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AFGHANISTAN - Without Warlords, October 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project

A Secular Politician
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The first thing Latif Pedram's visitors notice when they walk into his political party headquarters in the Karte Se district of Kabul is a 12-foot tall campaign poster that hangs on a wall in the main hallway. In the imposing photo, Pedram stands in front of a podium with his hands behind his back. In the poster's lower half, a rapt audience of men and women is depicted.

Latif Pedram

Latif Pedram, 42, a presidential candidate and head of the National Congress Party, discusses secularism and his campaign in his Karte Se headquarters.
A few months before the elections, Pedram -- a left-leaning intellectual and writer -- returned from five years of exile in France to campaign for president along with 17 other candidates, ranging from warlords and former Mujahidin leaders to medical doctors and professors like himself. Pedram, 42, stood out from the pack because of his strong academic background and secular ideas. During the campaign, he emerged as a controversial figure in the press and political circles for campaigning for women's personal rights, a taboo subject in Afghan culture.

Like most of the candidates, Pedram stood little chance of winning the presidential race, but the campaign provided him with a platform from which to launch his bid for Parliament. Pedram is president of the National Congress Party, which was formed in Belgium. The group has a Web site in English and French.

Sitting comfortably on a couch and smoking a cigarette during an August 2004 interview, Pedram spoke carefully about his position. A provision in the political parties law bans groups that "pursue objectives that are opposed to the principles of the holy religion Islam."

"Secularism is not a threat to religion in my view," he said. "If we take this definition, then yes, my party is secular."

Remains of the palace

The palace of King Amanullah, the reformist king who advocated modernization and democratic change in the 1920s. Today the area around the palace, which is located in west Kabul, serves as a camp for the International Security Assistance Force.
Afghanistan's first attempts at secularism took place in the 1920s, under the reform-minded King Amanullah. Amanullah's rapid modernization policies limited the rule of Islamic law, which angered rural tribal leaders and mullahs, who ran the king out of the country after 10 years. The country's first constitution, ratified under his rule in 1923, included an article proclaiming that "all subjects of Afghanistan are endowed with personal liberty." Amanullah introduced some press freedoms and market privatization, and he decreed mandatory and co-educational schooling for Afghan children. At the same time, the Iranian king Reza Khan and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey were pushing through their own modernization schemes, but with much more success. Unlike his counterparts, Amanullah did not have a well-trained army and a loyal bureaucracy to implement his large-scale program of political and social reforms.

React!The burqa, or chadaree as Afghans call it, represents the symbolic downfall of Amanullah. He already had angered the traditionalists when pictures of his bareheaded wife traveling in Europe surfaced in Afghanistan. The most dramatic and symbolic offense came when the couple returned to Afghanistan. Amanullah banned the chadaree and motioned for his wife to take hers off before a loya jirga council. With the exception of reformist governments like Daoud Khan's republic in the 1970s and the Communists, successive Afghan rulers took care not to alienate the traditionalists.

Pedram, like Amanullah, ran afoul of conservatives during the month-long presidential campaign period. The country's ultra-conservative Supreme Court demanded, unsuccessfully, that an election commission strike Pedram from the list of candidates, alleging that he committed blasphemy. In a speech to a group of women, Pedram had raised questions about the fairness of polygamy and marital laws that make it easier for men to seek a divorce.

Campaign poster

A giant campaign poster of Latif Pedram hangs prominently on a wall in the Karte Se headquarters of the National Congress Party.
Pedram, who belongs to the ethnic minority Tajiks, has a mixed political background. During the '80s, he was a Communist party member and newspaper editor, but like many intellectuals, he was jailed for criticizing the regime. When the Taliban took control of Kabul, Pedram fled north to the base of Ahmad Shah Masood, the late anti-Soviet resistance fighter, who controlled parts of northern Afghanistan.

Throughout the 2004 elections, several candidates, expecting to lose, were reportedly cutting backroom deals with Karzai for a share of power in a future cabinet. Pedram said he was not among them. In our interview, he called Karzai an "American puppet" and said he opposed permanent American military bases in Afghanistan.

"There are reports about abuse at American detention centers around the country, but Karzai doesn't say anything about them," Pedram said. "An Afghan citizen should stand for the independence and sovereignty of his country, but Karzai's policies have been anti-national."

Pedram advocates an independent, but decentralized Afghanistan. He believes the country should be divided into autonomous regions under the control of regional capitals. Federalism, a recurring subject of debate among Afghanistan scholars and some politicians, is not popular with the country's ethnic majority Pashtun and other Afghans, who view it as a threat to national unity. But Pedram and his party plan to push for federalism -- and women's rights -- if they make it to Parliament.

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