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20 years after 9/11

Mohsen Makhmalbaf warns of extremists

Iranian filmmaker worries over fate of journalists and artists stuck in Afghanistan

Mohsen Makhmalba: director, novelist, human rights activist.   © Makhmalbaf Film House

TOKYO -- Filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf was once a guerrilla in his native Iran before trading his gun for a camera. He later defected from the country, where film and other artistic expression are subject to strict censorship by the Islamic theocracy. Since then the director has been a fervent antiwar supporter with unshakable faith in democracy.

Nikkei interviewed Makhmalbaf about his thoughts regarding changes in Afghanistan since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the U.S. The following is an edited version of the interview in his own words.

"About a year before Sept. 11, I shot "Kandahar," which is set in Afghanistan during Taliban rule. I wanted to show the world the suffering of Afghans under the oppressive rule of the Muslim fundamentalist group. Now, the Taliban could throw the whole world -- not just Afghanistan -- into chaos. I wonder if the international community has become oblivious to terrorism in recent years.

During the two decades since the 911 attacks, when Afghanistan drew much more international attention than before, there have been major changes in the country. Women have not been forced to wear a burka and are now allowed to go to school. There has been notable progress toward political gender equality and democracy. The news media have enjoyed greater freedom than in my native Iran.

I have been supporting these positive trends. I have helped build many schools, including two for girls in Herat, a city in the northwestern part of the country. About 60,000 girls have studied at the schools. I have also devoted much effort to guiding filmmakers in the country. Some of the people I taught have gained international recognition in film and TV. The children of refugees in Iran without ID cards used to be ineligible to receive a formal education. But I successfully lobbied the Iranian government to change the law so that they can attend school. I have also helped open a medical center that offers free health care for refugees.

"Kandahar" exposes the Taliban's repression of women and the suffering Afghans have endured from countless land mines. (Screenshot from the movie)   © Makhmalbaf Film House

But the U.S. occupation policy in Afghanistan was flawed. Washington adopted the wrong approach, for instance, toward a long-standing border issue with Pakistan. For years, Afghanistan has coveted regions where ethnic Pashtuns live, demanding that they and their land become part of Afghanistan. The Taliban, mostly comprised of Pashtun tribesmen trained in Pakistan -- something the Pakistan government denies -- has provided Islamabad a convenient reason to shelve the border issue. Not only the U.S. but the entire international community should seriously look at this issue.

The rule from Kabul hardly suited the rest of the country, which is multiethnic and mostly tribal. After years of civil war, people in Afghanistan are not inclined to help others outside their own ethnic identities. A federal body based on regional governments representing different ethnic areas -- with each locality having its own army -- would have been a better bulwark against the Taliban's expansion. The abrupt and chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces flies in the face of reason. It will be a boon not just for the Taliban but also for other Muslim extremist groups, including the Islamic State.

The U.S. has also failed to nurture domestic industries in Afghanistan. Many young Afghans have left the country as refugees. Those who remained were often tempted to join terrorist organizations just to survive. If factories and businesses had been built to lure back Afghan refugees, the country's economy would have been invigorated.

It is wrong to fear Islam. Many people who were born into Islamic families believe in democracy. Many women from Islamic families do not even wear a scarf. The real scourge is fundamentalists who believe theirs is the only truth. Remember that Stalin of the Soviet Union and Pol Pot of Cambodia killed countless people.

In a society where ignorance and poverty are rampant, people can easily succumb to ideological viruses. I myself am a good example. As I grew up in poverty, I became a warrior for the Islamic Revolution when I was a teenager. I was imprisoned for attacking a police officer. My fellow inmates were people obsessed with ideologies like communism, and each was a violent autocrat.

After the Iranian Revolution, ideologists took over but they could not solve the country's social problems. I read many books to rid my head of their ideologies. I used to believe that all problems would evaporate if a dictator was assassinated. But the true enemy is ignorance. I exchanged my weapons for cameras and started shooting films to shed light into the dark corners of our minds.

If books had rained on people in Afghanistan instead of bombs [and] if wheat had been sowed instead of land mines, the people would not have suffered so badly. What I said in my acceptance speech for UNESCO's Federico Fellini Honor in October 2001 is still relevant.

Now, Afghan journalists and filmmakers who have criticized the Taliban are facing death. Some have fled the country with the help of various organizations, but many are still trapped. I hope the international community helpa to save their lives."

Mohsen Makhmalbaf is a film director who was born in Tehran in 1957. His most important works include "Gabbeh," "A Moment of Innocence" and "Kandahar." He is also a novelist and human rights activist.

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