HERAT, Afghanistan -- Khalida Khorsand protested in February when religious authorities banned Valentine’s Day in Herat, her hometown and the capital of a large province of the same name in western Afghanistan bordering Iran.
Khorsand, a women’s rights activist, had been alarmed because it was not an isolated prohibition. It followed an unofficial ban on outdoor concerts after opposition by local clerics.
She says such bans are a sign of rising religious extremism, which is costing Afghans their rights and freedoms.
“Their [the religious group’s] goal is to prevent people from familiarizing with modernity,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “[This is because] the more people know about the media, modern lifestyles, and their rights and privileges, they are less likely to fall into the hands of these religious groups.”
Khorsand says the mushrooming Islamic madrasahs are pushing Afghanistan back toward conservative values in the name of tradition and Islamic teachings. “This is an indication of the growth of radical Islamism in Herat,” she said.
But Abdul Aleem Modrek, head of Fakhr Al-Madares, one of 600 Islamist schools in Herat province, disagrees.
He says the schools do not propagate Islamic extremism and are imparting Islamic education including religious jurisprudence, Hadith or the study of Prophet Mohammad’s sayings and deeds, and the memorization and interpretation of the Islamic Holy book, the Koran.
He says the implementation of Shari’a law is necessary for Afghanistan to fend off alien religious and cultural influences.
“We do not have Valentine’s Day in Islam,” he said. “This is a foreign culture that has come to change the minds of people and, God forbid, to deviate them from the right path.”
Jan Agha Jami, a 21-year-old student at Fakhr Al-Madares, agrees and says he supports a ban on concerts, too.
“Music is bad for the mind, memory, and even the human psyche, and it prevents a person from growing and making progress in society,” he said. “When a woman performs in front of strangers, the whole society is corrupted.”
Jami backs the implementation of the strict Islamic criminal code called Hudood. During their stint in power in the 1990s, the Taliban implemented Hudood, which stipulated punishments such as amputating limbs for theft, stoning for adultery, and lashes for alcohol consumption. “The Koran’s rulings should be implemented in society,” he said.
Khorsand and Jami represent two poles of liberal and conservative thought in Afghan society. Nearly two decades of U.S.-led stabilization and reconstruction efforts have empowered liberal activists, technocrats, youth, and intellectuals. But the conservatives have largely clung to power by resisting modernity and systematically expanding their base through education, preaching, and activism.
As Afghans watch Washington’s effort to end its longest war in Afghanistan by talking to its erstwhile Taliban foes, many are wondering whether democracy, modernity, and liberal values will have a future in the country. The Taliban have already declared that
“Islam and then Afghan tradition [are] two major values of the Afghan Mujahid nation.”
Abdul Qayum Arezo, a Herat intellectual, urges reconciliation between the two camps. He opposes both the obsession with preserving traditional values and efforts to wipe out traditions without first improving the economic conditions of Afghans.
“Instead of bringing about a fundamental transformation in people's lives such as prosperity and justice, we are symbolically fighting against traditional values revered by the masses,” he said.
Arezo says that the Taliban’s current sway over half of Afghanistan is not without local causes.
“There are two things involved. One is undoubtedly the external cause,” he said, alluding to the popular Afghan belief that the insurgents are proxies fighting to preserve the interests of neighboring Pakistan and Iran. “But the domestic cause is the social aspect that should not be forgotten,” he said of the Taliban’s appeal in the Afghan countryside, where they have established some order and even run their own administration and courts dispensing what they call Islamic justice.
He says the failure of Afghan government institutions, such as the Religious Affairs Ministry, to encourage modernity and rationality based on the realities of Afghanistan is an impediment to reconciling liberals and conservatives.
Sayed Mohammad Shirzady, head of the provincial branch of the Religious Affairs Ministry, however, says there are limited resources at his disposal to undertake major reforms.
He rejects the criticism that the estimated 50,000 madrasah students in Herat are particularly vulnerable to Takfiri Salafism or other radical Islamic ideologies advocating violence in an Islamic political system.
Shirzady says that mainstreaming madrasah graduates by providing them opportunities to join universities and seek jobs will mitigate the risks that they might join the insurgents.
“A Talib or student of a religious school currently has no chance to get a government job after graduation,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “If they cannot get employment or study for a master’s or doctorate, it is natural that it would push them toward opposing [the current order].”
But many Herat residents feel the conservatives are already enforcing their worldview. Masoud Hassanzadah, a local musician, says he is now unable to hold a concert even with the government’s support.
“Some of these religious organizations have a violent force that can do anything,” he said.
The oasis city of Herat was historically a bastion of science, art, culture, and music. The region was the seat of the Timurid Empire in the mid-15th century and the moderate Chishti Sufi order originated near Herat. Even a large Jewish community once prospered amid the Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims of various ethnic communities.
The clash between liberals and conservatives now clouds the future of Herat and Afghanistan.
Khorsand says that lower literacy levels, poverty, unemployment, and insecurity are aiding the conservative extremist groups.
“These groups can be very dangerous. They are the biggest obstacles to the modernization and transition of a traditional society toward social, economic, and legal development,” she said. “Without [robust] government intervention, people will be slowly pushed toward extremism.”
In Kabul, academic Ali Amiri says that even if the Taliban return to power, conservatives cannot ignore the aspirations of the new generation who have no memories of the civil war or Taliban rule in the 1990s.
This generation, he argues, is exposed to and supports modernity, so they are unwilling to surrender to individuals trained in a religious school.
“The presence of a vibrant and futuristic young generation, in my opinion, is part of the reality of Afghanistan today,” he said.