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The University of London

Diasporas and Knowledge Societies in Making: individual challenges and communal opportunities

 School of Oriental and African Studies

The University of London

London, United Kingdom

Note: this article was also presented as a Keynote Speech to 2nd Annual Celebration of Afghan-British Graduation Ceremony

Generally, diaspora communities have a very special feature, that is, they are at least bilingual. They speak in their mother tongue or in the national and local languages of their home country, such as Persian-Dari, Pashto, Uzbeki and Turkmeni in Afghanistan. At the same time, they also speak the language of the country to which they have migrated, such as English, German, or French. This is a positive characteristic, but sometimes it also becomes challenging. For instance, in which language should one speak at an event. Those who were born, or have been in Britain since their formative early years, are fluent in English. This means that English is their first language, even though their mother tongue may be Persian-Dari, Pashto, Uzbeki, or any of the other local languages of Afghanistan.

The title of this article is Diasporas and Knowledge Societies in Making: individual challenges and communal opportunities. Being a diasporic community is one of our essential features. It is outward migration that has brought us here from different places and corners of Afghanistan.



A new Afghan diaspora has been on the rise since the early 1980s. It has resulted from social and political upheavals, which started with the rise to power in April 1978 of the former People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA, rule: 1978-1992). After their military coup, they imposed a new political and social order in the country.

The years between 1978 and 1992 marked a new era in the modern history of Afghanistan. They opened up the country to many unexpected positive and negative changes and events. The people of Afghanistan have experienced years of war, political turmoil, social upheaval, civilian casualties, internal displacement and outward migration. It is not possible to talk about all these today but outward migration is the one that stands at the centre of this presentation and has been changing the life of the people of Afghanistan in many different ways.

The political turmoil and armed conflicts over the past four decades have led to an increased out-migration, and the emergence of numerous diasporic communities of Afghanistan around the world. This process is still going on although its pace and intensity have waned over the past decade.

Outward migration has had the most tangible and dramatic impact on the life of people of Afghanistan, regardless of whether they live in diasporic communities or in mainland Afghanistan.

Outward migration from Afghanistan reached its peak during the years 2000 and 2001. There is a popularly quoted figure of five million outward migrants for the years 1992 to 2001. This figure appears in most of the publications of the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations. If we accept this figure, which is no more than an estimate, then we can safely claim that this represents one quarter or one fifth of the country’s total estimated population for the same time period of 20-25 million. They emigrated either to Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Europe, North America and Australia. This is a significant phenomenon in the life of the people of Afghanistan. It is significant because outward migration was sudden, rapid and massive, taken place over a span of two decades.

I remember my time in Afghanistan, where people’s identities, cultural traditions, customs, and styles of thinking were limited to their families, villages, and provinces. This meant that our identities were family, ethnic, tribal, provincial, geographical, linguistic, racial, or gender specific. The question is how have our identities been transformed over the past decades?

Outward migration has been one of the key factors that have caused this transformation. It has opened paths to Pakistan, Iran, Europe, North America and Australia. It is important to note that those factors that used to divide us in the name of ethnicity, tribe, province, language, gender and other lines are no longer the defining elements of our identity in the diaspora. Outward migration has helped us to transform our identity into a supra-ethnic, supra-tribal, supra-linguistic, supra-racial and supra-religious identity. I do not totally discount the influence of those elements that defined our identities in the past and these still play a large identity role for those members of diasporic communities who spent a considerable part of their life in their home country.

Despite the continuous influence of those elements, there is no doubt that our thinking, vision, and identity have been much broadened. Looking at our graduates today, I can tell you with certainty that what you have carried with yourself from Afghanistan to Britain, for example, in the name of ‘cultural identity’, ‘linguistic identity’, ‘ethnic identity’, or ‘regional identity’, all mean much less to our graduates. Of course, these identities are transferred to the young generation here in Britain through family discussion, the media and political events in Afghanistan. However, the influence and strength of these identities are far less here in Britain. The young generation here is mostly preoccupied with issues of knowledge, technology and education. Just a short while ago, one of today’s graduates approached me and told me that she wants to pursue her master’s degree. Indeed I am very happy that our young generation here are thinking about education, the pursuit of knowledge and their intellectual future.

