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Abdul Latif Pedram: Intellectual Adds Controversy to Campaign

Abdul Latif Pedram comments on marital issues and federalism have sparked sharp debate.
By Suhaila Musheni

Poet and writer Abdul Latif Pedram electrified a lacklustre campaign by plunging into the marital politics of Islam: posing challenging questions about the right of Afghan men to have several wives and about women's divorce rights.

The reaction to his ideas was tectonic. The Supreme Court of Afghanistan accused him of blasphemy and sought his expulsion from the race. But the body organising elections for the government and United Nations refused to strike him from the ballot.

Pedram, 41, is no stranger to controversy. His open advocacy of federal government for Afghanistan has won him few friends among those who fear and resent such a plan, seeing it as a recipe for civil strife leading to the division of the country.

By raising such challenging question in Afghanistan's traditional thinking and strictly Islamic society, Pedram seems to be deliberately seeking to act as a catalyst for discussion, playing the role more of a classic intellectual than of a determined political powerbroker committed to winning the presidency.

He has virtually no experience of political office and little background in any form of activism. Instead, he is more practiced at reading and wielding his pen.

"Membership in any political party doesn't mean political experience. Active involvement in social life of people is a political experience," he said.

Born in the northern province in Badakshan, he first came to the capital in 1984. He studied literature at Kabul University, philosophy in Tehran and finally gained a doctorate in Islamic Studies in Paris at the Sorbonne.

Some allege that as he student he was involved with communism, editing the communist newspaper Haqiqat-e-Inqilab-e-Saur - The Truth of the Revolution. He hotly denies it.

"I have never written even for one second for the Democratic (Communist) Party and I didn't have an affiliation with them," he said. He concedes only that "during the communist era, I was in Kabul and involved in journalism affairs".

In 1987, before finishing studies, he fled to the Panjshir Valley. But he did not take up arms with Ahmad Shah Massoud. Instead, he was active in cultural affairs in the military base. He then left for Iran.

In 1996, when the Taleban came to power, he stayed just a week in the capital before heading north, where resistance was strongest. Later that year he went to Tajikistan and on to France. He returned to Afghanistan last year.

Pedram talks about his time in the Panjshir Valley, in the Jihad and as a participant in resistance activities, but denies membership of the political party Jamiat-e-Islami - of which Massoud was a commander - or Shura-e-Nizar, the group Massoud established.

"I have never had Shura-e-Nizar membership or been a member of any other party," he said. "My work there was journalism teaching and nothing else."

Hs is now spokesman for Hezb-e-Kangara-e-Millie (the National Congress Party) - a newcomer to the political scene in Afghanistan, established two years ago in Brussels by just 500 people and registered with the justice ministry earlier this summer.

Pedram's remarks on Afghanistan's marital traditions came at a women's conference held at the ministry of information and culture. "Having numerous wives in Islam is an issue for discussion," he declared.

Critics called him a non Kufr - non Muslim. He replied, "These issue ... were about women's rights; they were not about being Kufr or non Kufr. It was an issue about rights and everyone ought to be able to express their opinion. "

Pedram told IWPR that the supreme court accusation that he was guilty of blasphemy was a snap decision that did not relate to what he said about women's rights but was politically motivated by the leader of the conservative Ittehad-e-Islami party, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.

He explained that while it is true that in Islam a man can take up to four wives, according to the Holy Koran, every wife should be treated justly and if a man cannot guarantee equal treatment of his wives, he is not allowed to take more than one.

Pedram questions whether a man can indeed treat more than one wife justly and equally.

Yet to count Pedram as an unequivocal supporter of the women's lobby would also be wrong. "Regretfully I must say that the women's movement is too weak to achieve things," he said. "Instead of fighting their own battles, they are looking at what men say and simply following them."

Pedram's views on federal government are equally, if not more, challenging to some than his foray into women's politics - particularly some of the Pashtun majority.

He told IWPR federalism was a means of connecting people, not dividing them, "Afghanistan is made of various tribes and the system of central government has tried through the years to appoint provincial administrators, commanders, and judges from the centre - and this has way of doing things has left us unable to form a nation."

But he said, "Federal government doesn't mean the centrality doesn't exist. In federal government the currency, ministry of foreign affairs, and ministry of domestic affairs are all controlled by the central government."

He said a federal government would enable people to have a stronger role in decision-making and would give them more economic opportunities. And he predicts that a federal state would lead to the development of provincial capitals - and would advance local democracy.

In Pedram's view, distrust between different ethnic groups and tribes in Afghanistan is so great that people don't communicate with each other and are always in conflict. "We want real unity and an end to tribal differences," he said.

Asked how he will attract votes from Pashtuns, who make up the majority in Afghanistan, he said, "Pashtuns are our brothers. Our federalism and justice plan doesn't mean separation of Pashtuns from others."

And he rejected claims of being anti-Pashtun. "Calling me anti-Pashtun is hostile propaganda," he said. "I consider it shameful to talk about one nationality as better than another." Then he reels out a list of Pashtun provinces where his party has Pashtun supporters - Kandahar, Helmand, Logar and Jalalabad.

Turning to the current state of politics in Afghanistan, Pedram is scathing about the current interim president. "I have always called [President Hamed] Karzai a puppet of America and I call him that now," he said.

" I am not against the presence of Coalition forces in Afghanistan, but the only thing I am against is that the coalition forces have been led by America. Actually they should be led by the UN."

He accused the US of interfering in the internal affairs of the country, being responsible for wars in Kabul city and bringing Taleban to the country. "International forces especially Americans are responsible for the war in our country, because they established the Taleban forces," he said.

He cited the repair of the Kabul-Kandahar highway as the only reconstruction work achieved. He condemned the transitional government's inability to ensure security.

So why is this poet and writer with a provocative slant putting himself up for president of Afghanistan?

"I an standing for the presidential elections based on [my rights according to] the Afghanistan constitution and international standards. I am an Afghan and I have the right, therefore I declared my candidacy," he said.

Suhaila Musheni is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.

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