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Mustard Seeds in Afghanistan


Last autumn, in the weeks leading up to President Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, two courageous Afghani women were touring the United States trying to educate American citizens about what is happening in their country. In October, Zoya, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), gave a speech in San Francisco. Two weeks later, in early November, Malalai Joya, the Afghani parliamentarian banished from Parliament for her refusal to stop speaking out against the Northern Alliance warlords, made numerous appearances throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. While they were touring for different reasons—Zoya to promote RAWA’s work, and Malalai Joya to publicize her recent memoir—it was striking how similar their messages were. They both spoke of the devastation in Afghanistan after more than 30 years of war. They both spoke of the key role the U.S. government has played in arming and supporting the mujahideen that have destroyed their nation, and they both urged American citizens to push our government to radically change its foreign policy.

Their message is political, but the stories they told and the horrific photos they shared underscored the need for the Buddhist ideals of non-violence and compassionate understanding to heal the wounds of Afghanistan. These ideals, of course, don’t belong to Buddhism alone. Virtually every religious faith in the world holds up compassion, understanding, and peace as the best qualities of what it means to be human. But a Buddhist story, the story of Kisagotami, seems to offer some insight into the wisdom of the people of Afghanistan.

Kisagotami’s story

Kisagotami was a cousin of Siddhartha Gautama who found herself plunged into despair when her infant son came down with a fever and died unexpectedly. Devastated, she wandered the streets for weeks, crazed with grief, clutching the tiny corpse, and holding it out to everyone she met, begging for someone to save her child. Finally someone took her to the Buddha.

He looked at her kindly when she held out her son’s body and gently took the child’s corpse, crawling with maggots by now, into his arms.

“Please help me, sir,” she begged.

“I will revive your child under one condition,” he answered. “Find a household that has never known death, and bring me some mustard seeds from that home.”

If Kisagotami had come to virtually any American home in those first weeks of September 2001, she most likely would have found no mustard seeds. She’d only have found shocked Americans, deeply shaken by the incomprehensible deaths of thousands of ordinary citizens. If Kisagotami had come to virtually any Afghani home in the past 30 years, she also would have found no mustard seeds.

“You cannot find a family without sorrow and pain in Afghanistan,” Zoya said at the beginning of her interview, “like millions of other girls belonging to this generation of war and crime, I also lost my parents. But I think more important than that I lost—like millions of other girls—our future, our generation.”

Zoya’s story, and the history of RAWA

Zoya is not her real name. As a spokeswoman of RAWA, Zoya’s life and the lives of all the women in her organization are constantly threatened by fundamentalists who disapprove of their struggle for a secular, democratic government. This is why all the members of RAWA have taken aliases. This is why RAWA is “revolutionary.” They want to secure free and fair elections for all Afghanis. They want to educate girls. They want to build orphanages and hospitals.

RAWA was founded in 1977 by Meena, a young woman studying law in Kabul University. She dreamt of establishing greater rights for women but saw no hope for that in either of the dominant political parties of the time—neither the communists under the leadership of first Nur Mohammad Turaki and then Hafizulah Amin, nor the fundamentalist Muslims inspired by Berhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, or Abdul Rabb Rasuul al-Sayyaf. After the Soviets invaded, Meena risked her life again and again helping the resistance against the Soviets. But she refused to align with the resistance being spawned in the madrasahs in Pakistan, the birthplace of the Taliban and other fundamentalist mujahideen, funded and armed by Osama bin Laden, Pakistan, and the CIA. Meena was murdered in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1987, most likely by members of the mujahideen influenced by Hekmatyar.

The mujahideen also murdered Zoya’s parents, and Hekmatyar is still a powerful figure in Afghanistan. His power, and the power of other Northern Alliance warlords, is one reason democracy is failing there.

The U.S. invasion

According to Zoya, the three justifications that the U.S. government has used for its invasion of Afghanistan are the war on terror, a desire to establish democracy in Afghanistan, and finally bringing women’s rights to the nation. She said that the occupation has failed to meet all three objectives.

Women are the victims of domestic violence, rape, gang rape, and the men guilty of these things are immune from justice because of their ties to the warlords and the warlords’ control of the police, the courts, and the government.

“There is no law,” Zoya said. “There is no implementation of law. There is no protection of women.”

