Sunday, August 16, 2009
We were lucky enough to have our stay extended here to cover the election coming up on the 20th. I’d feel a little better about staying if they’d let me vote – I reckon I’ve done enough for this country by now that I’ve earned that right, but oh well. Given that I don’t know much about the candidates or parties involved, I suppose it’s just as well that I don’t vote. What I do know is that 40 some odd persons are running for president. Such a large and divided field would seem to provide significant advantages for the incumbent, though there’s to be a runoff if no one obtains a certain percentage during the first vote. It seems pretty certain that Karzai will remain in power.
We obviously don’t really concern ourselves with the candidates or politics involved. We’re here to see that an election takes place with minimal chaos. The results are irrelevant to our purpose. I have no doubt that the people are reasonably well-informed about the candidates, but I ask myself how exactly an illiterate person votes. Whether these people really understand the process beyond a very superficial level is another question I ask myself. The other day we were rolling down the road and I saw a billboard with a woman in a burqa holding out a voter registration card. I took the billboard to be an encouragement to the local people to vote. The billboard got me thinking about the election and the compatibility of democracy and elections with a society that covers its women in burqas. You'd think that freedom from the burqa would come before the right to vote...but it's coming the other way round here.
Seems to me the Islamic world has a taste for Western ideas and goods, but hasn’t really assimilated those ideas into their culture in a meaningful way. A rich Islamic country can import the best cars, but they can’t create them. They can watch Indian movies but won’t produce them. They can even throw an election, but is it destined to be anything more than a legally sanctioned power grab? (Of course, most elections in around the world are really just that.) Is there really a debate of ideas going on here? Do they really respect differences in opinion? More importantly, does the average person here really think they can make a decision that will have an effect, positive or otherwise, on his or her own life? The whole idea of changing or bettering your state is alien to most of these people. On the one hand, Islam provides the people with some solace and contentment in what must be a difficult existence, but isn’t it primarily their religion that hinders their existence and makes it so difficult to begin with?
Well, we’ll give them their election. We’ve gone out and talked to local people about the election and asked them about voting, whether the Taliban have been around threatening them, etc. We’re often told that the Taliban have one message and we have another: two competing ideologies. The local people don’t necessarily find one or the other better. The Americans stand for personal freedom and democracy. The Taliban stand for a society ruled by its interpretation of Islam, which is unfortunately such an extremist and corrupt interpretation. Even so, frankly, given where the culture in Afghanistan is at this time, the Taliban’s message seems more appropriate in some ways, since this society is much more akin to medieval Europe than a modern democracy. The world has become a small place though, and since we do in fact share this planet with the Afghan people, it’s probably in our best interest to do what we can to drag them into the 21st century. And however culturally unready they may be for an election, I wouldn't underestimate the appeal and power of freedom and democracy once a society becomes accustomed to it.