Afghan lawmakers push cultural bans of Taliban era

Kabul, Afghanistan – Shafi Samandari thought the days of the Taliban would never come back. "I love listening to music and going to wedding parties," the Kabul resident says. "After the Taliban was toppled, I was sure that we could start living normally again."

The Taliban may not be returning anytime soon, but if some Afghan lawmakers have their way, Taliban-era laws will once again reign over the country. Last week, a group of members of parliament (MPs) put forth draft legislation that would ban T-shirts, loud music, women and men mingling in public, billiards, video games, playing with pigeons, and more – all regulations from the notorious Taliban era.

The move is the most recent attempt by religious conservatives to restrict "un-Islamic influences." Many observers say it's the latest sign of growing Talibanization in Afghanistan.

The draft law comes a week after members of parliament voted to ban wildly popular Indian soap operas from airing on Afghan channels.

The programs, emotional dramas featuring forbidden trysts, family intrigue, and Hindu imagery – drew the ire of conservatives and religious figures.

In January, Afghan journalist Perwiz Kambakhsh was put on death row for downloading an article from the Internet that questioned women's roles in Islam. Mr. Kambakhsh, who was convicted by an Islamic court, is scheduled to appeal in the coming weeks.

Late last year another prominent journalist, Ghaws Zalmai, was jailed for translating the Koran into the local Persian language.

While most analysts don't expect this most recent law to pass, there is a real threat that these moves will fuel religious conservatives and make the Taliban's ideas more acceptable, according to Haroun Mir cofounder and deputy director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies, based in Kabul.

"Even if the law doesn't pass, it will provide legitimacy for the Taliban by approving of Taliban-era laws," Mr. Mir says. This will bring together the fundamentalists, he adds, and put moderates on the defensive – creating a propitious climate for the proliferation of Taliban ideology.

"We have the same ideas as the Taliban," says parliamentarian Qazi Naseer Ahmad, who is not part of the group that proposed this latest law. "We want sharia [Islamic] law in our country. Women must ask permission from their husbands before they leave the home, and they must not wear clothes that are against Islam." Referring to the Indian television programs, Mr. Ahmad continues, "If children watch these serials, maybe they will forget the Islamic laws."

Urban, rural views differ

Many in Kabul express shock and disbelief that such laws are once more a part of public discourse. "I didn't believe it when I first heard it," Kabul-based journalist Hamid Asir says.

The streets of the capital city seem far removed from the austere versions of Islam that the conservative mullahs and MPs agitate for. In the bustling markets of central Kabul, crowds gather around vendors hawking imported DVDs, while Indian Bollywood music blares from nearby loudspeakers. Clutches of women stroll by storefronts to window-shop, while occasionally young men in T-shirts and jeans wander past. On warmer nights, elderly men and young children gather on rooftops, training pet pigeons to fly off and return to their owners.

However, in the rural, war-torn countryside, where most people don't have access to electricity and associate Western influences with the foreign military presence, the conservatives may have more of a hearing.

"They are trying to appeal to the poor and traditional people outside Kabul, the people in rural areas," says Ahmad Idrees Rahmani, cofounder of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies.

According to a poll conducted last year by the SENLIS Council, a leading Europe-based think tank, 27 percent of villagers in rural parts of southern Afghanistan declared support for the Taliban, up from just 2 percent in 2005.

An eye on politics

Many observers say these lawmakers are motivated by politics. "This is a political game. Conservative MPs hope to win support by claiming to defend the religious and cultural values that segments of the population feel are under attack, says Mr. Rahmani.

"Everyone is trying to create some kind of leverage or bargaining power for the coming elections," he continues, referring to the parliamentary and presidential polls scheduled for fall 2009.

Moreover, religion is a powerfully sensitive issue in Afghanistan, Rahmani says, and the mullahs' claims that they are defending Islam is effective in disarming moderates. "The people pushing these laws are a minority in parliament, but no other MPs have the courage to stand up to them."

Analysts contend that President Hamid Karzai is too politically weak to counter conservative pressure and is too concerned with winning reelection to alienate the religious hard-liners.

"These television programs," Mr. Karzai recently told reporters, referring to the banned Indian serials, "contradict the daily life of Afghans and ... must be stopped."

Still, this tide of conservatism is engendering some resistance. Despite the recent ban on Indian soaps, television stations have continued to air the dramas. A presenter from Tolo TV, the nation's most popular station says that the ban is unconstitutional and they will continue to defy government orders. "We will not stop the airing of the soap operas," Masoud Qiam told reporters last week.

The soap operas are enormously popular with the Afghan public because of the overlap between Indian and Afghan culture, Mir says. In addition, most Afghan-based television programs have not yet reached the sophistication or production quality of the Indian serials.

A recent study by the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation determined that more than 50 percent of Afghans watch Tolo TV, making it easily the country's most popular television network.

Still, the station's continued defiance is drawing threats of retaliation. Last week, a leading conservative mullah, Ensayatullah Balegh, threatened to climb the hills surrounding Kabul with his followers and blow up TV antennas if broadcasts did not cease.

This creeping Talibanization is casting a pall of fear over Kabul. "How can we live with these restrictions and without entertainment," Kabul local Shafi Samandari asks. "It will be just like the Taliban times – we will have to flee the country yet again."