Afghan religious ministry rules out Taliban version of 'vice squad'

Kabul, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's government has defended its moves to reestablish a "vice and virtue" unit that became notorious under Taliban rule, saying that it is necessary to counter anti-government propaganda and will anyway be vastly different to its much-reviled predecessor.

Departments for the "Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice" exist in many Muslim countries as these governments have a duty to promote Islamic values, deputy religious affairs minister Sulaiman Hamid said.

But it was only the Taliban, in government from 1996 to 2001, that used religious police to patrol the streets and enforce the extremists' strict moral code through brute force, he said in an interview.

"It was the Taliban who presented vice and virtue as a brutal and hated department," said Hamid, whose ministry will establish the new unit. "But in reality it is only a means of inviting Muslims to do good and advise them to avoid sins. Remember, it is an invitation to good not torture," said the deputy minister, who is also an advisor to President Hamid Karzai.

Parliament is expected to endorse the creation of the department this month after it was approved by the cabinet in the past weeks.

The move has met with concern from rights groups and analysts with memories still fresh of the Taliban's loathed religious police.

The men would whip women who ventured out of their homes without a male relative or men who trimmed their beards or did not pray in a mosque five times a day.

They also carried out punishments for violations of a strict version of Islamic Sharia law, such as amputations for theft or encouraging the public to stone to death convicted adulterers.

Through this brutish behavior the Taliban had violated the values of their own religion, which they claimed to be practicing in its purist form, Hamid said.

To preach morality is obligatory in Islam and the responsibility of every Islamic government. But to implement it using force and cruelty as the Taliban had done is "unIslamic," he said.

"As murder is forbidden in Islam, so is to attack an individuals' integrity, honor," he said. "There is no example of beatings and dishonoring people on the streets anywhere in the over 1 billion Muslim population on Earth but under Taliban," he said.

Unlike its predecessor, the new department will have no force to patrol the streets looking for violators but will merely promote Islamic values via mosques and media, Hamid said.

It "will only have the authority of preaching good behavior and will not have lashes to beat people like the one under Taliban."

It would encourage virtues such as prayer, charity, and respect of elders and parents. And it would speak against "sins" such as adultery, murder, theft, and using alcohol - which is banned for Afghans although available to foreign nationals.

The Taliban regime was toppled in late 2001 by a US-led coalition because it did not surrender Al Qaeda leaders for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The extremists are now waging a determined insurgency that relies on propaganda as much as it does guerrilla-style attacks.

One of their attempts to win support among deeply devout Afghans is saying that the country has been invaded by "infidels" and the internationally supported government is a stooge of the West that has no respect for Islamic Sharia law.

This includes by not having a vice and virtue department.

The government's move to reestablish the department was prompted by these opposition tactics, Hamid said.

"Religious scholars, realizing the sensitivity of the present situation and the opposition's propaganda that, 'What sort of Islamic government is this with no vice and virtue?' - they asked the president for its creation," he said.

The move has nonetheless raised some concern, including because the boundaries of the new department have not been made clear.

Legislator Ahmad Behzad said this week that there was no need for such a unit, with the promotion of Islamic values part of everyday culture. Some religious "circles are trying to lead Afghanistan toward Talibanization," he said.