AFGHANISTAN SPECIAL REPORT: Radical Islam in Northern Alliance Territory.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 2 November 2001

How does religious life in the part of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance compare with the Islamic model of development that local Muslims have tried to apply in some of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia? An investigation into the Islamic model of development in Northern Afghanistan is also of interest in that this region is populated by Tajiks and Uzbeks, i.e. the same nationalities that inhabit the neighbouring Central Asian republics. Indeed, during the civil war in Tajikistan, a camp in this part of Afghanistan was used by fighters of Tajikistan's Islamic Revival Movement.

Between 22 and 29 October, Keston visited the northern town of Khwaja-Bahawudin, 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the Tajik border. Although the town has a population of around 10,000, since the start of the military operation launched by the United States and Britain against the Taliban regime, this town has in essence become the Northern Alliance's temporary capital. The majority of ministries are situated here, among them the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the department for the assistance of virtue and prevention of vice.

'The Taliban believes in an over-strict Islam,' the Northern Alliance's foreign minister, Abdullo Abdullah, told Keston in Khwaja-Bahawudin on 24 October. 'We are for a gentler, more enlightened form of Islam. Thus, it is unacceptable for us to use flogging as a punishment or to cut hands off. We do not see it as a sin if Muslims listen to music and allow their daughters to study in school. The Taliban is imposing not an Islamic, but a medieval way of life. As a result, their regime has become a real burden on the inhabitants of Afghanistan.'

'If hunger drives someone to steal, then according to Shariah law he should be pardoned. The Taliban has brought the population to absolute poverty and cuts off the hands of people who have turned to crime in desperation,' an official at the Northern Alliance's department for the assistance of virtue and prevention of vice, Jalal Fahri, told Keston on 26 October in Khwaja-Bahawudin. He maintained that there has not been a single instance of chopping off hands for theft on the territory controlled by the Northern Alliance. Fahri admitted that the Northern Alliance allowed offenders to be punished by flogging (on 25 October, Keston saw a drug trader being publicly flogged on Khwaja-Bahawudin's central square), adding that the shame to which the offender is exposed by flogging is of great importance. Before it is carried out, the mujahaddin lead the criminal through the streets and beat him with their guns. Fahri maintained that public execution is carried out only in exceptional circumstances in Northern Alliance-controlled territory. 'The relatives of the victim decide what to do with the murderer. And if they want to kill the criminal publicly, then we cannot overrule their decision,' he told Keston.

During the period between the first and second war in Chechnya (1996-99), the relatives of victims also publicly executed their murderers, as they do in Afghanistan.

Keston formed the impression that both Fahri and Abdullah were deliberately trying to give the western media a picture of the Northern Alliance as proponents of a moderate, enlightened Islam. After numerous conversations with local residents, Keston discovered that there is a ban on listening to music in the town. Moreover, the first order issued by the late commander Ahmad Shah Masoud's forces after they had seized Khwaja-Bahawudin was a ban on the singing of songs by women. Sayid Ismail Ibrahim, imam-hatyb at the town's central mosque, justified the ban. 'According to Islam, one of the worst sins is to encroach on a person's consciousness,' he told Keston on 27 October. 'When someone listens to music, his state of mind changes.'

The views of people like Sayid Ismail Ibrahim have even greater significance because the mullahs are practically the only teachers of children in Northern Afghanistan. The main subject taught in the madrassahs (religious schools) attached to mosques is the recitation of the Koran. In Khwaja-Bahawudin's central mosque, Keston spoke to Sayid Ismail Ibrahim's 16-year-old pupils. The youngsters could read neither in Tajik nor in Uzbek, but they could recite the Koran in Arabic - without understanding it. The result of this system of education is that the overwhelming majority of the population of Afghanistan remains illiterate. According to 1992 estimates by the United Nations, around 80 per cent of Afghan men were illiterate, and 96 per cent of women.

'It would be a great exaggeration to declare that the influence of Islamic radicals is insignificant on Northern Alliance territory. It's another matter to say that here people treat those who break Islamic law far more humanely. For example, if the Taliban arrest a person for listening to music, they punish him with a flogging. Here, they are more likely simply to reprimand such a person,' the head of the Women's Association of Afghanistan, Farkhnas Nazi, told Keston in Khwaja-Bahawudin on 25 October. She added that the harshness of Islamic law largely depends on which field commander controls a particular territory. Local people told Keston that in several regions of the Panjshir valley (controlled by the Northern Alliance), there is a ban not only on drinking alcohol, but also on smoking.

