Afghanistan’s academic community finds welcome at Pitt


Pitt’s new Afghanistan Project has already become a home for one scholar whose family fled the current turmoil in that country; recently welcomed a new Afghan student stranded in the U.S. during her Fulbright Scholarship study; and is hoping to bring that student’s father, a prominent political scientist, to Pitt — since he has just been released from jail under the Taliban.

Jennifer MurtazashviliJennifer Murtazashvili, a Graduate School of Public and International Affairs faculty member and head of its Center for Governance and Markets, is leading the Afghanistan Project and has years of experience working with academics in that country.

“We see this as a place to resettle the academic community,” she says of the new Pitt effort. “I see this as a preservation project.”

Project scholars will mostly concentrate on research concerning government policy. “We’re going to create a platform for these scholars,” she says, including podcasts, videos and published articles. “I don’t think this is really to influence the Taliban (directly); this is to influence the Afghan people. I have many friends who chose to stay and feel they can have an influence from within. This is a conversation we will have with other academics.

“Foremost this is about preservation of the (academic) community, so that people can continue their work,” she says. The project will work with scholars in Afghanistan as well.

In her 16 years of visiting Afghanistan, “I have seen this community thrive and do amazing things,” Murtazashvili says. “There was freedom of speech in Afghanistan, probably more than any other country in the region,” and the scholarly community there “leapfrogged over neighboring communities in a very short time.”

Yet they found much to criticize and much that needed improvement in various Afghanistan governments, including those backed by American forces.

The project’s first scholar, Omar Sadr, who arrived in August, has long been studying his country’s constitutional history and writing about Afghanistan’s efforts to construct a homogeneous state based on Afghan ethnicity “at the cost of national diversity in Afghanistan,” he says. “I tried to create an alternative perspective,” pushing for constitutional reform toward a more decentralized state, with more decision-making for local governments.

He is now involved in a Center for Governance and Markets program that studies and advocates for “modus vivendi” governance systems, “which support the conditions for ‘live and let live’ social orders” in societies composed of many ethnic groups and thus many different ideas and values, according to its website.

“My desire is to remain a thinker, to remain a writer” — to remain the scholar he was at the American University of Afghanistan, Sadr says. He is aiming for “enlightenment of the people” to make positive change toward democracy, but stresses that he is still, at base, trying to continue his scholarly pursuits.

“He was actually the impetus for this project,” Murtazashvili says. “I was very worried about him because there was this targeted assassination campaign against scholars in Afghanistan. I reached out to Omar and said ‘Can we help you?’ He was getting threats from both the Taliban and the (previous) government — the government (the United States) supported.

“It planted the seed — we can do this for more people. I thought about how much these scholars are losing. … These are Afghanistan’s best and brightest we’re getting here in Pittsburgh. So these scholars could be successful doing a number of things. But I thought it would be absolutely tragic if they lost the ability to do what they love. And I knew if the same thing happened to me, the people of Afghanistan would do even more.”

Omar SadrShe plans to work with Sadr to examine pluralism and peaceful coexistence of Afghanistan groups at different points in history.

The Afghanistan Project’s new student is Hasina Jalal. “We’re really happy to have her; she’s really talented,” Murtazashvili says. But being unable to return to Afghanistan “really illustrates the work that we are doing and the trauma the people bring with them. She comes from a very prominent family. Her mother was the first woman to run for president of Afghanistan” in 2004. Her father, Faizullah Jalal, has been an outspoken critic of every government, from the Soviets and Americans to the Taliban. Hasina Jalal will be looking at issues of state-building and will likely continue to look at gender issues here, Murtazashvili says.

In fact, most project scholars will have a policy focus, but not all will be academics, she explains, with some coming from think-tanks. It will be open to non-Ph.D.s as well, she says. Right now the Afghanistan Project has secured support to bring in two more scholars from Afghanistan, but she can’t say who they are. She is trying to secure visas to get them to other countries and then here.

“The Taliban is not actually stopping people from leaving,” she says. “It’s that nobody wants them,” fearing the scholars are refugees. “That’s the question I’m getting — ‘Are these people going to leave if we let them in?’ ”

In the meantime, the project will aim to get information into Afghanistan, since the Taliban is not yet censoring the internet, and there is still digital access in cities.

“People are censoring themselves but they can download anything,” she says. “The program is going to present alternatives and continue the kind of work (scholars) were doing in Kabul before they left.”

The project also will be raising more funds to sponsor more scholars here. “Universities were not created for crisis response,” Murtazashvili says, “and I’m really pleased how the University has responded to this.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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