Afghan reformers see Islam as way to a kinder nation

Change: Moderates say that, with outside help, life can improve with the return of practices shoved aside by warlords.

August 04, 2002|By Larry Kaplow | Larry Kaplow,COX NEWS SERVICE

KABUL, Afghanistan - The smiling mullah is back and so, maybe, is Afghanistan's moderate brand of Islam.

Afghan cleric Abdel Rauf Nafeh recently had his large downtown mosque repainted in pastels. A spry 55-year-old with an impish grin, Nafeh was banned from his mosque when the Taliban ruled. He had refused to pray for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

To Nafeh, Islam isn't supposed to be coercive. He doesn't care about the length of your beard or if you own a satellite dish that pulls in Western channels.

Only about 200 people used to come to the mosque for Friday prayers, despite the lashings the Taliban handed out to those who wouldn't pray. Now that Nafeh's back, he packs in 1,000.

"People practice Islam because they want to, not because of politics," he said. Holding a handkerchief over his face, he portrays the Taliban hiding behind the name of Islam. "The people will not be deceived anymore," he says.

The Taliban's fall in November revived Afghanistan's devotion to Islam. Many Afghans want to reassert the more liberal Islam that existed before the Taliban took over the country - at gunpoint - with a sharp turn toward fundamentalism in the 1980s and '90s.

Signs of reform emerged after the Taliban fled the U.S.-led war. Secret schools for girls began operating in the open. Banned mullahs, like Nafeh, replaced the Taliban preachers who had abandoned their mosques.

The prospects for lasting reform are at a critical stage. Moderates are outgunned by fundamentalists who rose to power after America and other countries armed them two decades ago to fight the Soviets. They dominate the new, post-Taliban government.

But the reformers look to history for hope. Afghan Islam is based on Hanafism, the most open to interpretation of the four schools of Sunni law. Fundamentalists and moderates have long competed for power, with the moderates having the upper hand through much of the past century.

Thirty years ago, women in cities could walk in public in skirts, not confined to the all-encompassing burqas they still wear. Many had professions.

In the 1970s, Pakistanis used to spend weekends in Kabul to enjoy nightclubs and bars there.

If they can thrive, the moderates of today may rebuild a society with less government enforcement of religion, more rights for women and greater openness to the West. Post-Taliban Afghanistan is perhaps on the verge of a transition from the fundamentalist wave that washed over the Middle East and Asia in the past 20 years.

"It is a condition that has not occurred in any country," said law professor Ghulam Dareez.

Yet nine months into the post-Taliban era, moderates are in danger of being silenced just as they are finding their voice. The U.S.-backed government in Kabul is dominated by leaders of anti-Taliban militias who gained their power by making war. Many are fundamentalists whose rigid interpretation of Islam rivals that of the Taliban.

Their path to prominence came in the 1980s and '90s as mujahedin, or "holy warriors," backed by America and other foreign powers to fight the Soviet invasion of 1979. To defeat the Taliban after the attacks on Sept. 11, the United States once again allied with some of them, most notably the Northern Alliance led by ethnic Tajiks.

These warlords continue to be well-armed and willing to use intimidation to maintain power.

Afghans and foreign analysts say now is the time for the outside world to aid and encourage liberal Afghans, who need security, police and laws to assure they can speak freely and hold powerful jobs.

Most Afghans favor a voluntary and relaxed Islam that allows a freer society, said Sarfraz Khan, an expert on Afghanistan at Pakistan's University of Peshawar.

"It isn't very easy for the liberals to get power because the ordinary people can't be very assertive right now," he said. "If America ignores Afghanistan, the fundamentalists ... will come to power with the force of arms and the help of their neighbors, Iran and Pakistan."

Jamila Mujahid publishes a magazine that encourages women's rights and has come under fire from fundamentalists. She says reformers like her count on help. "We are sure the world is supporting us," she said.

There are plenty of reasons why the world should care who wins the battle for Afghanistan's religious identity. The Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida are on the run, but some factions that offered them shelter remain intact.

For the Taliban's Mullah Omar, Afghanistan was supposed to be just the start. He reportedly wanted to use his regime to launch a fundamentalist revival throughout Central Asia and China. It was a dream also held by warlord Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, who still roams the country with his private army, evading at least one reported American attempt to kill him.

In the 1960s and '70s, fundamentalist Burhanuddin Rabbani led a movement that, in many ways, paralleled the Islamic revolution that took over Iran. He lives in Kabul with close ties to the government.

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