignore it, bill it as “working from the inside!”)

    Last but not least, I find Mr. Weems insinuations that the reason that I have devoted time and energy to writing such lengthy response about the “Hazara” segment of his website unfair -especially after I have painstakingly explained that:

    1. I have chosen the topic precisely because, for both personal and academic reasons, I know more about than other topics on his website (and as a general rule, I prefer to talk about that which I know a thing or two about – incidentally a trait that I find desirable in others as well),
    2. that as a personal value I shun irredentism, ethno-nationalism, and tribalism of the sort that has so plagued Afghanistan, and the evidence of which can be found aplenty on Mr. Weems website’s forum.

    I see myself as one among the vanguards of a generation that is ready to do away with the poisonous discourse of tribal nationalism, ethno-linguistic supremacy, and other such thinking that is based on hatred and xenophobia. As such, I would appreciate it if Mr. Weems did not make such insinuations in the future. Had I been any less secure in my patriotism and my sentiments on this topic, I would have been far more outraged. But as it is, I am solidly grounded in my beliefs, and it takes a lot more to disturb my tranquility.

    Lastly, I will post the complete text of the passage in question on Mr. Weem’s website, i.e. “Hazara – The Bottom Rung” as a reference for the exchange on this page below.

  7. J.Z. says:

    For reference: complete text of “Hazara: The Bottom Rung” from Warlords of Afghanistan from as available on 4/16/2006:

    With the Asian eye fold and sparse beards, the Hazara are Turkic in origin like the Uzbeks, but they speak a Persian dialect and are Shiite Muslims. About 10% of the overall population, the Hazara live in the mountains and valleys of Bamiyan Province, central Afghanistan. Many also live in the cities, especially Kabul and Mazar. The Hazara are supposed to be Mongols left in Baiman after Ghengis Khan had it depopulated. Once thought to be mythology, genetic studies show that a quarter of all Hazara are descended from Ghengis Khan, confirming the story.

    The Hazara once controlled much more of Afghanistan. In the 1880s they revolted against the Pashtun Amir, Abdur Rahman Khan, and he destroyed them. He massacred thousands, enslaved thousands more, and punished the rest with high taxes. Twenty years later the slavery was ended, but they remained lodged at the very bottom of the Afghan social ladder, despised by Pashtun, Tajik and Uzbek alike. As such they are free game for abuse, their women are not respected and they frequently are employed in jobs that resemble their former slavery. To make matters worse, Hazara are Shiite, which makes them heretics in the eyes of other Afghans.

    The Hazara have only one friend in the world, the Persians. Because they speak a Persian dialect, and especially because they are Shiite, Persians resent it when Sunni murder them. When the Afghan state broke down and the Soviets arrived, the Persians helped the Hazara arm, organize and throw the Pashtuns out of Bamiyan. Hazara in the cities had a more difficult time, but they did manage arm themselves and cause enough mayhem that they can no longer be treated as slaves.

  8. […] “Warlords of Afghanistan” [Note: Initially I posted this in the comments section here in response to other comments made by Matt Weems of Warlords of Afghanistan and other readers, but […]

  9. Azad says:

    I am glad to have stumbbled to pages of concise discussion on topics such as tribalism, ethnicity, religion and the perplex web they make up in the Afghan scenario and that too from academic points of view.
    It is undeniable that most of the information on Afghanistan found on the internet and other sources are highly questionable, biased and politically themed. One such example is Wikipedia, where amateur editors write all sort of ‘facts(!)’ and ‘figures(!)’ learned on roadsides and in the evening tea sittings. It is unfortunate that these provide the info for most online ventureres and info seekers and play important part in shaping their perceptions on different issues. ‘Warlords of Afghanistan’ may not be an exception!

  10. jay says:

    Mr Weems,
    It is as easy to criticise other people’s work on the web, as it is to write and put up on the web whatever one wants to. I have a good knowledge and undrstanding of Hazaras in Afghanistan. I found most of your work at least the very obviouse ones that they are far from reality and facts. If you ask anyone who knows very little about afghanistan will tell you where Hazaras live in Afghanistan (not just Bamyian, as javaid has pointed out in his reply to you). This is just an example of your work.
    What I undrstand is that either you didnt have enough time and resources to work and study more; or like many others your work has been influenced and baised due to some reasons, which I am sure you dont want to talk about!


  11. Rohallah says:

    Mr. Weems is just another western historian whose main focus is on the Pashtuns who’ve dominated Afghanistan history by power, and makes messes of Hazaras, writing about them by just a passing by. The Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid with a journalistic experience on a massive scale specially in central Asia, has failed to portray Hazaras as they have been in his book “Taliban”, let alone a couple of guys who writes as far as from the US. Super powers have never taken interest in minorities regardless of their religious orientation or ethnicity anywhere in the world. This can be evident in the US’s foreign policy dealing with Shiat Arabs in Iraq and Sunnis Pashtuns in Afghanistan. So, now to expect someone like Mr. Weems to come to Afghanistan and make a consolidated piece of writings about the Hazaras of Afghanistan based on what government records indicate, the views of Hazaras, the works of the great Hazara historian Faiz Muhammad whose works Robert D. McChesney has heavily relied on when writing his book called “Kabul under siege” and so forth and so on, is totally out of question.

    Mr. Weems, I admire your hard work on “the warlords of Afghanistan” but as someone who might be in a much better position to write more justly about a minority ethnic group, I regret to express my profound disappointment to your views on the Hazaras of Afghanistan.

    Hope all these positive criticism make you into a better historian just in case you might cosider writting about other minorities such as Kurds of IRaq, Iran, Turkey and the Armenians of Turkey.


  12. […] continue to rant as prolifically as I used to (in one notable instance replying a comment with a 30-chapter treatise), I have decided to steal one of Afghanistanica’s ingenious techniques for getting out of […]

  13. Beja says:

    “While we are on that note, I would encourage Mr. Weems to think deep and hard about his own sentiments about race relations in the US and his perceptions of his African-American compatriots, because, notwithstanding issues of structural discrimination or incidents of racial slurring such as the recent one with Don Imus, African-Americans are not “despised” by ordinary people of other races in the US, and one might risk giving away one’s own deeply-held prejudices by insisting that they are.”

    If his perception of African-American relations within the United States among people of other races leads him to conclude that perhaps there is some “despising” then we can assume there are some “prejudices” he harbors?

    I’m not sure if I understood you at all here…although the rest of your article is fascinating and will make for good reading- scathing criticisms and all.

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