The unfolding tragedies we are currently witnessing in Afghanistan and Haiti will occupy scholars and pundits for generations. They are very different in nature, far apart in space and culture; one is deeply man-made, the other most recently triggered by an “act of God”, yet the two tragedies share some common themes.
Most troubling is the undeniably dreadful governance and extreme fragility, driven by what seems an ominously cyclical force. In both, the United States has engaged deeply, with questionable benefits and effectiveness. Both humanitarian ethics and a drive to translate ideals of human rights into practice play central roles in this engagement and in the disappointing results.
In both Afghanistan and Haiti, complex religious dimensions play significant roles. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has struck fear into the hearts of Muslims worldwide because it catapults to the fore the distorted images of Islam as a dangerous religious tradition that is diametrically opposed to central human rights goals of gender equality and, more broadly, freedom of thought and conscience. Islamophobia, they fear, will rear an ugly head.
In Haiti, religiously framed calls to compassion to people suffering yet another terrible catastrophe will summon donations and advocacy but leave lingering concerns about their goals and impact.
But it would be a mistake, however tempting, to accept simplistic answers that cast the complex and interwoven religious dimensions of the tragedies in unnuanced roles. Both Afghanistan and Haiti are cases that underscore why taking religious dimensions into account is vital both to understanding and to action.
The Historical Contexts
The Afghanistan crisis takes us back to the shocks of September 11, 2001. Awareness that terrorists who attacked America operated from a base in Afghanistan obviously led to the U.S. invasion and to the painful and costly two decades of international involvement. But the terrorists’ motivations, expressed in religious terms, compounded both fear of Islam and the framing of U.S. policy to counter the Taliban’s ethos which included what was and is understood as deeply ingrained misogyny.
Now, the probable future intention of the Taliban which has taken power is to impose strict religious Sharia law on a society that over the last two decades has been moving to modernization and greater opportunity, especially for women and girls.
Note: The above interview was filmed three months ago – and clearly reveals the Taliban’s intentions regarding women and Shariah law.
This strict Taliban approach is not the belief or practice of large majorities of Muslims across the world, and hunger for power and resistance to outside involvement clearly blend with religion and culture. But nagging questions arise, as to how and how far the religious dimensions have colored approaches to both governance and understandings of what human rights mean.
The Haitian political situation is different. The multiple layers of crisis are rarely told as a narrative about religion. The latest chaos was triggered by the assassination last month of the President, Jovenel Moise, who was Catholic, followed by a severe earthquake and then torrential rains – that, according to the latest official data, took about 2000 lives.
All this came on top of decades if not centuries of misrule and ineffective outside interventions.
But there are intertwined layers of religious contributors to Haiti’s dysfunctional governance and to the lamentable outcomes of well-meaning outside help.
Intrareligious tensions contributed to the governance crisis that included the then President’s assassination. Haiti’s Protestant preachers, whose followers overtook Catholics two decades ago as the nation’s single largest religious group, were some of President Jovenel Moïse’s most vocal opponents. Their stance against the president — and the detention of one of their own as an alleged central figure in the plot to kill him — has sparked a dangerous backlash.
Moïse’s supporters (most of them Catholics) demand that church leaders shed light on their dealings with Christian Emmanuel Sanon, the 63-year-old Haitian American pastor being held by authorities in Moïse’s killing on July 7. Evangelical leaders, who before the president’s death denounced him as a dictator in the making, are now distancing themselves from Sanon, describing the Haitian American as an outsider who made a number of false claims, including that he was an “emissary” sent by the U.S. government to “save Haiti.”
And then there is the long complex history of Haitian Voodoo beliefs and their association with the cruel regimes of the Duvaliers.
In previous crises (earthquakes, coups, hurricanes) help from outside has often borne religious labels that bypassed weak government bodies. Appreciated deeply at first, it fed over time mistrust and even contempt.
In both, the painful cyclical patterns of awful governance in Afghanistan and Haiti are linked to longstanding and justified mistrust by the people – mistrust based on governance incompetence and extensive corruption tolerated far too readily.
Massive foreign assistance in both countries — hundreds of billions in Afghanistan (an estimated 80% of the then Afghan budget), most of it coming from the United States, and in Haiti, some $13 billion in international assistance over the last decade — has produced far less than it should.
There are crucial differences: Haiti continues to be recognized as a sovereign State and a member of the United Nations, while the status of the new Islamic Republic of Afghanistan created by the Taliban at this point is uncertain.
For Haiti, assistance continues on track while for Afghanistan sharp shifts seem inevitable. Haiti’s religious affiliations, for example to the global Catholic Church, are generally respected and seen as a force for good, while the religious ideology of the Taliban is assuredly not.
For Haiti, governments and religious leaders of ostensible democracies do not contest the nation’s support for human rights principles and equitable treatment of girls and women. There is no equivalency for the Taliban of Afghanistan. Haiti will almost certainly benefit from massive humanitarian assistance in its present crisis but the path on addressing the governance issues is cloudy.
The Future for Human Rights and Religion
This brings us to a critical question: How will Muslim majority nations and their religious leaders respond to the new Taliban regime and its stated and applied approaches to human rights?
It is early days. Some Gulf States have shown by their willingness to take Afghan refugees, a de facto statement of where they stand, leastways to the Taliban past approach. But how will other Middle Eastern and Northern African countries position their governmental and religious authorities?
At this juncture, there is no clear answer. Whatever emerges will be very telling in terms of the global moral landscape going forward in the twenty-first century.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Haiti earthquake devastation Source: UUSC Rights in Humanitarian Crisis Program, Photographer: Gretchen Alther