The programs in question had become a cause célèbre for conservatives, claiming they were examples of foreign values corrupting Afghan society. They denounced the soaps for showing uncovered areas of female actors’ bodies, men and women mixing together, plus dancing and singing, and the display of Hindu gods – all against Afghan values.
Many TV stations had already bowed to earlier pressure from the clerics, cutting scenes of Hindu worship and blurring areas of bare flesh exposed by the Indian actresses.
Nevertheless, such efforts clearly did not appease conservatives who called for a total ban of the soaps. Subsequent threats by the information ministry to punish unco-operative TV stations caused several to cease broadcasting the programs.
But despite further repeated threats, Tolo TV’s Mohseni refused to capitulate. He even went on the offensive, denouncing the information ministry’s order as completely illegal, insisting he had no intention of removing the five Indian soap operas. He also took on the minister himself, saying his action was purely personal and violated the constitution’s commitment to freedom of expression and the media law.
Unfortunately, the banning attempts by the minister of information and culture are not isolated actions.
In recent days, members of Afghanistan’s democratically elected parliament have also entered the picture. In a declaration they proposed measures going beyond banning soap operas.
They want a prohibition against loud music, women and men mingling in public, billiards, video games, playing with pigeons – all measures similar to regulations imposed by the fundamentalist Taliban during their 1996-2001 rule.
Opponents of the Indian soap operas cite Afghan law that forbids publication of anything “… contrary to the principles of Islam.”
For his part, President Hamid Karzai has maintained that media freedom will be upheld but has qualified this by saying “unsuitable material should not be broadcast.”
Commenting on the soaps controversy at a news conference the president said, “There will never be interference with media freedom but media freedom should be compatible with the culture of the Afghan people.”
Unfortunately for television stations, they also have to contend with forces within Afghan society that see foreign TV programs as a threat to traditional cultural values.
During Friday prayers at Kabul’s largest mosque, Enayatullah Balegh, an influential religious cleric (and university teacher) denounced the soaps and warned he and his followers would not sit idly by if such unwanted programs continued.
“We are 6,000 people in this mosque; our intention is to go and blow up all the TV antennas if they do not stop it.”
Considering that many conservatives, like the Taliban, have not hesitated to attack targets they oppose, including burning down schools for girls, threats by people like Balegh cannot be ignored with impunity.
While many in the West, including Canadians, are supportive of efforts to end the threat posed by the Taliban and to help Afghanistan evolve into a democratic and open society where fundamental human rights, including freedom of thought, are respected, others within Afghan society vehemently oppose the introduction of foreign values and cultural norms, especially equality for women.
They also abhor any perceived threats to Islamic teachings and Afghan culture.
Such attitudes were very much in evidence in recent times. In January, an Afghan university journalist student, Pervez Kambaksh, was sentenced to death for distributing an article from the Internet that questioned the subservient role of females in Islamic societies. His death sentence created an international furor and is now under appeal.
Late last year, a prominent journalist, Ghaws Zalmai, was jailed for translating the Qur’an into the local Dari (Persian-based) language. Clerics have demanded the death sentence for his action.
A year ago, an Afghan who secretly became a Christian also was given a death sentence by the courts for his apostasy, an act subject to the death penalty under Muslim sharia law. Again, an international outcry saved him from execution, leading to his receiving sanctuary in Italy.
Moderate Afghans say such developments have created a propitious climate for the proliferation of the Taliban’s own ideology.
Individuals like Jahid Mohseni of Tolo TV warn that the attempts by conservatives and clerics to ban programs they dislike is “… hobbling the development of free media and debate in Afghanistan.”
Mohseni and others also see conservatives using religion to advance their own agendas, especially as next year’s elections approach.
Some increasingly are concerned over where all this is leading. Perhaps rightly so, if one is to take seriously remarks of Afghan parliamentarian Qazi Naseer Ahmad, who recently said: “We have the same ideas as the Taliban.”
Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator who frequently writes on Afghan issues.