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Afghans split over brutal laws

Debate over Islamic law roiled the national assembly as it drew to a close Wednesday.

By Philip SmuckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 2002


During the Taliban's six-year reign in Afghanistan, the hard-line Islamic regime was internationally famed – or reviled – for its radical style of justice. The Taliban laid down the most extreme form of sharia (Islamic law) seen in Afghanistan in more than 1,000 years.

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Crime plummeted as convicted thieves faced the amputation of a hand. Adulterers, both male and female, were stoned to death. And to convert from Islam was an offense punishable by death.

With the Taliban's fall has come real progress on some issues of human rights, particularly in the nation's larger cities.

But observers, Western and otherwise, who hoped for Afghanistan's new president to lead the way to a more moderate interpretation of Islamic law have been disappointed so far. In fact, during this week's loya jirga (grand assembly), President Hamid Karzai has given Islamic traditionalists fresh hope – and human rights activists new concerns – with his declaration that the nation will continue to follow sharia, and his inaugural wish that "... God cut [off] the hands of people who try to steal our national heritage."

That kind of language sends a chill through Mohammed Afzal.

In 1997, Mr. Afzal was one of three accused thieves who were sent to a chopping block in Kabul's central stadium. Tens of thousands of spectators watched that day as a man in a black mask cut off Afzal's left hand. "In the early days, after the amputation, I was ashamed, I didn't even leave my house," he says. "Even now, if someone asks me, I don't usually tell them that the Taliban chopped my hand off. It has been very hard to explain to every stranger that I am not a thief."

But only 35 miles west of the capital, Taliban-era qazis, or Islamic judges, many of them the same men who issued verdicts from 1996 to 2001, have taken heart in President Karzai's declarations.

It wasn't clear from Mr. Karzai's statements, or the more ethnically balanced cabinet he appointed Wednesday, how strictly or loosely the new Afghan government plans to follow the Taliban's interpretation of the legal code.

Several delegates at the nation's loya jirga, or grand assembly, who stood up early last week to suggest that the new Afghan government should not use the word "Islamic" in its title and should be more secular in nature, were quickly jeered inside the massive white tent.

Here in Midan, the judges say they are pleased with Karzai's announcement and insist that they have no plans to stop ordering the lopping off the hands of thieves or the stoning of male and female adulterers.

But other religious leaders in larger cities disagree, saying that the harshest practices of sharia must be reviewed and altered to fit the new era.

"The sharia that Karzai speaks of should be the same as it was during [King Zahir Shah]'s era; officially sharia should be the law, but in practice it should not be implemented 100 percent," says Maulvi Sami Ullah, an Islamic scholar, the headmaster of a Sufi Islamic school, and a delegate to the grand assembly.

In Afghanistan today, most courts operate under sharia, but the majority are not as strict as those of the Taliban era. Many courts have liberalized, particularly those in large cities.

Both sides in the debate over sharia are trying to seize the moral high ground. Those who prefer the Taliban's legal methods see their struggle as a battle against foreign immorality.

"We need a modern Islam that is capable of dealing with the Western threat from imperialist nations who try to occupy Muslim countries," says Mohammed Gul, a judge in Midan's sharia court. "There are imperialist powers that want to interfere in the Middle Eastern holy lands and who oppose our use of the sharia laws. But our religion requires it and so we will fight for it."