Commentary: Liberation

The victory over Taliban tyrants is a victory for humanist values

The scenes of joy in the streets of Kabul evoke nothing less than the images of Paris liberated from the Nazis. Women taking to the streets to bask in the Afghan sun, free at last to show their faces. Children gathering to fly kites, a once forbidden pastime. Old people dancing to music, banned for many years.

The liberation of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban is a watershed event that could reverberate for years. The warm embrace by ordinary people of the freedom to do ordinary things is a major victory for Western humanist values. This victory of values, in the long run, may count for far more than the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

This extraordinary turn of events is a reminder to returning warlords that personal freedoms must be preserved under any new government. To the authoritarian governments in the Middle East, it is a reminder that repression--all repression--is hated and resisted. To America, the victory is a reminder that its secular values based on democracy, religious pluralism, opportunity, and individual liberty are precious and not to be taken for granted. Indeed, after a decade in which many of the nation's campuses deprecated the study of Western civilization and embraced multicultural relativism, the liberation of the women and men of Afghanistan makes it clear that there is something very basic and profoundly moving about human freedom. If this is seen by some as American hegemony, so be it.

The quick crumbling of the unpopular Taliban is making it necessary to begin the job of reconstructing the country even before bin Laden has been found. But nation-building in a multiethnic society that has never really been a nation will be difficult. It is naive to think that a Western-style democratic template can simply be laid down, but the goal should be the creation of a secular Muslim society that respects religion but doesn't tolerate fanaticism.

The United Nations-brokered power-sharing conference now under way is a good starting point. All ethnic factions from the north and the Pashtuns from the south must be included in any new government. Until it is formed, and perhaps for some time afterward, it would be wise to have Turkey, which is a NATO member, lead an international Muslim military force inside Afghanistan. That would keep the feuding warlords from reverting to their vendettas of past decades.

When the aid money starts flowing, much of it should be sent directly to the thousands of villages dotting the countryside. Afghanistan is a village-based society, and financing many thousands of micro-projects at the local level would be the best way to generate growth and jobs. Simply funneling billions of dollars into a handful of huge projects controlled by the central government will guarantee political corruption and may well prove ineffective over time.

Above all, reconstruction must focus on public education in the villages. Every girl and boy must have the opportunity to learn science, math, literature, and history and to get some of the skills to live in a global economy. The Saudi-financed religious schools that bred a generation of anti-American fanatics must be changed in Afghanistan, as well as in Pakistan. It's one thing to teach religion. It's quite another to teach hatred of other religions.

The liberation of Afghanistan is an historic opportunity to open up societies in the Middle East. For decades, the moderate governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia practiced what can be called the politics of deflection, sustaining their corrupt, undemocratic rule by encouraging the "Arab street" to be vehemently anti-American and anti-Israeli. Newspapers, mosques, and religious schools expressed fierce anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sentiments, which are now widely accepted throughout all strata of Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, and other societies in the region.

After Afghanistan, the politics of deflection are no longer acceptable--to either America or the moderates in the Muslim world. From now on, the battle against terrorism must include the fight for the hearts and minds of the Arab street. The joy expressed by the people in Kabul is a public rejection of the mullahs and their vision of a world based on repression and religious purification. It serves to undermine the message of the Islamic fundamentalists and offers an opportunity to moderate governments to open their political systems to the people.

The end of the politics of deflection also means that Egypt and Saudi Arabia must at last throw their support behind a reasonable accord that trades peace and legitimacy for Israel for land and statehood for Palestinians. By the same token, Jewish fundamentalists in Israel have to learn a similar lesson: They have no divine right to the West Bank.

IRANIAN EXAMPLE. Liberation of Afghanistan may well encourage a cascading effect around the world. Russia is supporting the American war against terrorism in order to lock itself into the Western system. Iran is attempting to do the same thing. Indeed, a generation after the mullahs took over in Iran, its people are demanding the same personal freedoms expressed on the streets of Kabul. American foreign policy in the '90s was narrowly focused on economic globalization and opening markets. Clearly, there's more at stake.

America has been in the throes of a debate over values for some time now. Many people, particularly on college campuses, have been reluctant to champion American values. In fact, the study of Western civilization has been deemphasized at many of the nation's best schools in favor of multiculturalism. It's one thing to understand and respect other cultures. But the battle for Afghanistan changes the nature of the debate. Women are either free or not free. Other religions are either respected or not. A clear polarity of values has been revealed on the streets of Kabul. When extremists take over a culture, we do have a clash of civilizations, and the tolerant one, in the end, is better than the other. That's what the lesson of Afghanistan teaches us all.

Whether Afghan warlords, Egyptian politicians, Saudi princes, U.N. bureaucrats, and American diplomats now seize the opportunity to spread these values remains an open question. What is unquestionable is that ordinary people want ordinary freedoms wherever they live.

By Bruce Nussbaum

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