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.
"It is very difficult for people here to say they are against the virtue and vice committee, but I am against a department that could be a way of bringing the extremists back," said Shukria Barakzai, a female legislator. "If they want to do something about corruption and domestic violence, fine, but I don't need a department to decide if I am a bad or a good Muslim."
In the same week that the government sent alleged prostitutes back to China, it faced a different foreign challenge to Islamic culture -- the arrival of about 1,200 evangelical Christians from South Korea. They intended to stage a public rally last weekend, but after diplomatic negotiations, they were sent home because Afghan officials feared they would offend local Muslims by proselytizing and risk being physically attacked.
The depth of Islamic passion here -- and the wide disparity between Afghan and Western views of religious rights -- were also dramatized in March when an Afghan man who converted to Christianity was threatened with capital punishment. Under foreign pressure, the government let him quietly flee to Italy, but the incident shocked many Americans who thought their troops had liberated Afghanistan from Islamic persecution.
Today, Afghan officials are eager to please their foreign benefactors and guests, yet also face pressure from local religious leaders to stem the accompanying flow of imported pleasures -- from French wines to Internet pornography -- that can now easily reach young Afghans.
"Some of the foreign aid groups help us, but others have another agenda to influence us in the wrong direction. They are unwanted guests," said Enayatullah Balegh, a Muslim cleric who teaches Islamic law at Kabul University. "We need the aid and the coalition forces, but we do not want the West interfering in our religion."
The trickiest part for officials is how to treat establishments that cater to both foreigners and Afghans, who increasingly socialize together. Under Afghan law, a business may serve liquor to foreigners but not to Afghans, even if they are at the same table, which can cause embarrassment and discomfort.
Since the police raids two weeks ago, a number of restaurants have shut down, most of them Chinese-owned businesses that allegedly provided prostitutes. Others have hid their liquor, put up placards barring Afghans and reported a sharp drop in customers of all nationalities.
Sabit said U.N. officials and foreign diplomats had complained about the raids, which also affected successful Thai- and Lebanese-owned establishments. But he said that "government enemies" were spreading lies about the crackdown and that it was aimed solely at places that had illegally provided liquor or prostitutes to Afghan Muslims.
For many Afghan Muslims, the issue of foreign vices arouses contradictory emotions. Young men often acknowledge hankering to explore forbidden pleasures, even while saying they disapprove. Until the recent deportations, ogling Chinese women on the streets was a major pastime here, but angry mobs attacked and vandalized several Chinese brothels during an anti-foreign riot May 29. Indian movies featuring sensual dancing women are usually sold out, and online pornography sites are constantly perused at local Internet cafes.
"These movies have a very bad impact on people, and they should be banned," said Reza Mousani, 21, who was in a crowd of young men waiting outside a movie house covered with posters of buxom Indian film stars. "People who have been away in the West came back with the habits of freedom. Those who stayed here want freedom, but only within our religious framework."
Nisar Ahmad, 26, a tinsmith, said he had been beaten by the Taliban police as a teenager for having long hair. "We were prisoners in those days, and I hope they never return," he said. "But that does not mean we want our culture to change. I might wear jeans, but Islam is in my heart."
While human rights activists warn that raids and religious police might reopen the door to fundamentalist persecution, on Thursday night it was business as usual -- loud, licentious and tipsy -- at one nameless bar and brothel, less than two weeks after police had raided the place and confiscated its liquor.
The manager complained about the raid but said he had been able to hide the women in time, and had restocked his bar a few days later. But in several other restaurants, managers said they were losing business because of the crackdown and had suffered under vague and shifting policies on liquor licenses and Islamic law enforcement.
"We are all scared now, and it is not fair," said Hashmat, a supervisor at one Italian restaurant. He said a large group that came for dinner this week left after being told the Afghans could not be served wine or beer. "Our customers are angry," he said. "They should leave us alone. This is not Taliban time, it is a democracy."