Let me make it clear that Afghanistan has also been changing at a very rapid pace. Afghanistan has changed over the past decades beyond anything we could have imagined. I am aware of families and people in Afghanistan who earn their daily bread through hard work and yet they spend their earnings on educating their children. I know some very poor families, and even some widows, who save their monthly income and pay the private school fees of their children. They are convinced that education alone, and good education in private schools, can guarantee their children’s success. They are determined to change their children’s fate and future and they are doing it through education.

It is interesting to see how outward migration has played a significant role in what I would call this educational and cultural transformation. The pattern of settlement among the diasporic communities from Afghanistan shows that they have always settled in cities. I am not talking about the refugee camps, which the United Nations and its international donor countries established in the tribal areas of Pakistan in the 1980s. I am aware of how the refugees were subjected to political manipulation and misery inside these camps. However, the absolute majority of our migrants in Pakistan settled in cities, such as Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Karachi. In Iran, they settled in Mashhad, Isfahan, Tehran and Qom. When they came to Europe, they settled in cities, such as Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Cologne, Paris, Lyon, London, Birmingham, and Edinburgh. Similarly, in North America, they made Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver in Canada, and Washington, New York and other major cities in the United States, their new homes. In Australia, they settled in Sydney and other large cities.

I would like to emphasise this point: the diasporic communities settled in cities. They did not settle in villages, or at least villages were not their first choices. They came out of villages in Afghanistan and settled in cities. Similarly, over the past ten years, with millions returned from diaspora communities to Afghanistan, they resettle in cities, such as Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Qandahar, or Jalalabad. The absolute majority of them have been settled in Kabul. The four top reasons for the returnees’ preference for cities are security, job opportunities, access to public health and education. Thus, the population of Kabul has grown rapidly from below one million in 2001 to more than four million today. When the Federal Republic of Germany started helping to develop the transport system in Kabul, the roads of Kabul could only cope with around 35,000 cars. Today there are more than one million cars in Kabul. This means that there is one car for every fourth person in Kabul. As I just mentioned, education is one of the top four reasons why returnees prefer cities, and Kabul would seem to be the returnees’ favourite city.

What impact has out-migration had on education in Afghanistan? In Afghanistan, the number of students, prior to 2002, never reached one million. This is also true for the era of the PDPA, which paid considerable attention to the development of education. Generally, the total number of student population was under one million. In contrast, there are currently more than 10 million students officially registered by the Ministry of Education.

I know we cannot take the figure I just mentioned for granted. I know from my own research that there are many ghost students, dropouts, and students who are officially registered but cannot attend schools for security reasons. However, a minimum of 8 million students are actively pursuing their education. This is a great educational transformation. This is a cultural, educational and scientific revolution in Afghanistan. Thus what I wanted to highlight here is the role of outward migration on the awareness of people of Afghanistan, particularly regarding the value of education.

For every dark night, there is a bright day. Afghanistan has experienced many calamities and much misery over the past decades. Undoubtedly, outward migration has engendered human, cultural, economic and identity challenges as well as compromises. Social and personal degradation is one of such consequences. People had no choice other than to compromise certain values and the personal pride they had in their home country. They had to leave certain elements in order to gain some new values.

Outward migration also opened the eyes of the people of Afghanistan to a world of cultural diversity, technological skills, modern sciences, and freedom to break with those elements that for good or bad reasons had significantly limited their scope for progress and development at both individual and communal levels. Diaspora, particularly in the Western world, provides an opportunity for progress that has to be cherished. Lessons of the challenges which the outward migrant communities have gone, and still go through ought to be understood and viewed as sources of motivation for changing one’s life for a better future. Viewed overall, those values that diasporic communities gain are significant and education is one of these precious values.


Cultural identity

There are many questions which diasora communities face, particularly during the early stages of their settlement in a new homeland. Among a series of questions, the question of ‘cultural identity’ stands at the top. The term cultural identity is a composite and complex conceptual term. From a sociological perspective, it refers to those values by which an individual or a group of people define themselves. However, beyond this simple definition, the term itself is problematic and means different things to different people.