As for the war on terror, after eight years of fighting, the Taliban are still in control of 80 percent of the country, and terrorists continue to kill Afghanis who are in the vicinity of U.S. and NATO targets. Afghans are caught between the Taliban fundamentalists, the Northern Alliance Fundamentalists, and the constant threat of U.S. and NATO bombs killing civilians.

And finally she views democracy in Afghanistan as a fraud, as evidenced by the last elections. Even setting aside the actual fraud reported widely in the press, she views both of the leading candidates—Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah—as equally dangerous for the Afghan people—Karzai because of his appointments of Northern Alliance warlords in key government positions, and Abdullah because of his own involvement as a commander in the Northern Alliance in the 1992–1994 conflict.

“The Northern Alliance groups committed such inhuman crimes toward our people. We can’t forget that,” Zoya noted. “They were the first, before the Taliban, who destroyed our country.”

“So we see that today this election was just like a drama, a very dirty game being played with the destiny of our people.”

According to Zoya, Afghanis want peace and security most of all, but after eight years, they’ve lost confidence in the ability of the U.S. troops to provide it. For this reason she feels it is necessary for the troops to withdraw.

“But what the United States really needs is a change in policy, a very radical change in foreign policy about Afghanistan,” she continued. “Because in the past 30 to 35 years the United States has supported these fundamentalist groups in the country. They created these fundamentalist groups during the Soviet war, the Cold War against Soviets.”

The covert history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is finally getting more public attention now; even Hollywood has shown a spotlight on it with the movie Charlie Wilson’s War. It’s no secret anymore that the CIA funneled weapons to the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation. Ultimately, the policy successfully forced the Soviets to withdraw; but after the Soviets withdrew, the Northern Alliance warlords turned the weapons on each other—and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians—in a bloody civil war from 1992 to 1996 that only ended when the Taliban finally took control of Kabul. By providing arms to the mujahideen, the U.S. government helped create the conditions necessary for the rise of the Taliban, and a safe home for Al-Qaeda.

Now with the “war on terror,” it seems that Washington has again followed the same mistakes of the past, supporting an enemy of our enemy, this time the Northern Alliance warlords against the Taliban. With the Bush administration’s early support of Harmid Karzai, they effectively handed over key government positions to the Northern Alliance warlords.

“The United States should disempower these war criminals from the three organs of the government,” Zoya said. “They should stop supporting the Northern Alliance groups who are equally as dangerous as the Taliban—there’s no difference between them—and they should start supporting real democratic movements in Afghanistan.”

Malalai Joya’s story

“You may have been led to believe that once the Taliban was driven from power, justice returned to my country,” writes Malalai Joya in her recent memoir A Woman Among Warlords. “Afghan women like me, voting and running for office, have been held up as proof that the U.S. military has brought democracy and women’s rights to Afghanistan.”

“But it is all a lie, dust in the eyes of the world.”

The BBC News has called Malalai Joya “the bravest woman in Afghanistan.” In her first speech as an elected representative of Farah Province, she attacked the Northern Alliance warlords sitting beside her in the Loya Jirga as war criminals. For the past seven years she has refused to back down from her outspoken criticism of these warlords. Because of this she has been called an infidel and a prostitute. She’s been threatened with rape; she’s received death threats—all within the Parliament building—until finally she was banned from Parliament altogether. She has survived numerous assassination attempts, and must travel under the constant protection of bodyguards. She cannot stay more than two nights in any one house and often chooses to wear a burqa to avoid detection when she goes out.

And still she refuses to remain silent, traveling around the world, speaking out for the cause of democracy in Afghanistan. Malalai’s speeches are full of anger and outrage at what is happening in her homeland and full of a dizzying blur of Afghan names: Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. Berhanuddin Rabbani. Abdul Rashid Dostum. Mohammad Qasim Fahim. Younis Qanooni. Karim Khalili. Mohammad Mohaqiq. All former members of the mujahideen that fought the Soviets. All warlords who fought each other for power during the 1992–1996 civil war. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Afghanistan Justice Project, and other human rights organizations have implicated most of these people in the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations, abductions, disappearances, rape. From January to June 1994, over 20,000 civilians died in Kabul. According to the Afghanistan Justice Project, rape had not been used by the Soviet regime as a systematic weapon in Afghanistan. “The civil war that raged in Kabul between 1992 and 1995 changed that.”

Photo by Susan Hall

It’s chilling to listen to Malalai and Zoya list off the atrocities that the Northern Alliance warlords are still committing under the banner of democracy, with the support of the U.S. government.

