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EducationKing Amanullah 1920Kabul University 2006Buy Postcards
The DNA of culture

Mullahs, or Islamic teachers, provided almost all education in Afghanistan before the 1800s. Islam teaches government, law and correct behavior from the Koran, and is the thread of continuity that joins otherwise warring tribes and ethnicities into one nation. Even before the last Afghan pagans converted to Islam, the British and Russians arrived. Afghans divided over how to cope with the threat. Modernists wanted to learn western technologies, while traditionalists and Mullahs argued that Islam was all Afghanistan needed.

Amanullah Khan kicked the British out of Afghanistan in 1920. He built secular schools but was driven from the country by a traditionalist revolt in 1929. The Mullahs confined education to the Koran until 1946, when the west built a university in Kabul, and secular schooling began again. During the following thirty years little progress was made educating the nation, but the Afghan public developed an appetite for secular education. Only the most reactionary and backward thought Afghanistan could thrive on the Koran alone.

Disaster struck in 1978 when communists seized the government. Like King Amanullah, they launched reforms, including many schools, which provoked a bitter traditionalist backlash. Soviets armies poured across the border to help. In the ten years of civil war that followed, secular teachers were intimidated into quitting or murdered by the mujahideen and educated people fled the country. The United States and Arabs sent money and weapons that helped stamp out learning. The mujahideen and Taliban regimes that followed the defeat of the communists ignored secular education. Afghans resigned to living in the Middle Ages.

The United States invasion changed all that. Without any sense of irony we are promoting education like our old enemy the Soviets did, and fighting traditionalist guerilla forces almost identical to those we armed in the eighties. But of all modernizing efforts, education is the least controversial. During the long nightmare of civil war Afghans decided that uneducated people are prone to banditry and violence. Education has taken on a moral quality, to be educated is to be a good person, a good citizen. Many Mullahs teach the Koran during the day and tutor children with schoolwork at night.