Afghan cleric takes Islamic battle to the airwaves

Kabul, Afghanistan - When the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, Sheikh Mohammad Asif Mohseni formed an Islamic force while in exile to fight alongside other holy warriors against the invaders.

But when the communist-backed regime collapsed, the victorious Mujahideen groups began a bloody power struggle, sparking a civil war that killed tens of thousands and he found himself trying to play peacemaker.

Now, the 75-year-old, silver-bearded Mohseni has another mission; this time to save Afghanistan's deeply conservative Islamic society from corruption by alien cultures.

Mohseni is launching a semi-Islamic television channel which does not focus exclusively on Islamic teachings. It will be Afghanistan's first such channel.

Called Tamadon, or "civilization", the network will go on air in a few months. It is the latest in a string of private channels springing up since the Taliban government fell in 2001.

But while some, especially newly returned refugees, welcome the explosion of choice -- there's even a racy MTV-style channel broadcasting from the United States -- others complain the Indian and Western music and programs are vulgar.

"I want to take part in civilizing my Muslim people in the 21st century and the direction (Muslims now) follow has a deviated from its path," he said.

"Our television is the tongue of the silent majority ... These people want bread, water, clothes; these people want knowledge, they do not want Indian culture to govern them," he added when asked if music will be included in his programming.

"The general beliefs of people are being ignored, people are betrayed, our history and culture is played with. We will talk about these to people in order to enable them to find their identity."

Tamadon will broadcast free-to-air 8 hours a day and include debates on improving the economy, education and the betterment of the younger generation, as well as scientific discussions.

"We are backward in all aspects. Economically, we are in the 16th or 17th century, but our televisions air ten times sexier films (than Western countries)," he said.

"This is a scandal and shame for us. We have a thousand calamities and should not be diverted ," Mohseni told Reuters in a cold room at a massive semi-Islamic university he is building in Kabul, called Khatim-ul Nabiyen.

A leading daily, Cheragh, also recently warned the government the foreign-influenced broadcasters and shows could justify the Taliban war against the Western-backed government.


Modestly spoken, Mohseni is a veteran Shi'ite scholar, viewed by some as Afghanistan's Khomeini, in reference to Iran's late Islamic revolutionary.

Because of his age, Mohseni uses a walking cane. He normally dresses in a tight white turban and a robe and is revered both by Shi'ites and Sunnis in mainly Sunni Afghanistan.

Every day, people come in droves to seek his advice on religious matters, disputes and for guidance.

He has spent $1 million setting up Tamadon from his own pocket and from donations. His university, due to be completed this year, will cost about $14 million by the time it is finished. Women as well as men are already studying there.

Mohseni has never served as a government official during the Mujahideen rule or the current administration, but the outspoken scholar has long wielded strong influence.

He completed his Islamic studies in Iraq as a young man and blames Western occupiers for the turmoil and sectarian killings there.

"This bloodshed, violence in Iraq ... has no link with Islam," he said. "The Westerners are behind these".