Afghan retribution is suspended in time Taliban follow the Koran to punish transgressions


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- In the way he receives guests at the old royal palace here, Mullah Mohammed Hassan seems like a kind and generous man, in an out-of-this-century kind of way.

This 45-year-old man, one of the most powerful of the Muslim clerics known as the Taliban, who now rule three-quarters of Afghanistan, summons cups of sugary tea and bowls of succulent pomegranate seeds.

He has only one leg, a legacy of an attack on a Soviet military base in 1988, and he cannot hide the discomfort when he shifts weight onto the crude steel shaft that is his artificial leg. But his personal warmth is unflagging.

In the physical disability that is his legacy from fighting the Russians, Hassan is in company with many Taliban mullahs, including the movement's 38-year-old, one-eyed leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Also like many Taliban clerics, he was raised in the poverty of an Afghan village and studied for years in the austerity of a madrassah, a religious school where education is mostly a matter of memorizing passages from the Koran.

To sit with Hassan in the bare rooms where he dispenses authority as the governor of Kandahar province is to be transported in a kind of philosophical time machine, back to an era before compassion and tolerance leavened the brute austerity of life elsewhere.

Some matters, such as theft and adultery, have been untroubling philosophically, with the Taliban proclaiming the retribution that dates back 1,400 years in Muslim societies -- amputation of hands and feet for thieves, death by stoning for adulterers.

But some matters have not been so easily dealt with. One of

them is homosexuality. When Hassan said homosexuality had presented the Taliban with a dilemma, his explanation was startling.

"According to the Koran, homosexuality is a great sin," he said. "I have listened to the radio, and I know that even in the rest of the world there is a great struggle against this. But our religious scholars are not agreed on the right kind of punishment. Some say we should take these sinners to a high roof and throw them down, while others say we should dig a hole beside a wall, bury them, then push the wall down on top of them."

For now, Hassan said, the Taliban have settled on the lesser punishment of blackening offenders' faces and shaming them by making them stand for hours in public places, in the belief that the risk of the more severe punishments would end all homosexuality -- just as, he asserted, the stonings of several couples in Kandahar had halted adultery.

Hassan's views have to be placed in the context of the village society from which the Taliban hail, and of the war that destroyed what little progress the country had made toward modernity. In Afghan villages, most women were never seen unveiled in public, never worked outside the home and, as girls, never went to school for many years before the Taliban issued decrees enforcing these taboos.

As recently as the 1950s, King Zahir Shah's government allowed thieves to choose amputation of a hand, by ax, or a long jail term. And whatever harshness the Taliban have imposed, for many Afghans it is a lesser evil than continuing the fighting that has killed an estimated 1.5 million people.

"After the Communists were defeated in 1992," the mullah said, "we waited for two and a half years for our brothers among the mujahedeen to start governing in the interests of all Afghans, but unfortunately our hopes were not fulfilled. Instead of the peace Afghans wanted, the mujahedeen fought each other for power, and in this fighting almost all of our people suffered."

Once in power, the Taliban set out to expunge all traces of a lifestyle that they saw as conflicting with the Koran.

"The people of Afghanistan had deviated from the path of Islam, and all these miseries that befell us were a punishment that was imposed on us by Allah the Almighty for our sins," the mullah said. Televisions, stereos and cameras were smashed and hanged from trees, and cinemas closed and their film reels burned, he said, because of the Koran's injunction against making images of the human form.

In Kandahar, men without beards, or with beards too closely trimmed, were held in shipping containers for days, sometimes weeks, because of the Koran's injunction against shaving.

"These were big sins, and that is why we banned them," the mullah said. "Of course, we realize that people need some entertainment, but we have told them they can go to the parks and see the flowers, and from this they will absorb the essence of Islam.

"We cannot say that this or that is permitted just because it is allowed in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Iran. So while we say that what these countries do is their business, just as what we do is ours, we also say that nothing they say or do can allow them to escape from the basic fact: They are permitting things that are prohibited in Islam."

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