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Afghanistan: Ban On Cable TV Seen As Symptom Of Power Struggle

A ban imposed on cable television in Afghanistan is seen by some observers as part of a series of measures taking the country a step back toward the restrictive codes of the Taliban era. Others see the edict by the Afghan Supreme Court's chief justice as a symptom of a power struggle between conservative Islamic fundamentalists and pro-Western moderates in the Transitional Authority. The chief justice who issued the edict denies both interpretations and is defending his decision.

Prague, 24 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A series of edicts and statements this week by the chief justice of Afghanistan's Supreme Court has led some to fear that restrictive codes from the Taliban era are being resurrected.

The chief justice of the Afghan Supreme Court, Mawlavi Fazl Hadi Shinwari, banned five fledgling cable television networks in Kabul this week on grounds that some of the foreign programming being shown was un-Islamic.

Shinwari has also refused to consider an appeal against an earlier ban he imposed on a cable network in Jalalabad. And he has come out in support of a controversial new decree by Ismail Khan, governor of the western province of Herat, that effectively prevents many women from getting an education by preventing them from sitting in classes with men.

John Sifton, an attorney for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch who has done extensive research in Afghanistan, told RFE/RL that the developments are about more than the content of television in Afghanistan.

Sifton said Shinwari's edicts and public statements are the result of a power struggle between Western-backed moderates like Afghan President Hamid Karzai and conservative religious fundamentalists who are trying to seize political dominance and control the creation of a new Afghan constitution. "Islamic fundamentalists are not just trying to have their voices heard in the debates that are going on about education and about the constitution. They are actually imposing themselves on the political scene in an attempt to become very powerful and take over the political apparatus of Afghanistan. That's cause for concern. We don't think Afghanistan, as a multiethnic, multilinguistic [sic], and multidenominational country, can have a theocracy -- period," Sifton said.

Two of the most powerful Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan, Jamiat-e Islami leader Burhanuddin Rabbani and Itihad-e Islami leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, are not members of Karzai's Transitional Authority, but they do have representatives in the government.

Most Afghan political analysts expect both Rabbani and Sayyaf to run for president when elections are conducted in 2004.

Sifton said Afghanistan's Islamic fundamentalists appear to be increasing their pressure on moderates, possibly in an attempt to discredit Karzai and others ahead of the 2004 elections. Thus, Sifton suggested that the recent controversy over cable television in Afghanistan is a symptom of a broader struggle. "Many people in Kabul are becoming increasingly concerned that President Karzai and Chief Justice Shinwari seem to be catering to Islamic fundamentalism. And that's worrying because many people's experience of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan is a bad one," Sifton said.

Other analysts say Shinwari's decrees against cable television could be an attempt to prevent religious conservatives from claiming later that moderates allowed foreign, un-Islamic influences to corrupt traditional Afghan values.

But Shinwari denies having such a motive. He told RFE/RL that there is no political reason behind his recent decrees and that he is not being pressured by any political or religious factions. "I am a Muslim [cleric], and I am speaking in clear terms that [when the Koran says something is] 'prohibited,' [it] means [it is] prohibited, and vice versa. I swear to God that I don't know anything about [any pressures coming from political or religious forces]," Shinwari said.

Shinwari also told RFE/RL he is not trying to return Afghanistan to an era of restrictive interpretations of Islamic law like those that existed under the Taliban regime. He said he is ready to resign if the Afghan people reject his decrees on what constitutes a violation of Islamic law. And he insisted that the partial nudity in foreign programs shown by Afghan cable does, indeed, violate Islamic law and traditional Afghan values. "There is a verse in the Koran that says that anything that corrupts should be prohibited. Nudity of men and women is something that corrupts, and it says so in the Koran. So I say it is bad, whether you call me an Afghan or a Talib," Shinwari said.

But Sifton said that any rules imposed in Afghanistan on the basis of singular interpretations of the Koran are harmful to the country. He said that, instead, Afghanistan needs to create a political system capable of making "complex, intelligent, and pluralistic" decisions. "[Afghanistan] is by necessity a place that demands a pluralistic government. So if we're going to have groups like Sayyaf's and Rabbani's -- and there are other fundamentalists on the peripheries who are pushing themselves in -- if they are attempting to dominate Afghan politics, then as a practical matter we have to say it is not a good idea. It's very important that the religious fundamentalists understand that they can't dominate Afghan politics, that they are going to be just one part of a pluralistic and multilayered political landscape," Sifton said.

In fact, factional leaders in the Afghan government have gone to great lengths to project a public image of unity. But there have been signs of the powerful influence of religious conservatives upon the Transitional Authority since it was confirmed by a Loya Jirga (Grand Council) last summer.

In his interviews with foreign journalists, Karzai consistently projects a moderate vision about the kind of Islamic republic that Afghanistan should become. But he is much more accommodating of the views of religious conservatives when he is interviewed by Afghan journalists.

Ismail Khan's decree of 10 January forbids men from teaching private courses to women. It also bans male and female students from attending classes in the same building. The rationale for the decree is that co-education is un-Islamic.

In defense of Ismail Khan's decree, Shinwari told RFE/RL: "In Islam, it is the rule that mature males and females cannot be together alone because corruption will arise. And that is prohibited in Islam."

The United Nations this week sent a team of human rights investigators to study the impact on Afghan women of Ismail Khan's education decree.

Human Rights Watch says the ban, in practical terms, means that many women will not be able to receive an education at all. It is calling upon international donors to reconsider their aid disbursements to provinces that introduce such measures.

Shinwari said he is not concerned that his support for the decree could lead to cutbacks in Western aid disbursements. And he said he will resign if his edicts are rejected.

The edict on cable television may face such a test in the near future. Afghanistan's deputy chief justice, Fazel Ahmad Manawi, said that the Islamic scholars of Afghanistan should decide whether the ban is valid or not.