Survey Reveals Little Change in Afghan Social Attitudes Despite Western Presence

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Aref Karimi / AFP / Getty Images

A family rides on a cart in Herat, Afghanistan, on March 31, 2013

After a decade of war in Afghanistan, the West’s massive military and aid presence has seemingly done little more than harden — or leave unchanged — social attitudes toward a slate of hot-button issues ranging from the implementation of Shari‘a and democracy, to honor killings and corruption, concludes a Pew report on religious issues.

Some 99% of the 1,509 respondents surveyed face to face by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life said they would want Shari‘a to be “the official law of the land,” reads the report, The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, released at the end of April. This figure compares with 84% in Pakistan.

The findings could anticipate the path the country will take after the U.S. and NATO withdraw a majority of their conventional troops after 2014, as well as call into question statements by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO that people are enjoying more freedoms and benefits today than they did under the Taliban. The results are also no surprise to some, as people have become more and more distrustful of the government because of massive levels of corruption and ongoing instability and violence.

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Though the poll does not draw conclusions from the data, trends are easy to see. Politically, the poll shows that 53% of Afghans believe religious leaders should play a “large” role in politics, while 84% think it is a bad thing that their laws do not follow Shari‘a. These figures are remarkable when put into broader context: the Pew poll states that, “with the notable exception of Afghanistan, fewer than half of Muslims in any country surveyed say religious leaders should have a large influence in politics.”

At the same time, Afghan respondents were more ambivalent about politics in general in their country. When asked if they would prefer a powerful leader to a democracy, 51% said they would rather have a powerful leader, while 45% said they preferred a democracy. Furthermore, 54% of Afghans believe Islamic parties are better than political parties, while 19% say they are worse, and 22% say there is no difference. The numbers, after more than a decade of democratization efforts — and with a presidential election looming next year at the same time as a major U.S. military withdrawal — do not instill much confidence in claims that the U.S. and NATO have helped bring about significant change in political attitudes in the country.

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Aside from politics, the poll also looked at many social conventions. Many of the questions revolved around the treatment of women in society, with 94% of respondents believing that “a wife is always obliged to obey her husband.” And, while 24% of Afghans believe honor killings are never acceptable, 60% of those questioned said honor killings of women are “often or sometimes justified,” while 59% said the same about executing men who have allegedly engaged in pre- or extramarital sex.

Indeed, just nine days before the report was released, a mother of two was shot to death by her father in front of 300 villagers in Badghis province for allegedly running away with a male cousin while her husband was working in Iran.

“Violence against women continues to be endemic in Afghanistan, and those responsible very rarely face justice,” said Horia Mosadiq, Afghanistan researcher at Amnesty International. “Not only do women face violence at the hands of family members for reasons of preserving so-called honor, but frequently women face human-rights abuses resulting from verdicts issued by traditional, informal justice systems,” said Mosadiq. “These systems must be reformed, and the police must prevent such verdicts being carried out.”

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