Book Feature Friday: Making Friends among the Taliban: A Peacemaker’s Journey in Afghanistan

The Taliban. Just the name evokes intense emotions of anger and hatred because, for many in the West, the Taliban is known for one thing: terrorism.

Making Friends among the Taliban book coverHow should Christians react to the Taliban? Sometimes the words of Jesus seem like too much to ask. But sometimes I think they are the only hope for our violent world:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:43-44)

Jesus calls us to love our enemies in the same way he loved his. But it begs the questions: how can we love the Taliban when they are just so…awful? How can we love terrorists when violence seems to be spreading out of control? Isn’t the “love you enemy” ethic just plain crazy? Or does it provide the only hope for peace and reconciliation?

Making Friends with Crazy

Dan Terry (Photo: Reuters)

Dan Terry (Photo: Reuters)

Let’s look to the inspirational example of Dan Terry. His story is told in his biography Making Friends among the Taliban: A Peacemaker’s Journey in Afghanistan, written by Jonathan Larson. Dan was driven by his Christian faith to live in Afghanistan as a peacemaker. You might think that his religious identity would be a deterrent to building peaceful relationships with the Taliban, but that was not the case. “Dan was nothing if not a spiritually rooted and persuaded Christian, but that proved no hindrance to finding his place in a deeply Muslim society.” Far from accusing him of being an evil infidel, high-ranking members of the Taliban became friends with Dan and promised him safety as he journeyed throughout Afghanistan’s backcountry.

Dan’s Afghan friends had two nicknames for him. The first was his Afghan name, Dantri. The second was a bit more colorful: Pagal, which means Crazy. Indeed, “Sometimes people thought Dan was slightly unhinged, because he insisted on the good in all people, often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

Dan had intuited something incredibly important about human nature. When it comes to violence and peace, humans are mimetic. Without realizing it, we instinctively imitate the violence against us, but we also instinctively imitate peaceful actions. Dan’s story reveals the mimetic aspect of human nature and the power of love to transform violence. Once a visiting minister asked Dan how Christians should pray for the Afghan people. Dan responded, “What I can tell you is this. It must be with great love. Above all, we must love them.”

An Unlikely Love

Dan with his friends in the Taliban -- to his right, a man who'd tried to stab him several months before. (Photo: The Terry family -- www.gbgm-umc.org)

Dan with his friends in the Taliban — to his right, a man who’d tried to stab him several months before. (Photo: The Terry family — www.gbgm-umc.org)

It was that radical love that made Dan friends with nearly everyone he met – even those who sought to persecute him. He was frequently captured by Taliban commanders, yet Larson writes that Dan was convinced “it was possible to conduct reasonable discussions … with the Taliban when differences or difficulties arose.” Dan was once captured while traveling in the Afghan backcountry. The hostile commander who captured him thought he could extort money from him; but Dan had nothing to give. As the hours passed, Dan remained calm and friendly to his captor. Soon, his captor imitated Dan’s peaceful spirit. “They ate together and drank tea as conversation and camaraderie flowered. In time, it dawned on the captor that a strange friendship had sprung between him and his oddly warm hostage.”

Dan’s strange friendship with the Taliban continued to grow. He never carried a weapon to protect himself. He relied on love, kindness, and friendship. Dan “counted among his friends the Taliban commanders of his neighborhood, insisting that they were not the caricatures of evil portrayed in the West. Flint-like in his belief that there was something noble in each neighbor, Dan kept reaching for the humanity of each person he met.”

More Muslim than we Muslims?

One Afghan stated, “Dantri was more Afghan than we Afghans, and he was more Muslim than we Muslims.” According to this man, Dan was more Afghan than them because of his trustworthiness, loyalty, and sacred hospitality. What made him more Muslim? His Afghan friends claimed, “In the greatest commandments of our scripture–to practice humility; to be generous to widows, the orphans, and the poor; and to be selfless and persevering in the search for justice and peace–Dantri was more Muslim than we Muslims.” The mimetic aspect is obvious; Dan and his Muslim friends inspired and modeled for one another how to become more caring and compassionate. In the words of the Quran, “Good and evil cannot be equal; repel what is evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend.” (41:34)

Tragedy

After 30 years of working in Afghanistan, Dan tragically was killed along with a group of other humanitarian workers. They were ambushed and executed by 10 gunmen while delivering medical supplies to villages. Though there were investigations, the murders remain a mystery. The most prominent theory claims that the perpetrators likely were Pakistanis who didn’t know Dan. What we do know is that the Afghan Taliban, who we in the West think are quick to take responsibility for any act of terror, vehemently condemn the murder of their friend and deny any responsibility for the attack.

