Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Same Old Song Over National Anthem

Even the author of the lyrics intended to unify the country admits they may be divisive.
By Wahidullah Amani

Abdul Bari Jahani does not like the words to Afghanistan’s new national anthem, as he fears they could accentuate political and ethnic fault-lines and sow discord.

Jahani should know - he wrote the lyrics.

Jahani, an Afghan American now working for the Pashto service of Voice of America in Washington, is the latest in a string of writers who have tried to satisfy the constitutional prescription for the national anthem.

According to the constitution , the anthem must be in the Pashto language, must contain the words “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) and should list the country’s major ethnic groups.

Each of these points is a political landmine.

The language issue almost derailed the Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2003. A compromise was eventually reached. and a commission instituted to begin the search for a proper text. President Hamed Karzai approved one version early in 2005 only to reject it a few weeks later. Then the whole process went back to the drawing board.

Now a new version is under consideration, even though its author says he is dissatisfied with it.

"To be frank, I think it’s a problem with the constitution,” said Jahani. “When a government calls itself an Islamic republic, then it should respect Islamic virtues. The words ‘Allahu Akbar’ belong in mosques, not accompanied by music and trumpets.”

The requirement that major ethnic groups should be listed is also wrong-headed, he insisted.

Afghanistan is an uneasy mix of peoples with historical and religious differences that run close to the bone. Pashtuns are in the majority, but share power and position with Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks, Turkmen and a host of other, smaller groups, each with their own concerns and grievances.

The constitution lists 14 major ethnic groups, all of which had to find a place in the new anthem.

“I originally submitted a poem with nine ethnic groups in it,” said Jahani. “They asked me to add five more, and I did so. This is in fact not a poem, but a list of tribes.”

But even this long list is likely to irritate those who feel their group has been left out.

Afghanistan’s small Hindu community, for example, do not get a mention. Anarkali, who represented the Hindus at the Constitutional Loya Jirga, protested that they were being ignored.

"If the national anthem is approved and the names of the other peoples are in it, but not the Hindus and Sikhs, we will not accept it. But we are sure it will be imposed on us anyway,” she told IWPR. “This is religious sectarianism.”

Not so, said Shah Zaman Wraiz Stanikzai, head of the publications department at the Ministry of Information and Culture and a member of the 45-person commission tasked with choosing the text for the new anthem. According to Stanikzai, Hindus and Sikhs are not included in the anthem because they are not mentioned in the constitution.

No matter what new objections are raised, Stanikzai believes this final version of the anthem will pass muster.

“There can be no more changes,” he insisted. “We have finished our work and the minister of information and culture has given instructions to the group charged with composing the music.”

Some suspect that all the bickering is actually a deliberate ploy to prevent the country from ever approving a new anthem.

According to Jahani, the present national anthem, which dates from the presidency of Berhanuddin Rabban in the early Nineties, is popular with the mujahedin commanders who fought against the Soviets. Its lyrics are in Dari and refer back to the anti-communist jihad, glorifying the contribution the commanders made to keeping Afghanistan free.

Many of these warlords are now discredited in the country, and are blamed by a large swathe of the population for the violence and destruction of the civil war years that followed the end of communist rule in 1992. But they still wield a great deal of power, as witnessed by their success in Afghanistan’s recent parliamentary elections.

Jahani, along with Habibullah Rafi, the author of the previously rejected version, says it is the influence of these strongmen that is keeping the old anthem in place.

Mohammad Hassan Wolesmal, the editor of the weekly Jarida-ye-Milli-ye-Afghan (Afghan National Magazine), said the recurring drama over the anthem is just another sign that the Karzai administration is incapable of making decisions.

"Wasting excessive amounts of time on the composition of the national anthem indicates the weakness of President Karzai's government," he said.

Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.

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