Afghans split over brutal laws

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

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.

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."

Judge Gul says there must be witnesses to convict thieves and adulterers before their punishments are handed down. "If a married woman commits adultery, she must be stoned," he says, sitting cross-legged with a fellow qazi on the floor of a crumbling, bombed-out judiciary building. "If the woman is single, she should receive 100 lashes," he adds.

The handless beggars in big Afghan cities like Kabul are the only indication of the Taliban's effort to follow sharia down to the last letter. The Taliban kept no statistics on how many Afghans suffered amputations or death.

Religious scholars here say that the Taliban era from 1996 to 2001 was one of the sternest periods of sharia enforcement in the nearly 1,000 years since most Afghans converted to Islam. The scholars say that the severity of the law was, at least in part, a direct reaction to perceived immorality during the 12-year Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1991.

Taliban rule, which ended late last year, saw an initial and dramatic drop in crime across the country – a success that is still admired by many Afghans. Under the Taliban, the chief justice of Kandahar's Islamic Supreme Court became a key adviser to the country's supreme leader Mullah Omar, who is still at large.

In much of rural Afghanistan, the Taliban's struggle to implement strict Islam remains popular. Wali Ahmad, a Taliban-era qazi in Midan who has kept his job, says "the only thing that the Taliban lacked as a good government was relations with foreign countries."

All else they did, he insists, was good, "especially their interpretation of the sharia." "People here accept the harshness of the law," he says. "We will still implement it in full. The judges interpret and implement the law, not the government. If the government tries to interfere, the people will revolt."

Local judges in Midan warn their citizens against the corrupt influences of the foreign troops in Kabul and recommend to their women that they continue to wear the all-enveloping blue burqa to guard against the probing eyes of Western men.

Earlier this year, a small civil war broke out in Midan-Wardak Province.

Over a dozen locals died and 20 were injured in the fighting that pitted fundamentalist-minded former Taliban and elements of the country's Northern Alliance against fellow Afghans who follow a far more liberal Sufi code of conduct. Afghanistan's Sufi leaders, who also enjoy much popular support, oversee four sects of mystical Islam, all of which emphasize a personal relationship with God and give far less importance than the Taliban did to an ongoing "holy war" with Western influences.

In Midan-Wardak Province the military garrison remains in the hands of Sufi followers, though Karzai's government has thrown its weight behind a fundamentalist-minded security chief.

Said Aqa, the province's deputy military commander, says his fighters do not venture into remote villages higher in the mountains. "Our problem is that the Taliban are still popular in these areas and they continue to wield influence," he says. "They are aggressive and still think they are fighting a holy war – which ended for us when the Russians left."

"We want Islamic law, but we don't want a harsh version of it," he says. "We believe, for example, that hand of a thief should not be cut off. Instead of crippling a man for life, the state should try to find him a job."

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