Meet Ahmadullah Archiwal, who's mission is to mainstream cultural pluralism and tolerance in Afghanistan

By Kiomars Barakzai

Ahmadullah Archiwal, an activist with a diverse background, has sought to tackle violence by using different methodologies focused on two main issues that exist in the Afghan society. First, the majority of afghans, particularly the youth, blame other people for the problems and feel a sense of helplessness. Even if in part true, he believes that, as individuals and citizens ofAfghanistan, we need to understand our agency and continuously strive to change our situation ourselves. It is this mental model that must be shifted when teaching non-violence: the belief that one can help change the course of events through individual and collective action. Secondly, in a country where extremists and criminals have had outsized influence due to continuous war, there is a need to mainstream cultural pluralism and tolerance in society.  The young, in particular, must understand that conflict is a natural phenomenon that can be managed in non-violent ways.

What underpins his life-long work is the belief that violence continuously begets violence inAfghanistan, and without new tools and approaches, violence will continue in the country. However, it was the societal issues, not simply war, that first influenced his belief in non-violence.  Reading the book, Civilian Jihad in the Middle East, had a great impact on his approach to change, and prompted him to establish an NGO (OSCAR) focused on non-violence and to commit his life to the cause.

In 2010, Archiwal began teaching nonviolence and since then, he has focused on three issues that exist in the society.  The first problem is a lack of awareness of people about nonviolence. Many Afghans associate nonviolence with Hinduism and other foreign ideologies, even though nonviolence is a tool and not an ideology.The second issue is the lack of availability of academic resources on the topic.  Lastly, and most importantly, is the belief among many people in Afghanistan , that nonviolence is not effective.  For example, many people cite the successfulAfghan struggle against the Russian invasion which was violent in nature.  Given this context, Archiwal has set out to demonstrate how non-violence has been used in a number of historical situations successfully.

The use of non-violence asa tool for change is necessarily a long-term approach.  To enable understanding of its benefits, Archiwal established an organization with a non-violence framework focused on three objectives.   The first is to spread awareness that violence is not the only strong currency available in the market and that nonviolence can be a stronger and more effective tool than violence.  The second objective is to make people understand that conflict is a natural phenomena in any society. The last and the most important objective of his work is to change people's mentality by providing them with the tools for peaceful alternatives.

They employ a number of methods to educate people on the utility and practice of nonviolence.  These include five-day training workshops and short seminars in key areas such as Kunar, Khost, Kabuk, Kunduz, and Paktia.  He also works with other activists, and cultural figures such as poets, to spread the teachings of non-violence. Given the lack of books on non-violence in Pashto, he translated a number of books on the subject, in addition to publishing and lecturing on how non-violence can contribute to changing the dynamics in the country.   A number of his students have now also contributed to the growing literature in Pashto on non-violence.  

In his first book, ‘Non-violent civic mobilization’, published in Pashto, he defines non-violence and identifies the range of different tactics and strategies that can be effectively employed.  He highlights two examples of nonviolent campaigns from the Islamic world, including  the Khudai Khidmatgar movement that was waged in today's Khyber Pakhtonkhwa by Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan.

His second book, entitled ‘Khudai Khidmatgar – A Strategic Choice`, delves more deeply into this Pashtun non-violent movement, and argues how it was  a strategic and rational choice for Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan and many other Pashtuns who were members of the movement.  He argues that  this movement began not out of weakness or inability to use violence, but because Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan and his followers believed that nonviolence would be more powerful than violence and easier to mobilize people and sustain the movement. Another key aspect of the movement was the diagnosis of the problems within their own community that held them back. Before they could succeed politically, Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan understood that community problems must first be solved non-violently and he began to provide free education and to begin organizing the community along peaceful means. Khan joined politics not in the beginning but after educational campaigns and community organizing.  

In his final book, `Impact of Khudai Khidmatgar on Pashtun Culture`, Archiwal describes the social and the cultural impacts of movement and its impact on Pashtun’s prose and poetry, music and drama, as well as on women, the education system, and on journalism. In many ways, he argues, Khudai Khidmatgar helped start a shift in the community’s mentality on trade, women, feelings of powerlessness, and the importance of language and culture.  

Archiwal is an activist and academic who continues to work on the long-term goal of peace building in a country that has witnessed more than 40 years of conflict across and within society.  He remains a strong believer in non-violence and its effectiveness in any situation.  His desire is to spread awareness of the strategic benefits of non-violence, and the tactics that can be employed.  He recognizes that real change requires time and longer-term processes to shift mind-sets, behaviours and rules.  And he calls on every Afghan citizens, no matter how difficult the challenge, to understand their agency and take responsibility in tackling societal problems.

Click here for more on Archiwal and his work at OSCAR