Friday, July 21, 2006

Afghanistan: The return of the religious police.

Date: Friday 21 July 2006
Subj: Afghanistan: The return of the religious police.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.

When Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, strict conservative Islamic practice and values were enforced by the religious police of the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. This force, famous for beating women, destroying art and turning executions into spectator sport, was disbanded after the Taliban was ousted in 2001. Now however this department is being reinstated by President Hamid Karzai's government.


There are two battles raging in Afghanistan: the battle between the US and allied forces against a resurgent Taliban; and the battle between Afghanistan's hard-line Islamist conservatives and reformist West-leaning moderates. Taliban military advances, Afghan (mostly Taliban) deaths at the hands of "infidel" forces, and Taliban propaganda against the "apostate government" of "US-puppet" President Hamid Karzai, are all playing into the hands of the hard-line Islamist conservative forces.

The reality is that the government is only one of many power groups in the nation. The government does not control anything much outside Kabul. The countryside is politically fragmented and controlled by warlords who fight either with the Taliban or against them according to their own interests at any time. American military might is not the primary weapon against the Taliban. America has only about one-tenth of the troop numbers that the Soviets did when they failed to pacify the mujahideen. Rather it has been America's ability to manipulate and buy the co-operation and allegiance of the warlords.

But, as Stratfor Intelligence comments: "As Taliban power increases, the willingness of regional warlords to collaborate with the government and the United States decreases. No one wants to be caught on the wrong side of a war in that country." (Stratfor 19 May)

Reflecting the political difficulty caused by Afghan deaths, Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently called on the international community to re-evaluate its strategy regarding the war on terrorism, saying the death of hundreds of Afghans in fighting with coalition troops is "not acceptable". According to Stratfor Intelligence Karzai told a news conference in Kabul, "I strongly believe ... we must engage strategically in disarming terrorism by stopping their sources of supply of money, training, equipment and motivation." This, while both logical and strategic, would also shift the focus of the war on terror to Pakistan. Karzai added that even if the approximately 600 people killed in Afghanistan over the past month are Taliban, "they are sons of this land". (Stratfor 23 June)


In a clear sign that Afghanistan's reformist moderates are drastically lacking support and struggling for political survival, President Karzai's Cabinet has approved a proposal from the government-appointed council of Muslim clerics to reinstate the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

The Pak Tribune (Pakistan News Service) notes: "Although crackdowns on forms of expression deemed un-Islamic have generally come from the courts, and although conservative Islamists are currently the main block in Parliament, this initiative came from the President's recently approved Cabinet." The decision was clearly made for short-term political gain but the long-term implications for Afghanistan are deeply worrying.

Tom Coghlan reports from Kabul for The Independent: "The Afghan government has alarmed human rights groups by approving a plan to reintroduce a Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the body which the Taliban used to enforce its extreme religious doctrine.

"The proposal, which came from the country's Ulema council of clerics, has been passed by the cabinet of President Hamid Karzai and will now go before the Afghan parliament." (Link 1)

Coghlan quotes the Minister for Haj and Religious Affairs, Nematullah Shahrani, who says, "The job of the department will be to tell people what is allowable and what is forbidden in Islam. In practical terms it will be quite different from Taliban times. We will preach ... through radio, television and special gatherings."

According to Coglan, Shahrani denied that the department would have police powers but said it would oppose the proliferation of alcohol and drugs and speak out against terrorism, crime and corruption, adding that it would also encourage people to behave in more Islamic

Likewise, the Deputy Minister for Haj and Religious Affairs Ghazi Suleiman Hamed assured Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's (RFE/RL) Radio Free Afghanistan that the new department will be quite different from the one run by the Taliban. He said there would be no violent punishment, only education, preaching, and encouragement to help move people towards God. (Link 2)

The assurances of moderation provide little comfort to multitudes of Afghan citizens who have traumatic memories of Taliban repression and violence. Likewise, analysts and human rights groups have expressed great concern that the new Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice could become a force of political and religious oppression in the guise of protecting Islamic values. The crimes the department will allegedly focus on, such as alcohol and prostitution, are already covered under criminal law. There is also drastic shortage of safeguards, and the definition of virtue is vague and open to interpretation.

Coglan reports that while Western diplomats have reacted with unease to the proposal, several told The Independent that they believed the move was partly designed to defuse Taliban propaganda which accuses the Karzai government of being un-Islamic.

Coglan writes, "With the Taliban making considerable gains in the south the Karzai government has been keen to establish a more conservative Islamic profile and to appear more critical of Western military operations."

Legislator Shukria Barekzai told RFE/RL that it was not clear when the parliament would debate and consider the proposal. However, she believes there is no need for such a department unless it commits to fighting bureaucratic corruption. Likewise MP Ahmad Behzad told AFP that he believed there was no need for such a department. "This decision was made under extreme pressure from religious groups — a return to Taleban rule is impossible but some circles are trying to lead Afghanistan towards Talebanisation. To preach virtue is cultural work — through the media, papers and other means." According to the AFP the Taliban are waging a growing insurgency "with a sophisticated propaganda campaign that includes condemning the government's foreign allies as anti-Islamic 'infidels' who are undermining the country's morality". (Link 3)

Mohamed Asif Nang, the spokesman for parliamentary affairs, told Reuters he did not know when parliament would debate the proposal, but if parliament decided to set the force up again, it would also determine its duties. (Reuters 16 July 2006)

The Afghan Parliament reconvenes at the end of July.

Elizabeth Kendal


1) Fury as Karzai plans return of Taliban's religious police
By Tom Coghlan in Kabul, 17 July 2006

2) Afghanistan: Proposal To Create Morality Department Causes Concern
PRAGUE, 18 July 2006 (RFE/RL)

3) Alarm over govt's move to set up Taleban-like 'vice squad'
AFP 19 July 2006