Afghan Capital Adjusts To Life Under Islam

Moderates look to Islam - and foreign aid - to temper fundamentalism

THE movie theater was full, showing a film from India, when a group of armed mujahideen burst in and ordered everyone out.

The mujahideen took such action because it was Friday, the Islamic holy day. The operation of movie theaters on Fridays may have been permitted under the former communist regime, but it would no longer be tolerated by the new Islamic government, the mujahideen said. The movie patrons were taken to a mosque to pray and the theater was closed, some of its windows smashed.

Such is life in the Afghan capital these days as the Islamic government tries to assert its authority. It has moved quickly in some highly visible areas to reestablish Islamic behavior in a society where observance of religious customs has been eroded by 14 years of communist rule. Alcohol and narcotics have been banned, for example, while women have been ordered to cover up.

Further changes are likely, foreign diplomats say. But the extent of the country's transformation will not become clearer until the new government settles the question of just how strictly Afghanistan will observe Islamic law. So far the leadership has been able to agree on only the most basic interpretations of Islamic law. What happens in the future largely depends on the outcome of a political struggle now going on in Kabul, revolving around two axes - religious and ethnic.

Currently, religious moderates appear to have the upper hand over fundamentalists in the governing structures, according to foreign diplomats. Most Afghan leaders publicly say they do not have a model for the development of the Islamic Afghan state, but many indicate they identify more easily with Pakistan than Iran.

There is little desire among those now in charge to establish any sort of fundamentalist state, where the hand of a thief would be cut off according to the strictest interpretation of Islamic law. It is also the government's intention to allow women to continue to work and receive an education.

"Women must live according to Islam, covering their head and wearing clothes down to their hands and ankles," says new Islamic Affairs Minister Maulawi al-Salah Rakhmani. "After that they can work in any capacity.

"As for thieves, we don't intend to cut off their hands," the minister continues. "Maybe in the future this will change, but for now we hope to find another way to punish a thief."

If harsher stances are taken in the future they could well be adopted out of political considerations, a foreign diplomat says.

Jamiat-e-Islami party members, particularly Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Masoud and party leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, have emerged as the most powerful forces in the new government. Both are ethnic Tajiks and considered religious moderates. Though in influential positions, they still face significant opposition, largely because of their ethnic background. Afghanistan's principal ethnic group is Pushtun.

In order for Mr. Masoud and Mr. Rabbani to maintain their dominant position over rivals, particularly radical Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pushtun, they may have to make concessions to Muslim fundamentalists, the diplomat says. The Hezb-e-Islami group refuses to join the government and threatens to attack Kabul, which is defended by Masoud's forces. Mr. Hekmatyar wants to establish a Pushtun-dominated, fundamentalist government, he adds.

One of the most disaffected groups is the country's Shiite Muslim minority, which has virtually no representation in the current power structures. Some Shiite leaders have threatened to withdraw support for the shaky governing coalition unless they receive a greater voice in affairs. Such threats could greatly help the Hezb-e-Islami.

"Everyone now wants a share of the cake," the foreign diplomat says. "If they don't have their way, some religious fundamentalists may go over to Hekmatyar's side. If that happens, it may give Hekmatyar the strength needed to take the city."

Instead of allowing religious differences to contribute to a potentially irreparable split in the country, Masoud and Mr. Rakhmani are looking to use Islam to bring the squabbling factions together.

"Throughout our history, Islam has been one of the main factors in the unity of Afghanistan," Masoud stressed at a news conference.

In his attempt to mold a cohesive, moderate Islamic state, Masoud is helped somewhat by the government's dependence on foreign aid to rebuild the war-devastated nation. Even many Muslim fundamentalists say reconstruc-tion will not be possible without help from such nations as the United States and Russia, the main sponsors of the civil war.

"For 14 years we received aid from the United States to help us fight the communists," says Rakhmani, who was a longtime mujahideen commander. "We'd like the help from the United States to continue in the future."

To ensure that such aid is forthcoming, radical Afghan leaders know they will have to moderate their Islamic policies, at least for the time being, says another foreign diplomat: "They realize the US won't help if it thinks it's giving money to a second Iran."

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