Nostradamus in Kabul

Baba Vanga, a Bulgarian clairvoyant and blind prophet of doom, has inadvertently closed down Payman – Afghanistan’s most respected newspaper – from beyond the grave.

How did this happen? According to the newspaper, the rumour trail points to the Afghan president as the main driver behind the threats that ultimately led to its closure. The shutdown came after Payman mistakenly published a “blasphemous” article called “Prediction of the Third World War” – the story of Bulgarian visionary Baba Vanga, her dramatic life and her dystopian vision of a nuclear war.

The offending article was apparently published by mistake. It had a title strikingly similar to the one the paper had intended to publish: “Will There Be a Third World War?” An easy mistake in the age of internet journalism. The former had blasphemous content, the latter was harmless, but Payman was unlucky and published the wrong one. Its editors were quick to spot the mistake and immediately apologise for its publication.

“We are in the business of journalism where such mistakes are common,” they explained in a public letter of apology to the country’s religious scholars. “A review of the paper’s past content shows that the paper has consistently respected Islam and the public’s religious sentiments,” they said. It was a mistake; we’re aware of it and we apologise, they repeated. But to no avail. The paper’s headquarters was raided and the Supreme Court ordered the collective arrest of Payman’s journalists. They were released hours later but their colleague, the news editor, remained in custody for 10 days.

The cause of the fuss was a blasphemous paragraph introducing the article. It said world religions have no evidence to prove their vision of the afterlife, leaving the question of humanity’s origins and the hereafter an unsolved mystery. In other words, it suggested that the prophets were liars.

Immediately after publication, Payman said the article’s content was unacceptable and apologised for its mistake – but to no avail. According to the paper, a rumour is making the rounds, pointing the finger of blame at President Karzai. The president, rumour has it, has had enough of Payman’s constant criticism of his administration and in the mistaken publication of the article, he saw a convenient opportunity to silence it for good.

Payman was an outspoken critic of Karzai. The paper made no secret of its view that his constant vilification of Pakistan was a ploy to distract from the multiple failures of his administration. When reports announced that the war on terror was to spread to Pakistan in 2008, a policy much favoured by Karzai, Payman warned Kabul not to meddle with Pakistan because if provoked, Islamabad could retaliate. Karzai dismissed such fears, assuring the public that the Afghan army was capable of defending its borders. Karzai’s reassurance left Payman sniggering: “How can a government that can’t even ensure security in the capital defend the country’s distant borders?” The paper was proved right when insurgents attacked the justice and education ministries at the heart of Kabul last week. The war on terror has extended to Pakistan but Kabul is no longer safe. Payman was right, and Karzai wrong.

The story of Baba Vanga and her accidental entanglement with Payman’s closure is sad and ironic. Payman was the exact opposite of Baba Vanga. The blind Bulgarian had visions; the Afghan paper had facts. The clairvoyant foresaw a nuclear war between Muslims and Christians; the Afghan paper discussed Krishnamurti’s teaching alongside ethnical philosophy and religious pluralism. Baba Vanga was more in tune with old Afghanistan, where political careers were made on myths like the one about Mullah Omar pulling his own eye out when he was injured.

Payman, by contrast, was all about contemporary, urban Afghanistan, a place where investigative journalism has in recent years led to a demystification of politics, separating facts from fabrication, truth from fancy. Payman published articles that carried titles like “How to avoid stupid beliefs”.

The likeable Baba, on the other hand, believed that in 2111 mankind would become robots. And yet it was the mistaken publication of Baba Vanga’s story that led to the closure of Afghanistan’s most intellectually open-minded and unbiased newspaper. In this incidental clash of Afghan rationalism versus Bulgarian supernaturalism, Afghans are very much the losers. Payman served an important public service in a country where religious sentiment has been politicized to a point that Islam has become a source of conflict instead of unity. (Consider the irony of the Taliban waging jihad against the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”).

Payman provided much-needed religious edification by publishing academic but easy-to-understand articles about religion so that its readers, armed with reason, would not fall victim to militant religious fundamentalism. Unfortunately for President Karzai, militant fundamentalism has turned out to be a much more serious threat to his administration than the paper he allegedly forced to shut down.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/19/afghanistan-middleeast

http://www.webfactorybulgaria.com

 

 

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