According to Nazi, the most difficult position in Northern Alliance territory is occupied by women, who are in effect second class people, yet she believes that it is not the Northern Alliance authorities who are responsible for this, but the population as a whole. 'Our nation is uneducated and blindly follows ancient traditions,' she told Keston. 'It is very difficult to convince such people that a woman should have the same rights as a man. For example, I cannot go to the market without wearing a yashmak, otherwise I am immediately surrounded by a crowd of people who start insulting me.'

Nazi studied in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and possibly because of this she uses Soviet methods in her battle for women's rights. On 8 March 2001(International Women's Day, celebrated in socialist countries), she organised a women's demonstration demanding a ban on polygamy and early marriages (in Afghanistan girls get married at 13 or 14 years old) and access to education for women. About a thousand women took part in the protest. The Northern Alliance administration did not break up the demonstration or punish those who took part.

 In regions of the Central Asian republics where followers of Islam have succeeded in taking power, they have practically created a carbon copy of the Islamic model of development characteristic of the territory controlled by the Northern Alliance. Indeed, as neophytes, they have operated even more radically than followers of Islam in Northern Afghanistan. In 1991, in the town of Namangan, one of the regional centres of the Fergana valley, a movement called Adolat (Justice) unexpectedly emerged. Young men wearing green bands appeared dealing at their own discretion with those they felt had broken the law. The punishment for the thieves and prostitutes they captured was quite bizarre from the point of view of western jurisprudence: they were sat facing backwards on a donkey and paraded around the town or tied to pillars on squares where passers-by spat in their faces. The accused were also beaten with whips in mosques. The undisputed leader of this 'Islamic police' was then 24-year-old Tohir Yuldashev. In its early days, Uzbek president Islam Karimov looked favourably on Adolat's activity, but quite soon began to realise he was no longer boss in Namangan. The Adolat activists were arrested and received lengthy prison sentences. However, Yuldashev and several of his supporters managed to escape from the country, going on to form the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in exile with the aim of creating an Islamic state in Uzbekistan by force.

In autumn 1993, armed detachments of the Tajik opposition escaped to Afghanistan. Most of the refugees settled in the north of the country in territory densely populated by Afghan Tajiks (the area was under the control of Ahmad Shah Masoud). In 1996, detachments of the Tajik opposition managed to force their way from Afghanistan and drive government forces out of the Karategin valley in Tajikistan's south-eastern mountainous region. The Tajik opposition field commanders set up a far harsher regime in the territory they had seized than that they had observed in Afghanistan. Under threat of punishment, the Tajik mujahaddin forced all the local people to pray in the mosques five times a day. Women were obliged to keep their heads covered in public places. Several field commanders shaved the heads of women who dared to appear in public without their heads covered. Listening to music and singing were forbidden. The sale of alcoholic drinks and cigarettes was categorically banned. Offenders were beaten in the mosques, for some reason not with whips (as is the custom in Shariah law) but with a device made out of a hand grenade launcher. Offenders received 20 blows for smoking, 40 blows for drinking alcohol, and 100 blows for adultery. Those found to be spying for the Dushanbe government were hanged by the mujahaddin on the villages' central squares. The laws were particularly harsh in Kalaikhumb district, part of Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous region which borders Afghanistan, where in contrast to other regions of Pamir Tajik Sunni Muslims live (the Pamir people are mostly Ismailis, a movement closer to the Shi'ite branch of Islam). Here, offenders were put in an iron barrel and the barrel was whipped for a period of several hours. After such a sentence, at best the person was shell-shocked, while at worst he went mad.

However, such measures gradually mellowed on territory controlled by followers of Islam because, in contrast to Afghanistan, the new regime did not have the support of most local residents. Similar harsh measures were also in effect during the Tajik civil war and wore down residents of territory controlled by Islamic radicals. But after a peace agreement was reached in December 1997 between the Tajik opposition and the government, not only civilians, but also many fighters began to protest against such harsh measures. Keston visited the Karategin valley of Tajikistan in November 2000 and can testify that even then most local people (including those who fought in the Tajik opposition) had come to the conclusion that Islamic values should not be inculcated by force. As a result, just one of the 1996 laws remains in force in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous region: the ban on the sale of alcohol. (END)