Diaspora communities from different cultural backgrounds attach different sets of meanings and values to it. To make my point clearer, neither ‘culture’ nor ‘identity’ is a fixed and finished product but rather a ‘process’. Ideally, neither culture nor identity is, and ought not to become, a finished product. The two elements are in constant evolution, and in a constant state of flux and it would be highly questionable if we were to consider a form of our cultural identity, at a given stage of our life, as the final and finished product. This has an important application for diaspora communities.

The reason I want to talk about cultural identity is that when we emigrate from our homeland to a second, or sometimes to a third or even fourth country, we also carry with us certain elements that compete to define our identity. These elements may be rooted in culture, language, gender, religion, financial or social status. Individually as well as collectively, they constantly attempt to dominate us, even in the countries to which we have emigrated.

Here, it is important to note that the sovereign power of the cultural identities we have carried with us from Afghanistan is far greater and stronger in Afghanistan than in the diasporic context, such as here in the British society. The reason for that is that these identities have not been born or nurtured in this society but back in our homeland in Afghanistan. So the cultural identity with which we lived in Afghanistan is now in the process of further evolution. Even if we try to resist, further changes to our cultural identity are inevitable. You have no choice but to learn English, for example. Learning English will open your eyes to a new world, from which you will happily adopt many positive values, or values that you view as positive for yourself. This will change your view of who you are and consequently this will bring change to your cultural identity. The point that I want to make here is that ‘cultural identity’ is not a finished product. We should never think of it as a completed product or a static phenomenon which cannot be amended or changed. Cultural identity is a process of constant transformation.

Frankly, most of the time I ask myself: ‘who am I?’ My identity changes from time to time. Whenever I have a better understanding of myself, a better understanding of the society in which I live, a better understanding of the research project I am undertaking, a better understanding of my past, and a better understanding of my future, my identity also changes at that time. This leads me to point out the risk of viewing cultural identity as a finished product. I name this risk simply as ideology.

The question is what risk is involved in ideology as compared to culture. Without going into detail, I will try to explain it briefly here. It is important to note that each of us has two antagonistic forces inside us: one is peaceful and knowledge seeking, the other one is aggressive and violence seeking. This aggressive tendency is latent within us. Whenever we slow down or stop the peaceful, knowledge seeking force in ourselves, we wake up the aggressive, violent seeking force. When this force is roused, it tries to become our master.

This aggressive and antagonistic power has the potential to become our master – a master that would create its own reality and identity, and present it to us as an ideology. The nature of this ideology relates to the nature of each person. For example, if someone is a money-lover, this ideology will develop in him a money-seeking identity. Someone who is aggressive, will find an aggressive identity created in him. If someone is a religious person, it will surround him with all the religious ideologies that suit his needs. Similarly, if someone has a secular nature, it will remove all forms of religious identities from him so he can find his comfort in a secular ideology and identity.

Regardless whether it is political, religious, or cultural, an ideology is able to dominate us only when we do not have knowledge of the substance which sustains it. We can neutralize an ideology when we know its roots. Therefore, whenever we come to understand the roots of an ideology, that ideology is no longer able to dominate us. Thus, what I want to highlight here is that the cultural identity which we carry with us has the ability to turn inside us into an ideology. If this happens, then we will have a lopsided balance in our life. For example, we develop negative bias towards daughters, but we treat our sons with a positive bias. The same is true in our behaviour towards our sisters and brothers, and towards women and men in society. We treat people in accordance with their gender, geographical, linguistic and religious backgrounds. We behave in this manner because it is the power of ideology, as opposed to intellect and knowledge, which dominates us. That is why I want to caution you about the risk of viewing your cultural identity as a finished product. If you treat it as a finished product, your cultural identity can become an ideology which chains your hands and feet.


Knowledge society

There are many different views of what may constitute a knowledge society. In simple words, the term refers to a society in which knowledge and information are produced, shared, and utilized at a mass level. The creation of such a society appears to have been a utopian concept at least a couple of centuries ago.

