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Afghanistan: A national identity in constant flux

JMU history professor and Afghan scholar discusses his scholarship, teaching and their impact with Madison, the JMU magazine.

JMU history professor and Afghan scholar Shah Mahmoud Hanifi

JMU history professor and Afghan scholar Shah Mahmoud Hanifi

JMU history professor and Afghan scholar Shah Mahmoud Hanifi is researching and influencing the political discourse on a region at the forefront of world attention today and bringing it directly to the classroom. His work encourages a fuller and richer understanding of Afghanistan by exploring the many elements that create different forms of national identity.

One of a handful of Afghan experts in the nation, Hanifi convened with a panel of scholars on Afghanistan and Pakistan at Stanford just as the world was beginning to digest President Barack Obama's announcement of his military policy in Afghanistan. Hanifi presented "Epistemological Quandaries of the Afghan Nation: Mobility, Territoriality and The Other."

Hanifi, coordinator of JMU's popular Middle Eastern Communities and Migrations minor, has published and presented extensively on the region. He turned his Ph.D. thesis, which received the American Historical Society's prestigious e-Gutenberg Award, into Connecting Histories in Afghanistan: Market Relations and State Formation on a Colonial Frontier,a book that has become a standard reference for other scholars and policymakers.

Madison: What kind of impact is your book making on how people understand Afghanistan?

Hanifi: The book is a historical work that I believe has opened up, for the first time, the period of colonial history of Afghanistan. It has been out for about a year and has been well received thus far. Historically the scholarship of Afghanistan has been quite insular. The academics who wrote about Afghanistan were generally not read by those outside the narrow subfield of Afghanistan studies until after 9-11. Contrarily, my book is being read by scholars who work on Iran and India in anthropology, economics, politics and history, and by global historians who have come to understand, through the histories of human and intellectual migrations, how fundamentally integrated the regions surrounding Afghanistan are. The book captures that connectivity, and I believe the historical insights I provide can make a difference in today's local and global nation-building efforts.

Unknown and misunderstood

Madison: Your scholarship asserts that, not only do non-Afghans misunderstand Afghanistan, but Afghans themselves misunderstand their nation. In the world of global affairs, that's a discomfiting reality.

Hanifi: Yes, in the paper I presented at Stanford, my basic argument is that Afghanistan is both fundamentally unknown but also misunderstood by both Afghans and non-Afghans alike. I argue this is an effect of British colonialism that distorted local social categories and relationships. In turn those highly politicized distortions were adopted by Afghan elites who have historically been dependent upon external colonial policies and resources. The argument is not very complicated, but it is proving to be controversial, as all critical reflections on received categories of understanding and analysis tend to be.

Madison: At the heart of your work is the concept of identity, isn't it?

Hanifi: Policymakers tend to see identity as eternal and unchanging. All identities are in constant flux, however. In Afghanistan in particular they change really rapidly instead of being eternal and stable. Identity is constructed, and Afghanistan is a particularly tricky one because it has been so influenced by migrations and the interactions of peoples. You have this thing called Afghanistan with different people in it who have different claims on what it is. The ethnic groups inside Afghanistan, leaving aside their presence outside of Afghanistan, qualify their "Afghan-ness" in different ways and make different claims to the place of national and sub-national tribal and ethnic identities in the country. Elements of Afghan national identity are changing at different rates and are in collective fluctuation on their own terms and in relation to a variety of external influences.

The construction of identity

Madison: From what elements is identity constructed?

Hanifi: When defining identity there are certain anchors — language or religion or ethnicity, for example. And in any region, there may be many identities. For instance, lumping Pashtuns into one singular static category of people in Afghanistan, not to mention Pakistan, will cause policy decisions based on that understanding to miss the mark. When policy decisions regard any region or population as homogenous and unified, they miss everything about how societies work and struggle to reproduce themselves locally and in the global arena. It might be all too obvious to state that components or elements of identity are complex and evolving. The academic reward lies in demonstrating precisely how, for example, languages evolve in relation to one another, how people migrate and interact with other people, thus transforming "original identities" and so on.

Madison: How do you present identity in the classroom, and what do you want students to take away from their study?

Hanifi: In the classroom, I try to present identity as a layered, complex, and dynamic thing or set of things. That conception becomes evident to students when I ask them, "Who are you? Where are you from?" Some say Northern Virginia, some say Russia, or the South. These students are also taking on disciplinary identities as historians or anthropologists while they are at JMU, or developing new roles as campus leaders or even looking ahead to their career paths or their future lives as spouses and parents. They begin to see from their own lives how tricky the concept of identity becomes through time. Cultures are very complex, and every culture is unique, so comparisons between the Afghan and American experiences of culture and history must be carefully constructed. But at the same time, students can easily see that there are a lot of similarities across cultures. Americans have migratory histories too, and some groups such as military families move a lot, for instance. Students' own lives are changing rapidly, and, as such, they can easily see that singular generic labels are not particularly helpful analytically.

Hanifi's book has become a standard reference for other scholars and policymakers

Hanifi's book has become a standard reference for other scholars and policymakers

Middle Eastern Communities and Migrations

Madison: You coordinate one of the most popular and intriguingly named minors on campus — Middle Eastern Communities and Migrations.

Hanifi: It is popular possibly because of the global scene today, just as in the 1960s Russian studies was popular. The minor is designed to emphasize the plurality of Middle Eastern cultures beyond just Arabs or Muslims or Jews. Their interactions are often the source of great productivity, not just war or congenital hatred or whatever foolishness polemicists reduce the region to. The program also emphasizes the deep history of peoples that have historically moved through the regions. Everyone in the region it seems has a migratory history, and the history of migrations gets underneath the surface and explores the movements and interactions of peoples. This is exciting on campus today because there are so many Middle Eastern faculty members or those who teach about the region. In core curricular terms there is now a very robust Arabic language program with its own dedicated minor, a growing Persian language repertoire, a second historian besides myself, two political scientists and faculty members in philosophy and religion and art history. The minor probably will end up having additional tracks to account for the multitude of interests, but it's all about movement.

Madison: What are you planning for your spring 2010 semester sabbatical?

Hanifi: This year I gave or will give talks at Yale, Stanford, UCLA, the School of Oriental and African Societies at the University of London and the Middle East Studies and Association for Asian Studies annual meetings. I have organized these presentations into a book in my mind, so my primary goal during the sabbatical is to produce the manuscript for my next book. It is tentatively titled, Knowing Afghanistan: Global Politics, Historical Amnesia and Linguistic Illusion. I will also be editing two volumes, one titled Class Conflict in Afghanistan and the other The Politics of Language in Afghanistan.

Click here for more information about Hanifi and to read his work, including Material and Social Remittances to Afghanistan; and Impoverishing a Colonial Frontier in Iranian Studies and the working paper on a regional approach to peace and development in the region he has created with the Working Group on South Asia of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University.

The JMU history professor has grants from the Social Science Research Council, the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, the American Historical Association, the Asian Development Bank, and JMU for research conducted in Australia, Europe, North America, and South Asia.