It’s painful to hear the outrage in their voices. As a citizen who believes in peace, when I look back at my government’s actions in Afghanistan over the past eight years, I feel obliged to hang my head in shame.

WOfhen the United States and NATO invaded Afghanistan, I was on a two-month retreat at Green Gulch Farm, in Marin County, California. An American newspaper ran a story about the military dropping processed food into villages from planes, with leaflets: “A gift from the people of the United States of America.” Then a crate full of Pop Tarts crashed through the roof of a villager’s house, killing a baby in his crib, and I could only shake my head in disbelief. I’d wondered from the beginning of the invasion how an army with tanks and bombs was ever going to track down an organization as secretive and elusive as Al-Qaeda. They’d be long gone before Special Ops came busting down somebody’s door in the middle of the night. It was PR. A big show. And it was selling.

But I said nothing.

I went to the Zendo and sat on my cushion, and tried to find a taste of something beyond understanding that could hold all of that. It felt like the best I could do at the time. But over the years, my Buddhist practice and my study of karma have taught me that everything I do ripples out into the world, and ripples back, in ways I can only begin to imagine. But now I’m beginning to see that my inaction, my silence, has karmic effects, too. When I complain about the price of gas, I’m not just fueling my car; I’m fueling the greed that has fueled countless wars in the Middle East. Though I may feel alienated from Washington, I am not separate from the government, or my neighbors, and if I remain silent when I hear people saying hateful things about Muslims, I’m contributing to the war with more than my tax dollars.

Malalai of Maiwand meets Kisagotami

After Malalai Joya’s speech a woman stood up in the audience, greeted her in Pashto, and asked her about her name.

“As you know, we have in Afghanistan, many Malalai’s, the name, because of Malalai of Maiwand,” she answered. “She was one of the heroines of Afghanistan.”

She outlined the story: a hard battle fought between the British and the Afghans during the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1880 in the desert of Maiwand in Kandahar Province. Malalai was a young, patriotic woman who had gone to the front lines, to tend to the wounded. At a key point in the battle, the British were gaining the upper hand, and the Afghan fighters were becoming demoralized. Malalai took up the Afghan flag from a fallen flag bearer, and led the men back into battle with a poem to her husband:

Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand then

By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame.

Malalai of Maiwand died in the battle, but the Afghans fought with renewed inspiration and routed the English with her inspiration. The battle turned the tide of the war.

While telling the story, Malalai’s eyes began to well up and her voice turned husky.

“The first award I received from my Afghan community, my supporters, was the Malalai of Maiwand award,” Malalai continued. “I gave it to the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture during a press conference. I said it belongs to all of my people, not only me, that we follow the path of Malalai of Maiwand, and Meena… the many heroes and heroines in our country who’ve sacrificed their lives for freedom and democracy. Now we are just students of them.”

Afghanistan is a nation full of women and men who have fully embodied the wisdom Kisagotami discovered after she searched and searched, with all of the desperation of a mother who has lost her only child, for a home that had never known death. Everywhere she looked she found only the pain that others had suffered from the loss of loved ones. Finally she understood she was not alone in her grief and returned to the Buddha.

“Well?” he asked, “Did you bring me the mustard seeds?”

“No,” she answered. “I don’t care about the seeds. I only want peace.”

Then she took back her child, walked to the graveyard, and gently buried the decomposing corpse.

“I don’t really like to talk so much about my personal story,” Zoya said when I asked her about the deaths of her parents. “I think there are many other stories which should be highlighted.”

At the beginning of every speech she gives on her worldwide book tour, Malalai Joya apologizes for writing a book about her life. For years she turned away offers from activist writers in the West who wanted to help her write her story.

“Let me introduce to you some orphans, some widows, and some underground activists—men and women,” she told them. “You can write their story.”

But in the end she finally agreed to write her book for three reasons.

“First to tell the truth. Still in my country, the first casualty is the truth. Even the mainstream media are throwing dust in the eyes of the great democratic, justice-loving people around the world. The second reason is to tear the mask of democracy off the fundamentalist warlords, these drug lords, these criminals who are a photocopy of the Taliban…. The third reason is to reflect the sorrow and pain of my people.”

“There aren’t enough books to write about that.”

[author]  [author_info]Everett Wilson is the editor of Turning Wheel[/author_info] [/author]

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