The West’s Favorite Afghan

With his simplistic portraits of Afghanistan, Khaled Hosseini reinforces racist stereotypes and aids imperialism.

Khaled Hosseini in 2007, the year his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, was released. Evan Agostini / AP

In March, a terrible event took place in the middle of Kabul. Near the famous Shah-e Do Shamshira mosque, a woman was lynched and burned by a mob of young men. No one defended the twenty-seven-year-old woman — not even the police. Instead, most of the bystanders took out their smartphones to record the vicious murder. It was undoubtedly one of the darkest days in the young history of Afghanistan’s capital.

According to initial rumors, the woman, whose name was Farkhunda, was mentally ill and had burned a Quran. Both claims turned out to be false. Farkhunda was in fact a devoted Muslim woman, and  a graduate of a local religious school.

On the day she was killed, Farkhunda visited a shrine that carried amulets, or taweez. These amulets are said to heal people and provide assistance in difficult situations. But this old superstition has become commercialized in Afghanistan over the last few centuries. The people who sell these amulets, taweezgars, are businessmen. They do not have any religious education, so even though they deal with religious objects, it is wrong to equate them with traditional Islamic clerics.

When Farkhunda said as much to the taweezgar, the old charlatan was not happy to hear such words, especially from a woman. During the dispute, a candle fell over and lit a piece of paper on fire. The taweezgar accused Farkhunda of being a heretic who burned the Holy Book, inciting the brutal mob to act.

Farkhunda’s murder shocked people around the world. International outlets reported on the story, and several of them instrumentalized the murder for their own ends, suggesting that Farkhunda was a “victim of Islam.” Foreign Policy purported to explain “What a Mob says about the State of Islam in Afghanistan,” and BBC Afrique went with the title “Afghanistan, Islam and Farkhunda.” In addition, some Afghans — mostly residents of the capital who are part of a tiny, pro-Western elite that has become rich since US intervention — cast Islam as the culprit.

What was left out is that amulets and magic are not viewed favorably by what many consider to be orthodox Islam, and more importantly, that in the Islamic legal tradition mentally ill people are not held responsible for wrongdoing. Finally, most critics omitted Afghanistan’s completely chaotic political and socioeconomic situation, which has shaped people over the few last decades.

Events like the one in Kabul have also become part of daily life in other unstable countries. In Lahore, Pakistan, a few days before Farkhunda’s murder, two men were lynched and burned by a group of Christians, who blamed them for an attack on a church that had left at least fourteen people dead. Of course, most mainstream media outlets did not report on this heinous killing — “Victim of Christianity” does not make for a good headline.

However, the news about Farkhunda spread, and many people reacted on social media with emotional comments. One of them was Khaled Hosseini, the Afghan-American author best known for his book The Kite Runner. Writing on his Facebook page, Hosseini said: 
“I am depressed that the attack did not happen in, say, a remote conservative village in southern Afghanistan but in Kabul, an urban city embodying what passes for progressive thought in Afghanistan.”

Although he has since retracted his statement, Hosseini’s remarks raise a number of troubling questions: is such a brutal act not terrible no matter the location? Is the city of Kabul really a far better place than the rural areas of southern Afghanistan? Are the “conservative” people there savages? Is lynching a woman a normal thing for villages, while the people of Kabul are “progressive”?

Taken together, these queries reveal the perniciousness of Hosseini, a figure many in the West regard as a kind of native informant for all things Afghanistan. And his Facebook comment was no anomaly. Hosseini’s bestselling books aid US empire even as they ostensibly offer an authentic account of Afghan life.

Hosseini’s views are in accord with the discourse in Kabul, dominated by a pro-Western elite who believe that everything in Afghanistan depends on the Western occupation: the foreign soldiers are needed to continue strengthening the country’s economic and security state, and the aid money is also needed (not for building schools or hospitals, but for protecting their privileges).

Thanks to these attitudes, as well as the Western attempt to integrate Afghanistan’s economy into the global financial system, social inequality in the country has grown tremendously during the last several years. While the “progressive” elite in Kabul is living in a bubble, watching soap operas on flatscreen TVs day after day and suffering from obesity, Afghanistan’s vast, rural, and “savage” majority is living under disastrous conditions.

Afghanistan has always been a multiethnic country, mainly consisting of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara, and Uzbeks. As the majority, Pashtuns have always been the country’s rulers. Many Pashtun kings reigned like tyrants and were well-known for their brutality — not just against minorities like the Hazara, who have been exploited for centuries, but also towards other Pashtun tribes who stood up to them.

Nevertheless, due to intermarriage, contemporary Afghanistan is fairly mixed. A Pashtun, for example, may have a cousin who identifies as Tajik or as an Uzbek. Southern Afghanistan, which Hosseini often mentions, is mainly inhabited by Pashtuns.

While Washington successfully divided Iraq along sectarian lines, it failed to do so in Afghanistan along ethnic lines. Nevertheless, the “divide-and-rule-game” is still continuing, as was apparent in last year’s presidential election to determine the successor of Hamid Karzai, installed by the US and its allies after “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

During the elections, Washington bet on Abdullah Abdullah on one side and Ashraf Ghani on the other. Because of his close ties with the warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, heroized by the West during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and killed before the West started its own, Abdullah is considered a Tajik. Meanwhile Ghani, a former World Bank employee, was portrayed as a traditional Pashtun.

Before, during, and after the elections, both candidates attacked each other regularly. The dispute became so intense that the supporters of each side resorted at times to killing their opponents. When the election concluded, US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived and made them shake hands. While Ghani became the president, Abdullah got the CEO’s office, a post specially designed for him, completing the Afghan election charade.

