KABUL — The TV studio was full of young men in their mid-20s, most wearing trim beards, stylish haircuts and jeans — the uniform of Afghanistan's new generation. In a country ravaged by war and hardship, they are dreaming of stardom.
Their path to fame is "Afghan Star," a wildly popular prime-time show that has become the voice of their generation: Afghans born in an era of religious conflict and raised in a conservative Muslim society, but exposed to Western culture and eager to join the modern world.
"Music has always been in the blood of Afghans, but it was silenced for a long time," said Massood Sanjer, program manager for Tolo Television and a founder of the show, in its 13th season. " 'Afghan Star' has created a revolution in music at the same time the country has moved to democracy."
But not everyone is thrilled by the show's success or message — especially the exposure of young women as performers on national TV. To some conservative Muslim clergy and elders, "Afghan Star" represents a threat to the country's religion and values, and is part of what they see as a broader cultural trend of abusing democratic freedoms to promote vulgarity.
In recent weeks, public protests against the show have been held in Kabul and Herat, a large city near the border with Iran. In Herat, several hundred Muslim clerics and others rallied to stop auditions from being held. After negotiations with the help of local officials, Sanjer said, the tryouts were conducted in a room at the airport.
In Kabul, a group of clerics and Muslim scholars rallied recently at a large mosque and unsuccessfully petitioned the government to stop the show. Auditions were held as planned this week inside the Tolo TV studios, a block-long, tunnel-like compound that is heavily guarded to protect against terrorist attacks or other violence.
"We respect the media and appreciate their work. It is a big achievement for our country," said Abdul Basit Khalili, a religious scholar at the rally. "But some media run programs that are not sound, and one of them is 'Afghan Star.' It seduces the youth and pushes the country into a deeper crisis. We want programs that teach science and technology, not ones that deviate them from the right track."
Similar protests have been held against other entertainment events, most recently a performance at a Kabul hotel in August by Afghan pop singer Aryana Saeed, who lives in London and is known for her revealing stage costumes. Religious protesters tried to block the hotel driveway, saying Saeed was promoting immorality, but fans in the audience called her a courageous pioneer.
Such incidents are part of a cultural conflict that is playing out across this traditional Muslim country as it bursts into the 21st century after decades of war and isolation. Much of the tension surrounds gender mingling, which is forbidden in Afghan society. Parents try to prevent their daughters from talking to boys on cellphones; young men download European porn; and elopement is becoming more common.
Afghan television has become a lightning rod for attack, with denunciations of female newscasters wearing scarves that fail to cover all their hair, and of foreign soap operas and movies that depict women in alluring dress, performing sensual dances or entangled in illicit affairs.
Tolo has been at the forefront of such controversy, and it has been a target for terrorist violence. In January 2016, a suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying Tolo employees, killing seven people and injuring 26. Last month, another TV station in Kabul, Shamshad, was targeted by a suicide bomber and gunmen, leaving one person dead. The Islamic State claimed both attacks.
One of the critics' main complaints against "Afghan Star" is that it shows women performing on stage. But Sanjer said that most of the contestants sing traditional Afghan songs and that the show is popular with people of all ages. At night, he said, "entire families sit together and watch it, and they vote for their favorite contestant."
During an evening of auditions in Kabul last month, one nervous young man sang a melodic Sufi poem in Afghan Dari, accompanied by musicians playing the harmonium and drums. Another young man performed a more confident, amusing song but was slightly off-key. A panel of judges commented after each act.
Several contestants waiting their turn to go on stage said that they thought the criticism of "Afghan Star" was misplaced and that the country faces far more important issues of concern. All said that they were excited about performing and that they did not see how it conflicted with their faith.
"We have a lot of serious problems, like bombings and kidnappings. If the mullahs were demonstrating against them, I'd be at the front of the line," said Usman Jaheri, 24, a contestant from Herat. "I love music because it expresses emotions. This show should be at the bottom of their list."
Only one woman was waiting to audition that evening — Sohaila Haidery, a 23-year-old fashion retailer who lives in London. She said she passed her preliminary audition online and was flown to Kabul for the elimination round. The station brings all finalists here and lodges them in guest rooms in the Tolo compound.
"I have a passion for music," said Haidery, who planned to perform traditional Afghan folk music. "I believe women should be able to do what they want, and I am here because I want to be a reason for others to come out and perform."