Still, Dan’s death could make us skeptical about his pursuit of friendship with the Taliban. We may accuse him of being foolish. Indeed, Dan’s life was filled with risk, but the alternative of war in Afghanistan has also been risky, and has only ensured a mimetic cycle of violence along with deeper enmity and distrust between our two nations.

Overcoming Stereotypes

Dan’s strange friendship among the Taliban gives me hope for humanity. Dan believed that the West and the Taliban have distorted images of each other that can only be reconciled through the pursuit of love and friendship. “If that is true,” writes Larson, “then the Taliban and Western societies, as well as diplomats, will need to surmount the caricatures that have been imprinted on the public mind–those cartoon-like distortions of each other that have served the cause of war but that now thwart any path toward lasting peace.”

Dan’s life was based on the crazy, infectious love that Jesus taught. After meeting Dan, some war-weary Afghans in the central highlands responded mimetically to Dan’s peaceful spirit by forming a society called the Hezb-i-Pagal: the Party of Crazies. “The sole condition of membership is a ‘mad’ pledge to seek the good of the community and to disavow fighting and corruption.” Today, the Hezb-i-Pagal is headquartered in a village just west of Kabul. The requirement for membership is to help construct community buildings, including schools, clinics and mosques.

Dan’s story is inspiring, but I’ll be honest, I’m not going to Afghanistan to befriend the Taliban any time soon. Sometimes we can think less of ourselves by comparing our lives to people like Dan. But that’s not the point. Rather, Dan is a model for all of us. His devotion to radical Christian love and commitment to friendship and reconciliation is an important example that can be practiced in our families, neighborhoods, work environment, and religious institutions. The love Dan showed is risky, but it is our hope for a more peaceful world.

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9 replies
  1. Andrew Marr
    Andrew Marr says:

    The way some people get around Jesus’ words is to say they indicate only individual morality, not social morality. Of course that means, since we are each members of society, that we don’t have to do it as individuals either because that would cause social problems & be bad for society.

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Excellent point, Andrew. A seminary prof of mine found another way. He said that there are times that in order to love our neighbor we will need to kill our enemies. I’m somewhat sympathetic to that view – everyone, including him, brought up the Hitler question. But I’d prefer to leave Jesus as a justification for that out of it – because that isn’t loving our neighbor/enemies in the way Jesus loved his.

      Reply
  2. Thomas Hostomsky
    Thomas Hostomsky says:

    I agree with Abbot Andrew. Lonergan was really onto this; it is what he called the “social surd.” Every sinful (un loving) thought and action we have contributes to this surd. Then, too, we are responsible for taking leadership to task, at the very least by voting. Also, by praying and by living more consciously ourselves.

    Reply
  3. John Morley
    John Morley says:

    Seems like a great peacemaker who must have had great faith. The world needs more like him. In the Uk we have great needs relating to peace and reconciliation at the moment. Maybe we all need to be more like him.

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Hi John. Thank you for the comment. It is such a hard thing to do – the book is clear that Dan had many character flaws that led to struggles with his commitment to friendships. I don’t know what to say in the face of the pain in your comment, and the need for peace and reconciliation in the UK, except that we are praying for you.

      Peace be with you, John.

      Adam

      Reply
  4. Tom Truby
    Tom Truby says:

    I suppose the sentence I found most helpful was this: “Dan had intuited something incredibly important about human nature. When it comes to violence and peace, humans are mimetic. Without realizing it, we instinctively imitate the violence against us, but we also instinctively imitate peaceful actions.” We have seen this same mirroring phenomena, both positive and negative, in Ferguson, Missouri this week.

    Reply
  5. Sheima Sumer
    Sheima Sumer says:

    Thank you so much for this absolutely amazing story! I just shared in on Facebook. I also found the quote that Tom Truby mentioned (in his comment) very fascinating and something we overlook but know instinctively.

    Reply
  6. Dale Oman
    Dale Oman says:

    I worked with Dan Terry in the same nongovernment organization in Afghanistan. Dan was sort of a ‘free spirit’ who didn’t always follow protocol. He had his faults but no one questioned his love for the Afghan people and his willingness to take risks to serve the ‘least.’ The world would be better off if there were more Dan Terrys.

    Reply

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