Why Afghanistan should matter to us all
As we celebrate the progress that America has experienced thanks to the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we should also remember that basic equality is still a distant dream for many in our world — including for women and other oppressed groups who are victims of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
The Taliban has been in power in Afghanistan for almost six months, and already the terrible images are fading: of Afghans clinging to — and falling from — airplanes destined for freedom; of the dead and mangled from a terrorist bomb blast; of Taliban fighters beating demonstrators, women, and journalists, heralding a new era — back to the 7th century.
The administration and Washington have now largely moved on: Afghans are considered victims of cruel fate, about which nothing more can be done. The United States had to leave.
The extraordinary tragedy afflicting tens of millions of ordinary, freedom-loving Afghans is that every one of them is seeking a life of humanity and basic dignity, and yet their plaintive cry is silenced in the media and their plight has largely disappeared from public discourse.
If America and other civilized nations aspire to be great, they cannot forget the plight of the vulnerable, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed — no matter where they may be found.
We must accept that our democratic ideals are either universal — having a foundation in human dignity and applying to all people everywhere — or they are an illusion to be dismissed as such by autocratic and authoritarian regimes.
Let’s also remember the not-too-distant time when Americans had to decide if their professed democratic ideals were indeed universal — applying to every citizen in every state — or whether they could be ignored in deference to the laws and politics of the American South. At the time, there were many in the North who were content to ignore the victims of Jim Crow violence and oppression, since it took place far from their field of vision.
At that moment in history, America was forced to confront the injustice of racial apartheid in the South thanks to the peaceful revolution led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His winsome nature and principled message called America to confront its history of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, and racism.
In our era, Dr. King’s universal message of the value and dignity of all human beings has much broader application in our increasingly global culture. His demand that Blacks be treated with the dignity and respect demanded by their humanity applies no less to Afghans. That includes Afghan women, Afghan ethnic and religious minorities, and all Afghans who cannot accept the Taliban’s regime of religious, political, and legal oppression.
Because of his message, Dr. King became an American who transcended the context of race relations in the American South. His universal principles speak to the whole world even now. To Africa, with a burgeoning population, growing economy, and expanding opportunities, as well as ethnic, tribal, and religious conflict. Also to the Middle East, the site of so much horrific violence in recent years. To Europe, historically the fount of both war at home and brutal imperialism abroad. To Latin America, where narco-terrorism and corruption continue to threaten democracy and human rights. And to Asia, home to the world’s most populous countries but also to some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes. Dr. King brings a universal message rooted in our common human dignity.
For this reason, Americans, and those around the world who believe we should aspire to the very best of humanity, must care about the Afghan people, especially women, minorities, and refugees. Not Afghanistan alone, of course, but Washington’s involvement places a special responsibility on us to act.
Let us consider how Dr. King’s universal message of the value and dignity of every human being applies and let us collectively put these principles into action for the victims of Taliban oppression.
We must make known instances of oppression. We must spread stories of Afghan people standing up to their oppressors. We must give Afghans the tools to fight for their rights. We must help Afghan girls learn. And we must battle, peacefully but fervently, on the behalf of all Afghans against the renewed dark age that has swallowed their land.
Americans and good people around the world must oppose evil wherever they find it. However, it is not enough to respond after violence erupts, leaving the inevitable victims behind. This is one of the great — and terrible — lessons of Afghanistan.
Whenever possible, we must strive to preempt conflict, halt the inhumanity before it begins. And that requires understanding something that Dr. King put powerfully into action: The inescapable reality that our universal humanity binds us — all of us — together.
Naheed Esar is a Fulbright Scholar and Afghanistan’s former Deputy Foreign Minister for Management and Resources. Matthew Daniels, JD, PhD, is the Chair of Law and Human Rights at the Institute of World Politics and the founder of www.universalrights.org