Retrospectively, the industrial revolution in Europe, mass manufacturing of paper and the invention of the industrial printing press in the second half of the nineteenth century have changed the world in many different ways. The spread of printing technology facilitated the increased dissemination and use of scientific knowledge and information, and created a significant rupture with the traditional perception and dissemination of knowledge.

The twentieth century has significantly developed the scientific achievements of the nineteenth century and flooded the world with many new inventions. While we could come up with an enormous list of modern scientific and technological innovations and achievements, I am only going to mention two of them, which have revolutionized our world and are related to our discussion of the diaspora and knowledge societies in making: communication and printing technology. These two technologies have completely changed our perception of, access to, and dissemination, of knowledge.

Modern print and communication technologies are among the most important pillars of our modern world and knowledge societies. They have revolutionized our world to the extent that is hard for any of us to imagine going for half a day without access to modern information and communication technologies. For example, it is impossible to live in this modern world and actively participate in the production and dissemination of knowledge without having access to a computer, the internet, and mobile phones.

Before continuing our debate about modern technology and its impact on the creation of knowledge society, I would like to invite your attention to how modern print technology has changed our life and eased our access to knowledge. Imagine you live in pre-industrial revolution times, in the 17th century, for example. Which country you live in makes little difference. You need to have a copy of a book. The book is not available in the market. Apparently, you need to order it. So in the pre-industrial revolution times, it was customary to ask a copyist or khattat to provide you with a handwritten manuscript of the book you need. The fastest copyist would need about a month to copy a book the size of the holy Qur’an. The speed would also depend on whether a book included figures, illustrations and decorations, or just text. A copyist who had to look after his family and who had other professional activities would need several months to copy out the book. It was not surprising that in small towns and villages, the process might have taken up to a year.

Obviously, not everyone could have the luxury of ordering such personal copies. Ordinary seekers of knowledge could hardly dream of ordering a personal copy of a book due to the cost involved. In his Translating the Qur’an in an Age of Nationalism, M. Brett Wilson has an interesting chapter on this topic. He states that in the Ottoman period, for example, the book would cost the equivalent of days salary of a skilled labourer (2014, p. 31). Comparing it to our time, if the average wage of a skilled worker in the modern-day United Kingdom, for example, is be ca. £15 an hour or £120 a day, to have a book copied would cost around £1,200. Today, we pay much less. If Routledge publishes an academic book, an average price is £70 for a hardcover and £30 for a paperback. Obviously, reference books, such as handbooks and encyclopaedias are pricey for individual scholars even today. However, there are plenty of second-hand books at affordable prices. You can also read and access an enormous number of books at your university and other libraries. So our access to books and sources of knowledge is much wider today, and books are more affordable than in the past.

Advancements in modern technology have transformed access to sources of knowledge even further. The technological revolution in the second half of the twentieth century has made knowledge dissemination independent of the printing press. Digital technology has significantly facilitated knowledge dissemination and information sharing across the world. In the past, people had to wait for knowledge and information to be shared with them, either through handwritten copies or by means of a printing press. Due to the technological revolution, knowledge dissemination today stands ahead of people. This means that knowledge waits for us and not vice versa and people can no longer keep up with the pace and quantity of knowledge. Such high speed knowledge production and dissemination also bring their own risk.


The risk I am referring to is manifold. People tend to be better informed, but not necessarily more knowledgeable. Information is not always knowledge. Information needs to be processed and transformed into knowledge, and knowledge needs to be managed and its credibility checked. Modern technology also poses another serious challenge to the nature and quality of knowledge and information being shared. Today, we access the world of information from wherever we are, be it our bedroom, on the street, in a café, restaurant, school, university, office, or on a journey by car, train or airplane. While the availability of a large quantity of information encourages people to read more, it also puts pressure on people, particularly on students, to read faster. This brings about the risk of not thinking in-depth enough, but the creation of a true knowledge society requires in-depth thinking. Quantity is important but it ought not to be a substitute for quality, particularly with regard to thinking. Therefore, a knowledge society is not necessarily a society in which people have a wide access to, and/or share a large sum of, information. Rather, in a knowledge society people use information and process it with all the available tools and means of critical thinking. Without thinking there is no knowledge and knowledge without critical examination does not stand the test of time.


