Posted by: Christian | March 26, 2007

The “Moral Incoherence” of Afghanistan

March 26, 2007.

What is to blame for the persistent conflict that Afghanistan has faced throughout its history? The most popular explanations are foreign invasions and interference, imported religious and political ideologies, economic and social underdevelopment, incompetent rulers and unruly citizens. But what else? Other countries have faced similar hardships and overcome similar difficulties. Why not Afghanistan? Are there other factors? David B. Edwards may have an answer to that question. 

                         David B Edwards 

 Photo: David B Edwards on the left, getting his anthropology on.

In David B Edwards’ book Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier (University of California Press, 1996), he puts forth what counted as quite an original idea when nearly everybody else was pointing their fingers at the usual suspects listed above. Edwards’ argument is that, among Pashtuns (or Pakhtuns), the moral authority of their tribal code of honour, of Islam, and of state governance are in a three way battle of incompatibility. Basically, what he is saying is that the tribe, the state and religion have not been able to be reconciled in Afghanistan. This incoherence of moral authority has prevented the emergence of a stable social order and allowed conflict to prosper.         

                             Heroes of the Age

Anyways, the book is one of the best available on Afghanistan (but not in a Kiterunner sort of way). If you want to better understand the contradictions of differing systems of authority among the Pashtuns, I suggest you get your hands on this book. It’s actually quite readable. Edwards demonstrates his thesis by analysing the texts and oral histories relating to Amir Abdur Rahman, to the son of a tribal notable who was murdered, and to the Mullah of Hadda (AKA “The Mad Mullah”). 

The book is an eye-opener for sure. And the best part is that there are quite a few cheap used copies available online. I think some anthropology professors assigned the book for reading and then at the end of the semester the anthro undergrads sold off their books in order to buy marijuana or whatever else it is the anthro kids are doing these days.      


  1. […] reviews. [I actually reviewed Heroes over two years ago, but I would probably now qualify parts of the review] I’m just going to do […]


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