Unlawful Instruments and Goods: Afghanistan, Culture and the Taliban

By Shorthose, Jim | Capital & Class, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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Unlawful Instruments and Goods: Afghanistan, Culture and the Taliban

Shorthose, Jim, Capital & Class


This brief paper offers a dialectical account of the cultural policies devised by the Taliban during their rule, which led to the banning of 'unlawful goods and instruments' such as musical instruments and films. It suggests 3 aspects to this dialectical account. Firstly, an analysis of the global context against which these policies were devised and conducted. Secondly, an analysis of the specific policy content of the various cultural agencies involved. Thirdly, an analysis of the impact these factors had on the everyday lives of Afghan people and communities. It tries to show in detail how these 3 aspects stand in a dialectical relationship to each other. It is argued that such an approach contributes to a greater understanding of the meanings behind such actions to takes us beyond any initial repudiation of the Taliban's cultural repression.

In December 1998, an official notice was placed in a local Herat newspaper in western Afghanistan. It reported that a 'number of unlawful instruments and goods' had been seized by the local authorities and burned. These items included televisions, cassette players, VCRs and thousands of tapes. It also included 'musical instruments and accessories'. In February 2001 reports first came in of the Taliban leadership's policy of destroying the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan, as part of a wider destruction of the pre-Islamic cultural heritage of Afghanistan. Mir Ghulam Navi, a curator in the National Museum of Afghanistan recalls how, in March 2001, 'They (the Taliban) came with to men with hammers and began smashing the sculptures of human forms. We couldn't stop them-they said they would kill us if we tried. It was miserable to watch' (Anon 29/11/01). It is clear that the rule of the Taliban was not germane to cultural freedom and expression. However, this simple recognition does not take us very far in understanding why these events took place. How and why did such policies geared towards cultural repression and the destruction of pre-Islamic culture come about? How do we begin to understand the logic of such policies?

A 'dialectic of the local and the global' (Giddens iggi) suggests that global processes have local implications and affect the way people live and act. In trying to understand the cultural universe that designated musical instrument and the like as 'unlawful instruments and goods' we can apply three levels of analysis for such a dialectical account. Firstly, the general political, economic and cultural context within which (often global) agencies act and conflicts are played out. Secondly, the specific cultural policy content that is maintained by the various governments and cultural agencies locally. Thirdly, we can point to the actions of communities in these specific locales, in terms of the texture of peoples' everyday lives.


The widest and most general contextual features are the economic, political and cultural processes of globalization. These include the globalized nature of political relations between nation states, the increased global nature of social, political and economic processes, the distribution of global wealth, and the cultural expansionism of the West and resistances within certain regions/ locales. The combination of these features bring new dynamics and a new politico-cultural universe or 'constitutions' (Hardt and Negri 2000). The economic and political consequences of these global processes for Afghanistan are well known. Economically, Afghanistan has not benefited from global processes. Politically, Afghanistan has been relatively isolated until the recent fall of the Taliban. Culturally, Afghans resist Western expansionism in various ways before, during and since the Taliban's rule. To explain these processes in greater depth is beyond the scope of this paper. However, the argument developed below can be seen as a case study in exploring the specific local impact of these global contextual features.

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