Sep 7, 2015

Biases and controversies around the term "Afghan"

On Sept 5, 2015, a group of Pashtun protested against non-Pashtuns who don't want the word 'Afghan' to be printed in their new IDs. This banner in Pashto says: "If you are not Afghan, go out of my country."

The distribution of biometric ID card which was planned to be occurred this month is delayed again. The initial plan for issuing new IDs was set for 2014, but for some reasons, Ashraf Ghani’s government decided to postpone it again.

One of the most debated issues among Afghans has been the usage of the word “Afghan.” Non-Pashtuns have bitterly reacted towards government's decision for printing the word “Afghan” next to their names. Not all people in Afghanistan are Afghans, and it is not this fact per se that is problematic, there are some other issues involved as well.

But let us look at meaning of the term first. According to Encyclopedia Iranica, the word Afghan is only used to people who speak Pashto and and ethnically Pashtuns. 
From a more limited, ethnological point of view, “Afḡān” is the term by which the Persian-speakers of Afghanistan (and the non-Paṧtō-speaking ethnic groups generally) designate the Paṧtūn. The equation Afghans = Paṧtūn has been propagated all the more, both in and beyond Afghanistan, because the Paṧtūn tribal confederation is by far the most important in the country, numerically and politically.
Whenever we hear that some ethnic groups in Afghanistan have problem to be labeled as Afghan, it should not surprise us. It is a name for a particular ethnic group, not a name for all people living in modern geography called Afghanistan. There are a lot of biases against the word “Afghan” among non-Pashtuns. Here I’m going to explain some of them.

Here is the irony. Many Afghanistani scholars agree that the name "Afghan" was an invention of Farsi and Arab speakers but the Farsi speakers hate to be labeled as Afghan themselves. Originally, it was "Apgan," meaning non-pagan to distinguish with religious people. Since Arabic does not have "p" (پ), the p was replaced with "f," but here is the complication. How did it become "gh" (غ) then? To answer this question, it requires several blogposts that may happen one but not now. The purpose of this post is to provide a short explanation to why "Afghan" as an identity marker is problematic. Here is why.

In Farsi language, the word "Afghan" literally means whining, wailing, and bawling. The word also carries some negative connotations among non-Pashtuns. For instance, among Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks, the word "Afghan" is metaphorically used to denote backwardness, uneducated, savage, and untrustworthy. Among ethnic Hazara, "Afghan" attains its meaning through a semantic shift as awgho. It is often used in the households to scare the children for obedience. For Hazaras, awgho evokes unpleasant memories, such as genocide, mass atrocities, and enslavement.  One of the most common scare tactics to get children to obey is to say "awgho is coming." Awgho is portrayed as a monstrous being that viciously kill and destroy everything. Historically, Hazaras have suffered at the hands of Pashtuns, and in their literature, Pashtuns are psychologically portrayed as evil and oppressor. This kind of portrayal has also shared among Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen.

For example, in northern Afghanistan among non-Pashtuns, the word "Afghan" has also experienced a semantic change, which has become "awghan," and both metonymically and metaphorically used as a swear word to shame someone for wrong doing and in contemptuous way it means representing someone as an object of ridicule.

While all citizens of Afghanistan are identified as Afghan outside the country, inside, they go by their ethnic identity, such as Afghans (Pashtun), Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. During his presidential campaign, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzi, deliberately and repeatedly used "Afghan" in order to unite all people under one identity: Afghan. Many people gratified his efforts, however, non-Pashtuns became skeptic and alerted for losing their ethnic identity by simply being called Afghans. The skepticism towards Ashraf Ghani's intention further aggravated when he refrained calling ethnicities' names during his campaign among non-Pashtuns.

No matter how great the idea was but the plan of issuing a new ID and calling all citizens as Afghan seems to be failed now. Ghani's ambitious program for nationalization and bringing unity is turning into an illusion. Nowadays, Ghani is limping on his right foot (his left foot is broken), it can be metaphorically exemplified his failure for not being able to fulfill his promises. Just for a final note, Ghani's failure could be also seen from a recent pool that shows his performance has plummeted and his popularity has dropped to less than 20 percent.

To understand how much the word Afghan has been controversial and has affected the current political climate of Afghanistan, read this article.


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