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Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Country Struggling With Propriety Of Western Influences

The collapse of the Taliban last year created a moral void in Afghan society. Under the Taliban, many activities were banned. Now, with the Taliban gone, little is formally prohibited. Photography and kite flying -- infamously banned under the Taliban -- have made a return, but so have racy movies, Western-style advertising, and video games. A silent struggle is now going on between conservatives and moderates for the country's soul.

Kabul, 15 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Almost a year after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a cultural battle is raging below the surface between conservatives and moderates.

The struggle pits those who want to protect the population from foreign -- especially Western -- influences against those who want to encourage those influences in hopes of modernizing the country. It's becoming more serious as Western books, movies, advertising, and video games flood the country in the wake of the Taliban's departure.

Professor Abdul Bashir Fazli, the head of the Islamic law faculty at Kabul University, is a cultural conservative. He strongly defends efforts -- such as banning provocative films and posters -- to protect the population from foreign influences, arguing that the Afghan people are not yet prepared to see such things. "I think that in the special circumstance that we -- the people of Afghanistan -- find ourselves in, the existence of absurd [advertising posters and movies] is not suitable for our society and is not beneficial for the people of Afghanistan."

Fazli himself appears to embody many of the contradictions in Afghan society. A graduate of U.S.-based George Washington University in the 1970s, he is dressed in a sport coat and tie. His beard is neatly trimmed.

He acknowledges that the outside world has much to offer Afghanistan, especially in the areas of science and medicine: "We hope that we can benefit from the science and technology of the Western countries. You know that there are no computers at our universities yet. We are deprived of having the knowledge of computers."

But he's clearly uncomfortable with Western ideals such as freedom of expression or freedom of religion, saying these make little sense in view of Afghanistan's Islamic tradition.

Fazli defends the strict enforcement of Islamic Sharia law by the Taliban -- for example, the practice of cutting off the hand of a thief. Such punishment, he says, lies at the core of Islamic teaching. He says, however, that the Taliban betrayed Islam by applying such punishment indiscriminately and without sufficient proof.

On the other side of the debate are the thousands of ordinary Afghans taking advantage of their new freedoms by lining up at cinemas to see racy movies from India, Europe, and the United States. The electronics bazaar in central Kabul is packed with customers buying or renting DVDs, videocassettes, or satellite receivers.

The public debate on morality has so far been muted. Officials -- perhaps afraid of comparisons with the Taliban -- have largely refrained from blanket pronouncements. The outlines of the struggle instead are seen in occasional -- often controversial -- changes in policy.

In August, Kabul television banned the broadcast of Indian musicals and images of women singing on television. The images were too potent for some in power.

Last month, vendors at the central electronics market complained that police were confiscating foreign video games, saying they were not suitable for younger people. Shaker, a shopkeeper in the electronics bazaar, tells RFE/RL: "The police [came here and] did not allow [video games], saying kids will forget about their studies in school and they would be distracted by the games. That's why the selling of video games stopped, and we could no longer import them."

Shaker says the police are acting on orders of government officials, who banned the sale and use of video games. "Yes, [selling video games] was officially banned by the government. It was announced three to four times [that video games should not be used]. Only those who could get a special permit could operate video games, but not the people who were not able to do so. They faced lots of problems."

It's not known if police were acting on their own or orders from above. Calls by RFE/RL to various ministries could not confirm the existence of a formal ban on video games. Nevertheless, such a ban would be consistent with other prohibitions.

In many ways, Afghanistan's efforts to restrict foreign influences are not unlike those of other developing countries. But the issue here is complicated by the years of Taliban rule, during which almost all influences from the West, including movies, music, and many books, were banned. The penalty for listening to a pop song could range up to two weeks in jail. Watching a movie could get a person locked up for 20 days.

The Taliban's legacy is twofold: an enormous pent-up demand for all things foreign and a strong moral undertone that remains.

It's not clear how successful the Afghan government will be in trying to stamp out what it considers bad influences. At most, it can only hope to slow these influences or drive them underground.

Already, the ban on airing Indian musicals has been overturned, although a prohibition on broadcasting images of women singing is still in place.

Back at the electronics bazaar, another shopkeeper, Sayed Doud, is doing a booming trade in renting videos and DVDs. His shop is filled to the ceiling with the same Indian movies that people like Professor Fazli would like to see banned. Doud says that hasn't stopped customers from coming in.

He tells RFE/RL he's skeptical of bans in general. He says that even under the Taliban, the demand for movies was strong: "We were doing our business even under the Taliban, but not under the same conditions. We were working 'under the table.' I had rented a shop in a warehouse far away. When someone would come by asking for movies, one of us would bring the movie for him. It was not the same as it is now."

Shaker, too, doubts that any prohibition on video games would have long-term success. He says that after the police told him to get rid of the video games, he sold them to a shop in another part of the city. He won't say where, but presumably the name is no secret to kids looking to play the games.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.