Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
December 2, 2001
At Afghan ministry, leather lashes were idle
Where wire cables and more were used to beat Taliban edicts into citizens, employees await new jobs. 

At War With Terror

Abdul Manan, an employee of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, holds one of the leather lashes that Afghanistan's  religious police formerly used on people who violated the Taliban's rigid religious rules.

KABUL, Afghanistan - The employees of Afghanistan's hated religious police still gather every morning at the cold concrete building where Taliban officials once concerned themselves with such matters as the proper length of a pious man's beard.

But there is not much work to be done now that the Northern Alliance has taken over Kabul and the Taliban has fled. After signing in and exchanging a few pleasantries, the staff of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice calls it a day and goes home.

"If you don't show up for work and don't sign the time sheets every day, the new government will think you're a Taliban," said Farhad, an employee in the ministry's personnel office. Like most of the staff, he has not been paid for five months and does not want to sacrifice his back pay by not showing up for work.

The employees who gather here every day are career civil servants. They say they are the support staff, and it is not their place to question the judgment of political leaders or to be held accountable for their actions.

The officials who enforced the Taliban's puritanical Islamic codes with public floggings and humiliations are long gone.

"It's just not those of us at the ministry of virtue and vice who worked for the Taliban," said Jaweed, who worked in the ministry's finance office for a year. "All government workers are in the same position."

One might expect that an agency with such a dastardly reputation as the ministry of virtue would disappear with the transfer of power to a new, more enlightened, government. But employees here expect that a new regime will retain a ministry of Islamic moral enforcement once an interim administration is in place.

"In all Islamic governments there's a need of a ministry of virtue and vice," said Mohammed Razie Wazir, 35, whom the Northern Alliance leaders dispatched to the ministry as caretaker until an interim government is appointed after talks now under way in Germany.

Wazir envisions a more liberal ministry that suggests rather than imposes a code for Islamic dress and behavior. He says there will be no more use for the leather lashes and wire cables he found in the ministry's offices, formerly used by the religious police to beat conformity into the populace.

"The ministry would tell people the benefits of having a beard," he said. "Then I think it's the choice of people whether to grow one."

The uncertainty about what type of government will emerge from the talks in Bonn and the sorts of restrictions it will place on personal behavior weighs heavily on the minds of Kabul residents. Few women have shed the full-length veils called burqas that were imposed upon Afghan women in Kabul after the Taliban took control in 1996.

"We are waiting for a clear word from the government," said Mariam Afzal, a middle-aged former teacher who began work last week with an international humanitarian agency but is not ready to shed her burqa.

"Many people are uneducated," she said. "If we suddenly take our burqas off, they may think we've converted to Christianity and react badly."

There is ample reason to believe the new government will keep some sort of state vice squad.

Many Northern Alliance leaders trace their roots to the mujaheddin government that ruled Afghanistan before it was ousted from the capital in 1996. The Islamic government created a department of virtue and vice in its justice ministry whose main purpose was to vet employees for purity of thought.

The Taliban elevated virtue and vice to a full cabinet ministry and ordered teams of enforcers to throttle violators in public. The religious police rarely attempted to enforce the rules inside people's homes.

Almost every one in Kabul knows somebody who has been treated harshly by the religious police - the Amre Belmaruf. Known derisively as the "Uncle Maruf," the moral police often received only rudimentary religious education. They would accost women walking with men, forcing them to prove that their escorts were their brothers or their betrothed.

The rules of public behavior were restrictive. For instance, tailors could not take the measurements of women because it was too intimate for Taliban puritanical tastes. So garment makers devised elaborate methods to put lookouts in the street to warn them while they worked with women customers.

Mahnaz Amani, a 26-year-old Afghan widow who arrived in Kabul last June after spending more than a decade in Iran, was unaware of the extent of the Taliban's reach until she went alone to a tailor's shop.

As she inspected pages of fashion designs, the Taliban rushed in and demanded to know what she was doing. "They asked me to stand up and then they came at me with the lash and started beating," she said.

The tailor defended her, saying she was new to Afghanistan and ignorant of the rules. So the police started beating him.

"I left, but I later learned the tailor spent two months in jail getting religious studies," Amani said.

Many of the former employees of the ministry have now trimmed the bushy beards the Taliban required to honor the Prophet Muhammad. A few said they disapproved at the time of the enforcers' harsh treatment of the population.

Noori, a 68-year employment officer who has worked in government for three decades, said the Taliban sacked him and more than 50 others for objecting to Taliban tactics.

"We told them that what they were doing was against Islamic law," said Noori, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. His job was restored only a few months ago.

Some former employees doubted the religious police were systematically undermining civilian rights.

"I think the Taliban were telling people to be kind," said Mohammed Yusef, 57, who was responsible for organizing Muslim clerics. "It was only a few ignorant ones who didn't know Islamic law well who were beating people in the market."

Yusef said he is worried that the new government will be too liberal, judging by the changes that have happened thus far - leaders have lifted bans on music, movies, photography and beard length.

"I'm upset," said Yusef, whose flowing white beard is untrimmed. "It's our job in the ministry of virtue and vice to tell people they're not doing the right thing. It's my job to tell them, 'You're not in compliance with sharia law.' "

Yusef's speech prompted an interruption from Mohammed Ismael, 38, a guard at the ministry's front gate. He said he once saw Taliban outside the building tie up a woman, beat her and throw her into a vehicle because she was walking with a man - her brother, it turned out.

"It was a big shame for the woman to get arrested in public," said Ismael. "I think many people who work for virtue and vice are covering the facts, and I wanted to tell you what was in my heart."

Some things haven't changed. Inside the foyer of the ministry, whose records Wazir said were looted, are various posters with reminders about moral rigidity.

One poster said: "If a woman is under a burqa, she is like a jewel."

Another outlined 10 commandments of good behavior, explaining much about the Taliban's humorless culture. The rules include obeying calls to prayer, reading from the Koran, and learning Arabic, the mother tongue of all Arabs. It warns that a Muslim should not make jokes about Islam, not talk loudly, and not laugh, "because laughter will make your heart die."

A final notice from the Taliban bulletin board may no longer apply now that more than 200 former ministry employees have disappeared: "No vacancies. All office jobs are full." home page   
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