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Demography. There are no reliable census figures, but in 1997, the population was estimated to be 23,738,000. The great majority of people are rural (80 percent). The population of Kabul peaked at more than one million in the 1980s but dropped after the fall of the Communist regime in 1992. Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, and Kandahar (Qandahar) are the major cities, with populations of about 200,000 each. Important towns include Jalalabad, Kunduz, Baghlan, and Ghazni.
The demographic importance of the Pashtuns has decreased since 1978, because they have formed the majority of the refugee population in Pakistan. It is estimated that Pashtuns represent 38 percent of the population, principally in the southeast, south, and west, with some pockets in the north; they are divided between the Durrani and Ghilzay confederacies and among many tribes along the Pakistani border. The Tajiks (25 percent) live primarily in the northeast, the northwest, and the urban centers. The Hazaras (19 percent) are found in the center, Kabul, and Mazar-e Sharif. The Uzbeks (6 percent) occupy the north. The remaining 12 percent of the population is made up of Aymaks (Sunni Persian-speaking groups in the northwest), Turkmens (along the border with Turkmenistan), Baluchis (in the southwest), and Nuristanis and Pashays (northeast of Kabul).
Except for a few Hindu, Sikh, and Jewish minorities that have left the country, all the inhabitants are Muslims, divided between Sunnis (estimated at 84 percent), and Shiites (15 percent, most of whom are Hazaras); there are Ismaeli pockets in the east of Hazarajat and in Badakhshan. There has been a huge refugee population outside the country since 1978, numbering over six million in 1990—it constituted the largest refugee population in the world. Although many returned after the fall of the Communist regime in April 1992, several million Afghan refugees are still in Pakistan, Iran, and the Arabian peninsula. Some middle-class persons and intellectuals have settled in the West.
Linguistic Affiliation. Many inhabitants are bilingual or trilingual, and all the major languages are spoken in the neighboring countries. The official languages are Persian (officially called Dari) and Pashto; both belong to the Iranian group of the Indo-European linguistic family. The Persian spoken by the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Aymaks is not very different from the Persian of Iran. Pashto, which is divided into two major dialects, is also spoken in large areas of Pakistan. Despite government initiatives to promote Pashto, Persian is the preferred means of expression among educated and urban people. The Iranian group is also represented by Baluchi and some residual languages. The Nuristani languages are intermediate between Iranian and Indian groups, while Pashay is a conservative Indian language. Turkic languages, represented by Uzbek, Turkmen, and Kirghiz, are spoken widely in the north. Moghol and Arabic enclaves are disappearing.
Symbolism. Afghanistan has never had a strongly unified national culture, and war has led to further fragmentation. The old flag of green, white, and black horizontal strips has been abandoned, and there is no national anthem. The national currency (the Afghani) is printed in two separate locations, with a locally varying exchange rate.
History and Ethnic Relations
Emergence of the Nation. The territory of modern Afghanistan was the center of several empires, including Greco-Buddhist kingdoms and the Kushans (third century B.C.E. to the second century C.E.) and the Muslim Ghaznavid and Ghurid dynasties (tenth to the twelfth centuries). It was a base of action for many rulers of India, notably the Mughals. The modern nation emerged during the eighteenth century by Pashtun tribes in reaction to the decline of the Persian and Indian empires. During the nineteenth century, Afghanistan struggled successfully against the colonial powers and served as a buffer state between Russia and British India. The three Anglo-Afghan wars (1839–1842; 1878–1880; 1919) could have forged a national feeling, but the country's history has been dominated by internal conflicts. The first half of the nineteenth century was marked by a feud between two branches of the Durrani Pashtuns, with the Mohammadzay eventually succeeding and ruling until 1978. Abdur Rahman (Abdorrahman Khan, r. 1880–1901) extended his authority over the whole country by overcoming resistance from his fellow tribesmen and defeating the Ghilzay Pashtuns, the Hazaras, and the Kafirs (Nuristanis). Although political unity was forged during his reign, his harsh tactics created enmities between Sunnis and Shiites, between Pashtuns and other ethnic groups, and among Pashtuns, as well as between rural and urban people.
King Amanullah (Amanollah Khan, r. 1919–1929) tried to implement various reforms which failed. An attempt to set up a parliamentary government after 1963 resulted in serious social troubles—leading to the seizure of power by the Communists in 1978, many of whom were young, recently urbanized, detribalized people seeking social advancement. Within a few months the country was rebelling, and in 1979 the Soviet Union intervened militarily. A bitter guerrilla war ensued over the next ten years between the Red Army and the Afghan resistance fighters (mujâhedin) , during which about 1.5 million Afghans died and millions left the country. The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the fall of the Communist regime in 1992 led to an explosion of tensions and dissatisfactions. In response to this situation, the Taliban (religious students from refugee camps in Pakistan), seized the south in the winter of 1994–1995 and restored security. Since that time they have conquered most of the country, but have been unable to incorporate other groups or obtain international recognition.
National Identity. Until 1978, Afghanistan avoided fragmentation through a shared religion and the relative autonomy of local communities even though the government favored Pashtun culture and folklore. Most inhabitants felt they belongedprimarily to a local community and secondarily to the supranational Islamic community. National identity was weak, but the state was not considered disruptive. This fragile equilibrium was destroyed after the coup of 1978. The symbols on which the legitimacy of the government was based (political independence, historical continuity, and respect of Islam) vanished.
Ethnic Relations. Before 1978, ethnic relations were competitive and tense. The pro-Soviet government attempted to promote the rights, culture, and languages of non-Pashtun groups. Although this endeavor failed, it led to an erosion of the Pashtun political hegemony. In the 1990s, political claims evolved progressively from an Islamic to an ethnic discourse. Islam-inspired resistance to the Soviets failed to provide a common ground for building peace and uniting people. Since 1992, the civil war has been marked by ethnic claims that have led to polarization between Pashtuns (who dominate the Taliban movement) and the other ethnic groups (who form the bulk of the opposing Northern Alliance).
At the top of the screen is a menu bar. Click Cite to retrieve the APA citation:
Monsutti, Alessandro. "Afghanistan." Countries and Their Cultures, edited by Carol R. Ember and Melvin
Ember, vol. 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2001, pp. 1-11. Gale eBooks,
https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3401700011/GVRL?u=tmcc_main&sid=GVRL&xid=3022f201. Accessed 16
Additional Gale encyclopedias will contribute additional information to advance your understanding of the culture and cultural issues facing modern Afghanistan. You may wish to learn more about the religious divide in Afghanistan by searching the Encyclopedia of Religion to establish how the difference between Sunni and Shia Islamic worship plays in the Kite Runner.