The work of Hosseini, a friend of the Bush family, has been used to emphasize these divisions, and particularly to foster anti-Pashtun sentiment. The release date of The Kite Runner was particularly felicitous for neoconservatives. It was first published in 2003, a time when the US was eager for any kind of propaganda to continue justifying their war. A book depicting the Taliban as Pashtun savages was ideal for doing just that. It sold more than eight million copies in more than thirty-four countries.

In The Kite Runner, Hosseini portrays Pashtuns as brutal Hitler worshippers (Pashtuns are often described as being the “true Aryans” of Central Asia) who oppress everything and everyone, beat women, and rape children. On the other side, there are the Hazaras, who are poor, victims of racism because of their Mongolian features, and oppressed and exploited — first by elite and modernized Pashtuns, and later by Taliban extremists who are also predominantly Pashtun.

Other ethnic groups are not mentioned as often, as is the fact that not only elite Pashtuns oppressed the Hazara and other poor individuals, but also other, non-Pashtun people who had enough money and were at the top of the society’s oppressive hierarchy.

Hosseini’s second bestseller, A Thousand Splendid Suns, follows a similar line. Once again, the main antagonist is a Pashtun — in this case an old man who beats his first wife and then makes his second wife, a young girl who was forced to marry him, have sex with him. And the violent and barbaric Pashtun man is loyal to the Taliban. What else could he be?

In addition to playing up racial differences, Hosseini also habitually paints a facile, decontextualized picture of Afghanistan.

In The Kite Runner — a tale of a childhood friendship that effectively erases everything outside of Kabul — the Taliban are described as abysmally evil, some devilish force that has to be battled and removed. The history of the Afghan civil war and the role of the Mujahideen warlords — strongly supported by the US and its allies, who became corrupt tyrants and drug bosses after the US–Soviet proxy war and made possible the Taliban’s reactionary rise to power — get no mention.

Defenders of Hosseini may argue that his stories are simply fiction, that they’re strictly for entertainment. But Hosseini’s work contains historical events that he then translates for us, and Hosseini constantly suggests that he is describing Afghanistan’s reality.

This is where the true danger of his stories comes in. Hosseini’s role (whether sought or appointed) as the spokesman for Afghan society gives readers a false sense of confidence that they’re learning about the “real Afghanistan.” Western readers (including those of Afghan heritage) have come to believe that they understand what Afghanistan is like because they have read his novels. What they do not realize is that Hosseini is not describing an objective reality. Yet because he is one of the few Afghan voices in Western outlets, his perspective gets mistaken for the unvarnished truth.

One thing Hosseini ignores, for example, is that in 2014, the majority of violence against women was recorded in places that Hosseini claims are progressive — like Kabul, Herat, and Balkh. Violence against women is indeed a problem throughout Afghanistan. But it is important not to regard this issue as one caused by a particular ethnic or religious group. Rather, it depends on the level of education, the current political situation, and many different socioeconomic factors.

For the last few three decades, Afghanistan has been ravaged by war — mainly by foreign interests, from the US and USSR to China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and India. As such, its whole population is collectively traumatized.

Not entirely unrelated, it is exploited constantly by its own corrupt politicians, who prefer to build luxurious homes in Dubai instead of supporting the Afghan economy. In fact, their homes are often built with looted foreign assistance — a recurring outcome of so-called US aid programs. They have also gotten rich off the urban boom — a result of the expanded market produced by the International Security Assistance Force — and thus are a domestic constituency for continued occupation.

Within that economy, one business is doing quite well: poppy production. Since the NATO invasion, it has grown constantly — often accounting for as much as 50 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product — and has increased thirty-fold since 1979. The US has openly backed the drug business and the drug lords, a consistent pattern of US foreign and domestic policy for decades, from Southeast Asia to CIA drug running in poor neighborhoods in the US.

Meanwhile, the West has turned away from supporting domestic food production, especially fruits, for which Afghanistan was once famous. This malign neglect and encouragement of socially destructive commodity production is at the root of rural poverty in Afghanistan.

But Hosseini ignores such nuance. His tendency to overemphasize ethnicity and religion allows his readers to come up with easy answers, but unfortunately also contributes to racist stereotypes. Relying on Hosseini thus ends up reinforcing the prejudices of Western readers, offering them an Orientalized view of Afghan society. It also provides politicians with the material to justify Western military intervention in these societies in order to “liberate” men and women.

Furthermore, Hosseini’s equation of Pashtuns with Taliban sympathizers, militants, and extremists has had dangerous consequences for the way both the public and policymakers view the people of southern and eastern Afghanistan — the site of the majority of drone attacks in the country. Just last month, more than thirty people leaving the funeral of a tribal elder were killed in just such an aerial strike — a tragedy that, unlike the killing in March, attracted scant media attention. Indeed, there were around twenty drone strikes last month that killed more than one hundred people.

As for Hosseini, his commentary on the lynching of Farkhunda amounted to a ten-second soundbite of what we learn from his novels: we should expect more of progressive Kabul, but backwards, militant, rural, and particularly Pashtun Afghanistan still needs saving. The Facebook post also suggested that while his latest book contains less emphasis on particular ethnic groups, the departure is likely more accidental than intentional.

The public and media shouldn’t expect a single individual to speak for a complex, diverse society with a wide range of perspectives and life experiences. And while we cannot hold a single author responsible for the suffering of Afghan people, what is objectionable is this: Hosseini has made millions of dollars bolstering neocolonial interests by creating a black-and-white construct of his own country of origin.