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Afghanistan Needs Its 'Knights' for Age of Greater Jihad

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"My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance." -Petrarch

Webster's dictionary broadly defines "dark age" as "a time during which a civilization undergoes a decline." A concept that originated from the Italian scholar Petrarch, the Dark Ages, as they would later be called, was a vast period of economic and cultural stagnation that enshrouded Europe from roughly the 6th through the 11th centuries.

Although scholars differ over exactly how long, bloody and backward this epoch was, there is no doubt that it happened and that it lasted for a very long time. Yet without it, the path for the European Enlightenment would not have been forged--or, at the very least, it would have been greatly encumbered, thus weakening the continent's scientific and cultural progress that the United States would later inherit and carry forward.

However, as Europe descended into barbarism and darkness, the Islamic world stood illuminated. A relatively unified society, it was characterized by a high level of personal sanctity, social justice and other principles derived from the Qur'an. The Muslim scholar Kabir Helminski writes:

It was a world culture in which religious pluralism was accepted, women obtained more rights than in most cultures, class exploitation was lessened, science flourished side by side with religion and mysticism permeated everyday life. Contrary to popular conceptions, it was a society relatively free of interpersonal and sectarian violence.

When East collided with West during the Crusades, European knights entered Islamic lands seeking war rather than knowledge. But as the French sociologist Gustave Le Bon writes in the 19th century, the westerners took back with them eastern advancements in technology, science, art, and chivalry.

"The relation between the Occident and the Orient for two centuries was one of the strongest factors for the developments of civilization in Europe," Le Bon says in The World of Islamic Civilization.

However, even the development of a civilized European society took tremendous time and effort, despite powerful intellectual surges. As the philosopher Noam Chomsky writes:

For centuries, Europe was the most savage region in the world, torn by hideous and destructive wars. Europe developed the technology and the culture of war that enabled it to conquer the world. After a final burst of indescribable savagery, the mutual destruction ceased at the end of World War II.

Like the many shifts of global fate and fortune that have taken place throughout history, now, a dark age has enveloped the Islamic world.

With the exception of a few predominantly Muslim countries such as Turkey and Malaysia, the Islamic civilization over the last few centuries has seen a gradual degeneration and stagnation. According to Helminski, this decline "was further accelerated by negative impacts both during and following the colonialist period."

Over this past decade, however, unlike any other period in history, the Islamic Dark Age has been covered ad nauseum by every western media outlet, and in some cases this coverage has further inflamed fundamentalist ideologies.

In particular, Afghanistan has borne the wretched brunt of this tenebrous period, where its effects have been highly concentrated and damaging for the past 35 years. Afghan culture and society have been thrown into disarray by war; vast segments of the native population have fled to various continents, greatly weakening the power of Afghanistan's generational momentum; and, the country's future is precariously hinging upon international help.

Afghanistan is either too far, too wild or too uncertain for foreign soldiers and development teams to remain for the long haul. One day, Afghanistan will be left to the Afghans, and it will be up to us to bring our nation out of this dark age.

If we are to accept this shift in global fates, we are in an era when the East must look to the West to modernize, civilize and improve itself--not unlike how Europe pulled knowledge from Muslim lands during its own Dark Ages.

Following this pattern will not make one any less Muslim or Afghan. On the contrary, it would strengthen and ensure the survival of both identities.

And similar to the knights of the Crusades, those knowledgeable and dedicated Afghans who have had the good fortune of being exposed to the advanced nations of the world have the greatest ability and burden of returning their knowledge back to their homeland.

An Afghan-American friend of mine who went to work in Kabul after living and studying in the United States for more than 20 years is a good example of such a person.

When dealing with a high-level Chinese counterpart over a major project in Afghanistan, he insisted that higher standards be implemented. At that point, the Chinese official quipped, "You want these kinds of standards only because you have grown up in the West." To which my friend replied: "Sir, there is nothing western about being fair."

Although a simple anecdote, this is nevertheless the kind of sharp reasoning that is needed during these times. However, there is a shortage of such minds who can remain in Afghanistan for extensive periods of time, which is needed for any enduring change to take root.

Burnout rates among expats are high and understandably kick in within a few years. According to one official, more than 60 percent of Afghan diplomats decide to remain abroad, a trend that has been steadily increasing as we approach the 2014 transition. The withdrawal of NATO forces by late next year brings with it cuts in local investments and salaries, fueling widespread fear of an economic collapse and security vacuum.

Even local Afghans are leaving en masse. According to a recent Washington Post article, "One-way, outbound flights have become the backbone of the beleaguered Afghan travel industry."

The list of issues goes on.

The global Afghan communities must find creative ways to continually replenish and strengthen the bright minds in their native country, even if they can't physically be present there.

For example, thanks to the Internet and modern technology, we are more interconnected than ever, and the need to be in a particular geographic location is no longer as crucial as it used to be. If Afghans cannot be physically present in their homeland, more options need to be created for sustainable online education, vocational training and other such programs.

Of course, Internet connection and penetration remain substandard in large parts of the country--a problem that requires immediate attention and further investment. After all, the Internet has been and will continue to be the greatest impetus for social change and evolution for the developing world in the 21st century.

But according to official figures cited by BBC News last year, the country's telecom operators are booming, sharing about 18 million subscribers and coverage that reaches 85 percent of the population. With continued funding and commitment, the options for innovative cell-phone-based education programs are limitless.

These solutions are broad, but the issue that I am trying to address is the overarching concept of renewing the national soul and building a healthy homeland from which new ideas, beautiful creations, along with improved and more meaningful customs and traditions can emanate outward to the world at large and to those Afghan communities abroad that long for a healthy and evolved reflection of their culture.

Many of these untried concepts can be aided by knowledge that the West has already developed. Our modern-day "knights" have the greatest ability to filter those advancements through a lens that can best suit the current Afghan social and cultural climate. They can also separate illusion from reality in the western world, sifting out its false images and ills that could hinder growth in an emerging land.

This kind of cross-pollination is how countries across the globe have developed since time immemorial. Neither ancient Greece nor Persia, or any other nation for that matter, has ever existed inside a vacuum. In fact, a true study of human civilization should teach us that East has always needed West, and West has always needed East. There is an inevitable and inescapable interdependence that exists.

In the case of modern-day Afghanistan, the current advanced thought coming from the Occident can be further refined with the help of the local Afghan population that understands its nation best. Too often, unfortunately, people from outside of the country--be they of Afghan origin or not--have come into Kabul, Kandahar or Herat with a hubris that is neither welcomed nor productive to creating long-term improvements.

Finding answers to these kinds of challenges, in my opinion, has become the Greater Jihad for our and future generations of Afghans at home and abroad.

Considered in Islam to be the far more important battle zone than the physical outward holy war, our nation's Greater Jihad is the fight, the inner struggle, for its very spirit. The Muslim scholar and Sufi leader Pir Zia Inayat-Khan writes:

The attainment of mastery requires struggle. The inner struggle is the ultimate struggle, the battle for true freedom. On the battlefield of the soul no effort can be too great and no price too high, for victory there wins peace, and peace is the highest good.

Afghanistan has become entirely too fluent in the language of Lesser Jihad, which it famously fought and won in the 1980s. We know who we are in physical warfare, and we know we are good at it.

But as that pivotal year of 2014 approaches, let us define who we are in peacetime and be even better at winning at that. And may we always remember that it can only be through Greater Jihad that we come out of our sleep of forgetfulness and into the pure radiance of Enlightenment.