Another point that I would like to bring to your attention concerns the future. In the field of historiography, we divide the past into the remote and near past. Similarly, we divide the future into the remote and near future. Here, I would like you to remember that the fast pace of current technological progress has created a new revolution, which I call it time revolution (enqilab-e zaman). Literally, we live in the age of time revolution.


What does time revolution do? It shortens the distance between the near and remote future. I give you an example, when I was student in the former Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, we used to write letters and send them home by air mail. It would take a month for my letter to reach my parents and the same amount of time for their letter to reach me. If this letter had to be sent to a remote part of Afghanistan, such as Badakhshan, Badghis or Helmand, it would take at least three months. Today, this timespan of one to three months has been shortened to a fraction of a second. We send our letters and messages through emails, and we communicate through mobile phones and internet. So it means that there is almost no time distance between the near future and present time. Similarly, if, a couple of centuries ago, you had to journey from let us say Balkh in northern Afghanistan to Mecca in the Hijaz in Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage, the trip would take several months. Today, you need a couple of hours only. And if you wanted to travel from Balkh to, let us say, Vancouver in the western part of Canada, you would drop the idea altogether, not because it was impossible, but because it was almost impossible. Today, you need just a few hours to reach your destination. This contraction of time has become possible because of the advances made by science and modern technology. The time revolution continues and technological advances will shorten the time distance much further. So a key question that lies ahead of all of us is not how we shall preserve traditions and values we have been carrying, but how to preserve our future. It is the future that matters. It is the time that has not yet arrived that matters.


The preservation of the future neither annihilates nor makes the past meaningless. On the contrary, the preservation of the future automatically preserves the past with all its values. What happens is that we change our orientation from the past to the future. In this change of orientation, we do not forget our values, our cultural identity and all the positive elements that have helped us to withstand the test of time and succeed despite all the odds. Rather we change orientation from thinking about the past to thinking about the future. It is this thinking that matters in preserving the future and the values of the past. Therefore, a knowledge society is neither a given nor a finished product. It is a society that is in constant state of flux. It is a future-orientated, outward-looking and progressive society that is founded on the basis of knowledge, the validity of which has to be tested by the tools of modern critical thinking. If we manage to understand, preserve and safeguard our future, we automatically understand and preserve our past. The past is not lost. The past lives on in the future and the future lives in the past. Today was a future yesterday but by tomorrow it is the past, whereas our tomorrow is the past the day after tomorrow.


To conclude, the diaspora and a knowledge society offer communal opportunities for all without regard to our ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds and differences. At the same time they pose individual challenges for all members of society. The modern future is a future of cultural diversity, a celebration of human pluralism and of scientific achievements. However, there the tragedy of failure also lurks ahead of us. This failure is caused by misunderstanding, and a lack of understanding of our past, present and future; it is a tragedy caused by our becoming inward-looking, retrogressive, and by allowing our aggressive and violence-seeking forces to dominate and master us, creating an ideology of exclusiveness, radicalism and extremism. It is our stance today towards the future that determines our present and future, and preserves our past.


There is only one answer to all our challenges in the present time and in the future, that is, acquiring, producing and sharing knowledge. This requires constant and continuous intellectual endeavour from every individual. It is a struggle between us and our conscious individual efforts to become our own master, and to master the antagonistic power that lies deep inside us waiting for us to be off guard so it can present itself as our new master and create various forms of ideologies, according to the nature of our individual psyche.


Today, you students are the new forces and sources of change and knowledge. It is only by constantly acquiring, updating and refreshing your knowledge that you can create and keep a knowledge society in a constant stage of advancement.


Note: I would like to thank my friend and colleague, Russell Harris, researcher and editor at The Institute of Ismaili Studies, for editing and proofreading this transcript.


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