In Afghanistan, a Crackdown on Imported Pleasures

An Afghan boy studies a poster advertising a popular Indian movie at a theater in Kabul. Some Islamic critics want to ban such movies because they feature women dancing and wearing few clothes. The movies are usually sold out.
An Afghan boy studies a poster advertising a popular Indian movie at a theater in Kabul. Some Islamic critics want to ban such movies because they feature women dancing and wearing few clothes. The movies are usually sold out. (By Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)

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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 7, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan, Aug. 6 -- Behind an unmarked door on a quiet residential street, half a dozen young Chinese women in miniskirts shimmy to disco tapes or sit entwined with beefy European men. Next to the fully stocked bar, a plastic Christmas tree pulses with tiny lights.

Behind a desk in a spartan government office, a bearded official says he is swamped with job applicants for a proposed department to promote virtue and discourage vice, which would send out religious monitors to uncover and correct un-Islamic behavior in the populace.

Both scenes coexist in a confused, newly democratic Muslim society grappling with a five-year influx of foreign troops and visitors, who have provided aid and protection but have also brought alcohol, prostitution and other tempting taboos to the deeply traditional and long-isolated country.

In recent weeks, the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai has moved aggressively to crack down on what Afghans call imported vices. He is acting partly in response to pressure from domestic religious leaders and partly to upstage Islamic Taliban insurgents who are stepping up attacks across the south.

Police in this capital of 4 million, which is also home to several thousand foreigners, have raided about a dozen restaurants and shops suspected of selling alcohol to Afghans and have seized and destroyed thousands of bottles. Officers have detained more than 100 Chinese women as suspected prostitutes, seven of whom were deported at the airport here Wednesday.

The cabinet also approved reviving the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Discouragement of Vice, a body that Afghan governments have maintained through much of the country's history. It became notoriously punitive under Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, when turbaned enforcers whipped women if their veils slipped and arrested men for wearing too-short beards or playing chess.

The proposal, which must be ratified by parliament, has outraged human rights groups, Western-oriented Afghan leaders and Western diplomats here because of the concept's association with the Taliban, which was ousted by a U.S. military assault in 2001 and replaced by a transitional democracy with U.N. guidance and international military and economic support.

Afghan officials have hastened to reassure their international allies that the reconstituted vice and virtue squads would focus on education.

"We would be as different from the Taliban as earth and sky," said Sulieman Hamid, an official of the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs who would oversee the virtue and vice monitors. "They used Islam for political purposes. We only want to stop people from committing bad acts and help maintain the honor of Islam."

He said the monitors would not replace police enforcement of law, intrude in private homes, operate separate prisons or contradict constitutional rights.

"No one has any reason to be frightened," said Abdul Jabbar Sabit, an adviser to the Interior Ministry who supervised the recent bar raids and deportations. "We would not beat people or force women to wear scarves. But we have to do something to protect society, to tell people they should not drink alcohol or smoke hashish or kill their Muslim brothers."

If the parliament takes up the issue, it is likely to pit factions led by Islamic clerics and former militia leaders against others composed of professionals, women and Western-educated figures. These groups represent major competing strains in Afghan society as it charts a path between traditional Islamic values and modern democratic norms.

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