Barnett Rubin on wheat and Wahhabism

February 28, 2008

Informed Comment: Global Affairs: Rubin: Taliban?- What’s That Got to Do with the Price of Bread?

Outside of Afghanistan people want to know if Deobandis are a type of Hanafis that are closer to Wahhabis, but inside Afghanistan all people think about is the price of bread.

I hate to boost so many “Informed Comment” pieces in a single week, but this is an important insight, and a great way of phrasing it. I’ve found myself struggling to get people to this point a thousand times. And it’s in no way limited to understanding the situation in Afghanistan or that part of the world.

It does not mean that understanding ideologies, belief systems, sects, and movements doesn’t matter. It just means that people are people and they don’t live their lives in vacuums. I usually try to get people to think about America – a country where religion is in many ways as important as it is in the Muslim world, but where we rarely understand people’s actions and motivations in purely religious and ideological terms. This never works, because as soon as you focus the conversation on religion in America, people begin to essentialize that too.

Therefore it’s usually best just to shake them up. These are some of the best bits in my arsenal:

  • Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson all belong to the same sect.
  • Until 1980, the Southern Baptist Convention opposed legislation that would prevent abortions when the woman’s health was at risk, and in other circumstances, or would interfere with the individual’s right to medical treatment. Since 1980 they have vowed to work for a ban on all abortion except in the case of imminent danger to the life of the mother. (<a href=””>link)
  • Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Kennedy are all Catholics
  • The Catholic church is officially against capital punishment.
  • Ronald Reagan and Rudy Giuliani both started out as Democrats.
  • Ashraf Ali Thanwi and other leading Deobandis have written several thousand times as many pages about Sufism as about politics, political administration, warfare, and the like.
  • Most Salafis and Wahhabis are more passionate (and belligerent) about the placement of hands and the spreading of feet in prayer than about any political issue.
  • From the beginning, the Palestinian and other conflicts now regarded as “jihad hot spots” were led and incited by Communists, Atheists, and Secularists.
  • Most of the elders of the jihadi movements are former Communists or Secular (right wing) Nationalists.
  • Ravan Farhadi (the current Afghan government’s former ambassador to the UN) described his group (in 2001) as the “good fundamentalists” – as opposed to the Taliban, who were the evil fundamentalists.

Once they’ve gone over each of those points – many or most of which they were no doubt already aware, but not conscious, of – they’ll be as confused as the crazy world we live in and you can tell them that what people really talk about is the price of bread.


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