Dehistoricizing Islam: Temporality in 19th-Century Afghan Propaganda

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:30 AM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Elham Bakhtary, George Washington University
Since the time of Sargon II, rulers in the Near East have attempted to attach their reign to the glory of bygone kings and empires. This was no less true in the nineteenth century. Islamic rulers portrayed themselves as successors to celebrated dynasties, some as far back as the pre-Islamic era. A curious outlier to this trend was the Afghan ruler Amir Sher Ali Khan (r. 1863-78). Rather than claim succession to the famed kings and empires that once ruled his part of the globe, the Amir's propaganda made little mention of the region's rich history. This paper addresses this issue by examining Amir Sher Ali Khan's propaganda and its indigenous and colonial sources.

The Amir produced this propaganda at a time when rival claimants desired to unseat him and the British Raj entertained the idea of annexing Afghanistan. As print rapidly circulated the claims of his rivals, as well as the benefits of British colonial rule, the Amir crafted a textual response that sought to exploit his subjects’ Muslim sensibilities and effectively delegitimize any argument in favour of his dethronement. I demonstrate that this response was to omit the legacies of renowned empires that were once centered in his dominion, as well as those spanning the wider Islamic world. These strategic omissions were made in order to give credence to the propaganda's argument that the Islamic world had been stuck in a stasis of ignorance following the first generation of Muslims and that Afghanistan had been stuck in such a stasis from time immemorial. I propose that this dehistoricization of Afghanistan and Islam had the objective of sharpening the contrast between the Amir's rule and all that preceded it in order to convince readers that he was the resurrector of Islamic civilization and its torchbearer in Afghanistan.

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