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Social scientists attached to the Second Marine Battalion in Afghanistan last year circulated a startling report on Pashtun sociology, in the form of a human terrain report on male sexuality among America’s Afghan allies. The document, made available by military sources, is not classified, just disturbing. Don’t ask, don’t tell doesn’t begin to qualify the problem. These are things you didn’t want to know, and regret having heard. The marines got their money’s worth from their Human Terrain adjunctames, but the report might have considered whether male pedophilia in Afghanistan has a religious dimension as well as a cultural one. I will explain why below.
Most Pashtun men, Human Terrain Team AF-6 reports, engage in sex with men – boys – in fact, the vast majority of their sexual contacts are with males. “A culturally contrived homosexuality [significantly not termed as such by its practitioners] appears to affect a far greater population base then some researchers would argue is attributable to natural inclination. Some of its root causes lie in the severe segregation of women, the prohibitive cost of marriage within Pashtun tribal codes, and the depressed economic situation into which young Pashtun men are placed.”
The human terrain team responded to scandalous interactions between Pashtun fighters and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops, some reported with hilarity by the media. An article in the Scotsman of May 24, 2002, reported, for example: “In Bagram, British marines returning from an operation deep in the Afghan mountains spoke last night of an alarming new threat – being propositioned by swarms of gay local farmers. An Arbroath marine, James Fletcher, said: ‘They were more terrifying than the al-Qaeda. One bloke who had painted toenails was offering to paint ours. They go about hand in hand, mincing around the village.’ While the marines failed to find any al-Qaeda during the seven-day Operation Condor, they were propositioned by dozens of men in villages the troops were ordered to search.”
Another interviewee in the article, a marine in his 20s, stated, “It was hell. Every village we went into we got a group of men wearing makeup coming up, stroking our hair and cheeks and making kissing noises.”
The trouble, the researchers surmise, is “Pashtun society’s extremely limited access to women,” citing a Los Angeles Times interview with a young Pashtun identified as Daud. He only has sex with men, explaining: “I like boys, but I like girls better. It’s just that we can’t see the women to see if they are beautiful. But we can see the boys, and so we can tell which of them is beautiful.”
Many of the Pashtuns interviewed allow “that homosexuality is indeed prohibited within Islam, warranting great shame and condemnation. However, homosexuality is then narrowly and specifically defined as the love of another man. Loving a man would therefore be unacceptable and a major sin within this cultural interpretation of Islam, but using another man for sexual gratification would be regarded as a foible -undesirable but far preferable to sex with a ineligible woman, which in the context of Pashtun honor, would likely result in issues of revenge and honor killings.”
How prevalent are homosexual relations among Pashtuns? The researchers note that “medics treated an outbreak of gonorrhea among the local national interpreters on their camp. Approximately 12 of the nearly 20 young male interpreters present in the camp had contracted the disease, and most had done so anally. This is a merely anecdotal observation and far too small of a sample size to make any generalizations regarding the actual prevalence of homosexual activity region-wide. However, given the difficulty in procuring such data, it may serve as some indicator.”
Through Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 novel The Kite Runner, Western audiences caught a glimpse of what the military team calls “an openly celebrated cultural tradition. Kandahar’s long artistic and poetic tradition idolizes the pre-pubescent ‘beardless boy’ as the icon of physical beauty. Further, even the newly re-emerging musical nightlife of southern Afghan cities idolizes pre-pubescent boy performers, whose star status lasts only as long as their voices remain immature.”
“Kandahar’s Pashtuns have been notorious for their homosexuality for centuries, particularly their fondness for naive young boys. Before the Taliban arrived in 1994, the streets were filled with teenagers and their sugar daddies, flaunting their relationship. It is called the homosexual capital of South Asia. Such is the Pashtun obsession with sodomy – locals tell you that birds fly over the city using only one wing, the other covering their posterior – that the rape of young boys by warlords was one of the key factors in Mullah Omar mobilizing the Taliban,” the report adds.
Although the Taliban discouraged open display, it “should not be viewed as free of the culture and tradition of homosexuality of the Pashtun world of which it is a part” the authors add.
“Men who take on a halekon [young male lover] often attempt to integrate the boy into their families by marrying him to a daughter when the boy is no longer young enough to play the ‘beardless’ role. This maintains the love relationship between the father and son-in-law which inevitably makes difficult the establishment of a normal relationship with the wife,” the human terrain Team explains.
The team’s results are striking, but they place too much emphasis on the weirdness of Pashtun tradition and give too little attention to the broader role of homosexuality in Islamic (and especially Sufi) culture. What scholars now consider the Golden Age of Islamic love poetry, the Persian high middle ages, made homosexual pederasty the normative mode of love. While Petrarch wrote sonnets to Laura and Dante longed for Beatrice, their counterparts in the canon of Islamic poetry, Hafez and Rumi, wrote of their infatuation with young boys.
Afghanistan’s own Sufi poet was the 17th-century bard Abdul Rahman Baba, of whom little is known except that he is said to have eloped with a young boy named Mujnoon. He is generally portrayed as a premature flower-child dedicated to peace and love; that must be what the Taliban thought as well, for they placed a bomb in his tomb in March 2009. According to the limited available criticism of Rahman’s work, his Pashto poems are closely related to the Persian style of Rumi.
The prevalence of homosexual pedophilia in classical Islamic poetry, Persian as well as Pashto, suggests that the human terrain team may have missed an important dimension, namely the religious. In a study entitled Sufism, Sodomy and Satan published in this space August 12, 2008, I argued:
Sufi pedophilia cannot be dismissed as a remnant of the old tribal practices that Islam often incorporated, for example, female genital mutilation. Genital mutilation is a pre-Islamic practice unknown in the ancient and modern West. Even though some Muslim authorities defend it on the basis of Hadith, no one has ever claimed that it offered a path to enlightenment. Sadly, pedophiles are found almost everywhere. In its ascendancy, Sufism made a definitive spiritual experience out of a practice considered criminally aberrant in the West. But pederasty as a spiritual exercise is not essentially different in character from the furtive practices of Western perverts. As the psychiatrists explain, pederasty is an expression of narcissism, the love of an idealized youthful self-image.
All forms of contemplative mysticism involve the danger that the object of adoration into which one dissolves might turn out to be one’s self. It sounds well and good to seek God in the all, that is, no place in particular. The trouble is that if one tries to dissolve one’s self into the all, one’s self becomes part of the all. The lover cannot distinguish himself from the all. The self and the all are the same, and one loves one’s self. There is no other in Sufism, only your own ego staring back in the carnival mirror of mysticism. The adept does not worship a God who is wholly other – YHWH of the Hebrew Bible or Jesus of the Gospels – but a younger and prettier version of himself. In that respect, pedophilia in Afghanistan may have a distinctly religious motivation.