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Afghan lawmakers push cultural bans of Taliban era

A draft proposal put forth last week would ban loud music, women and men mingling in public, billiards, and more.

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However, in the rural, war-torn countryside, where most people don't have access to electricity and associate Western influences with the foreign military presence, the conservatives may have more of a hearing.

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"They are trying to appeal to the poor and traditional people outside Kabul, the people in rural areas," says Ahmad Idrees Rahmani, cofounder of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies.

According to a poll conducted last year by the SENLIS Council, a leading Europe-based think tank, 27 percent of villagers in rural parts of southern Afghanistan declared support for the Taliban, up from just 2 percent in 2005.

An eye on politics

Many observers say these lawmakers are motivated by politics. "This is a political game. Conservative MPs hope to win support by claiming to defend the religious and cultural values that segments of the population feel are under attack, says Mr. Rahmani.

"Everyone is trying to create some kind of leverage or bargaining power for the coming elections," he continues, referring to the parliamentary and presidential polls scheduled for fall 2009.

Moreover, religion is a powerfully sensitive issue in Afghanistan, Rahmani says, and the mullahs' claims that they are defending Islam is effective in disarming moderates. "The people pushing these laws are a minority in parliament, but no other MPs have the courage to stand up to them."

Analysts contend that President Hamid Karzai is too politically weak to counter conservative pressure and is too concerned with winning reelection to alienate the religious hard-liners.

"These television programs," Mr. Karzai recently told reporters, referring to the banned Indian serials, "contradict the daily life of Afghans and ... must be stopped."

Still, this tide of conservatism is engendering some resistance. Despite the recent ban on Indian soaps, television stations have continued to air the dramas. A presenter from Tolo TV, the nation's most popular station says that the ban is unconstitutional and they will continue to defy government orders. "We will not stop the airing of the soap operas," Masoud Qiam told reporters last week.

The soap operas are enormously popular with the Afghan public because of the overlap between Indian and Afghan culture, Mir says. In addition, most Afghan-based television programs have not yet reached the sophistication or production quality of the Indian serials.

A recent study by the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation determined that more than 50 percent of Afghans watch Tolo TV, making it easily the country's most popular television network.

Still, the station's continued defiance is drawing threats of retaliation. Last week, a leading conservative mullah, Ensayatullah Balegh, threatened to climb the hills surrounding Kabul with his followers and blow up TV antennas if broadcasts did not cease.

This creeping Talibanization is casting a pall of fear over Kabul. "How can we live with these restrictions and without entertainment," Kabul local Shafi Samandari asks. "It will be just like the Taliban times – we will have to flee the country yet again."