'Students of Religion' Crucify Afghanistan

The civil war in Afghanistan has a significance larger than the tribal complexities of that impoverished Central Asian nation.

Almost all Afghans are Muslim, and Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in the Middle East and northern Africa. It is a destabilizing force that worries Washington as well as Middle Eastern and European governments. An Egyptian version is trying to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak.

The Afghan movement that captured the capital, Kabul, in early October, calls itself the Taliban. The word means "students of religion," according to Dr. Mary Jane Deeb, editor of The Middle East Journal. "The Taliban is new," she says."It was formed about three years ago by scholars of Islamic theology."

That explains the Koran-rooted social and religious beliefs of the movement. The bulk of its soldiers are largely illiterate rural guerrillas who detest foreigners and fellow Muslims who don't agree with them and their leaders. That explains the driving ferocity that has brought 75 percent of Afghanistan under Taliban control.

Afghanistan borders on three Muslim former republics of the old Soviet Union, on Pakistan, and on Iran. A snippet touches western China. Outside the immediate neighborhood, nobody paid much attention to the Taliban forces beyond the fact that they had captured Kabul. In Afghanistan, when they first fought their way into the city and deposed the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, they were welcomed as potential agents of yearned-for peace.

Then the Taliban's social doctrines were imposed: Everyone was ordered to pray five times a day; attendance at Friday religious services was mandatory; music was banned from the radio; movie theaters and TV stations were shut down."The Koran forbids television," a guerrilla told a reporter.

The biggest shocker was the imposition of ancient Islamic rules for women. They were ordered to quit their jobs, wrap themselves from head to toe in suffocating garments called the burqa, and go home and not appear in public unless accompanied by a male family member.

Although such customs have always been practiced in remote Afghan villages, the imposition of them as a proposed national policy appalled most of the rest of the world, especially Muslim nations who believed the Taliban leaders were holding their faith up to scorn.

The promise of peace dimmed as the deposed government's army led by Gen. Ahmad Shah Massoud and soldiers under the command of a northern warlord began to fight their way toward Kabul. Taliban casualties are high.

Graham Fuller, a Middle Eastern scholar at the Rand Corporation, calls the Taliban "a political movement based on an Islamic vision." The largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, he says, is the Pashtun, whose kings ruled the country for several hundred years. The Pashtun are detested by other Muslim tribes - primarily Tadzhiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. That the Taliban are Pashtun-oriented adds fuel for conflict.

Fuller and other scholars of the region believe the civil war will continue for a long time. The two armies opposing the Taliban are made up of non-Pashtun tribesmen. Nor can the Taliban leaders continue to impose their harshly puritanical regime on Kabul.

"If they stay in power they're going to have to get real very soon," says Fuller. "They can't function without women in the work force, as doctors and teachers among other things."

THE history of Afghanistan is a history of conflict. From the arrival of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC through the Mongols who invaded in 1291 to the imperialist Russian and British occupations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Afghans have fought countless battles against foreigners and each other on the bleak landscape of the north, the rugged hills and steep, rocky valleys of the Hindu Kush mountain range.

In 1978 a period of relative peace was shattered when a group of military officers overthrew Afghanistan's centrist government and installed a communist regime. The devoutly Islamic peasants rebelled.

A year later the Soviet Union moved in 100,000 troops and equipment to bolster its allies in Kabul. Other nations, including the United States and Pakistan, backed various factions with weapons and money. After 10 years of fruitless fighting the Soviets gave up and went home. But the war between the government in Kabul and the countryside guerrilla groups continued.

Now the Taliban is the government in Kabul. The assaults on it by rival Islamic groups are, of course, struggles for power. But they are also motivated by revulsion at the Taliban's fundamentalist extremism - and supported by much of the population for the same reason.

In short, fundamentalism in the Middle East and Central Asia apparently has limits.

* Rod MacLeish writes from the Monitor's Washington bureau.

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