This story was published in the BU Bridge on June 3, 2005.
Prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, the world had turned a blind eye to the plight of war-torn Afghanistan. With such inaction, said Afghan President Hamid Karzai at BU’s 2005 Commencement, “we violate part of our humanity.”
Urging BU graduates as future leaders to stand up for human rights, Karzai asked them to question the prevailing notion of “national interest,” especially when it ignores human suffering.
“We must not stand by when we see the killing and terrorizing of the innocent,” he said at the May 22 ceremony. “We should not wait until hundreds and in some cases thousands of our fellow human beings have died, as occurred in Afghanistan, before we act.”
Karzai, who worked with the United States to overthrow the Taliban regime in his country and muster support for a new government after the 9/11 attacks, challenged the Class of 2005 to “discover how moral imperative must also drive our actions, even when there are no economic or political motives.” Pointing out the global effort to rebuild Afghanistan, Karzai said this “moral accomplishment” can serve as a model of what a “cooperation of civilizations” can bring about. “After all, it is our humanity that ultimately brings us together,” he said, “while the pursuit of narrow interests divides us all.”
Upon graduating from Shimla University in India 23 years ago, Karzai recalled, he had no home to return to because Afghanistan was under Soviet occupation. “From the university, I was ushered into the life of a refugee in a neighboring country, where I joined with my people in the struggle to liberate our country and build a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.”
Along with having a significant role in the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union, in 1987 Karzai helped BU form the Pakistan-based Afghan Media Project, which trained Afghani refugees in journalism so they could report on the war.
He reminded graduates that immediately after they began college, “agents of doom” brought terrorism to America. “However, terrorism in the world was not born on 9/11. In fact, for many years before September 2001, the terrorism that came to Afghanistan on the heels of invasion, interference, and violence took the lives of thousands of our people,” he said. “Regrettably, the world, the United States and other countries that have the power — and hence the responsibility — did not see it as compatible with their national interests in establishing control over Afghanistan, at the cost of horrible suffering for the Afghan people.”
Karzai said he believes that “a redefinition of the prevailing notion of national interest on the basis of fundamental moral premise is the way forward to our common future.”
He advised graduates that when they read about large numbers of people around the world beset by conflict, poverty, and hunger, they should “not let these numbers become abstractions to you. These are people, like you and I. They are families, friends; they have pain; they have grief. We must not turn away when we hear the cries of the hungry.”
He spoke of a person who did something about starvation on a large scale: singer Bob Geldof, who organized the Live Aid concert 20 years ago, raising $100 million for famine relief in Ethiopia. “His benevolence was not simply an act of charity, but a fundamental step to draw people from all corners of the world for the common cause of humanity,” he said. “In a different context, the coming together of the world is demonstrated in Afghanistan today, where people from more than 50 countries with different cultures and faiths, different religions, are working together to rebuild our country and uproot terrorism.”
The specter of terrorism that marked the beginning of the 2005 graduates’ college experience was still evident four years later: the U.S. Secret Service was in charge of security during Commencement, and students passed through metal detectors as they entered Nickerson Field. Nonetheless, the mood was celebratory — spirits were buoyed even further by the fact that although heavy rain had been forecast, it never came.
Karzai noted that Afghans are looking forward to electing their country’s parliament in September, and that after decades of stagnation and strife, Afghanistan is “taking steady steps toward a stable, prosperous, and progressive society.” He pointed out that his country still faces challenges: surging opium production fueling a drug economy, remnants of terrorism, and crime. “However, these will not surmount our resolve and the international commitment to succeed,” he said, noting that Afghanistan has a progressive constitution and a growing economy, and it is becoming a hub of trade in the region.
Karzai told the graduates not to wait for their governments to act on the suffering of others: “As individuals, we can make a difference as well.” Through our actions, he said, we can help snuff out the seeds of terrorism.
“Your values must continue to guide you,” he said, “as you embark on your new journey and assume greater responsibility. Our world will remain stratified and divided by exclusively narrowly defined interests unless you seek to build bridges of understanding and cooperation. Suffering in other parts of the world will continue to undermine your security and prosperity unless you seek to address it. Moral obligations to others will continue to be an afterthought unless you decide to reinvigorate our common humanity across our divisions.”
“As you commence a new beginning today,” Karzai concluded, “take with you my warmest congratulations. I urge you to fight poverty, to build bridges — in other words, to uphold our common humanity.”
Photo by Albert L’Etoile