Afghan Clerics Want to Clean Up TV by Banning Soaps

Nick Meo, London Times, January 11, 2008

With suicide bombers in the capital, spiralling opium production and half the country prey to Taleban guerrillas, Afghanistan’s spiritual guardians have discovered a dangerous new peril: Indian soap operas.

In an echo of the strict religious laws of the Taleban era, the Islamic Council of Scholars won the backing this week of a powerful government minister in its campaign to get dozens of wildly popular Bombay dramas off Afghanistan’s television screens.

The Minister of Information and Culture has written to television executives to threaten prosecution if they show footage that offends morality. He is particularly concerned about Indian soaps.

His announcement came after dozens of clerics met President Karzai a week ago to demand a ban on shows that they claim are “spreading immorality and un-Islamic culture”. The dramas have won thousands of devotees in Afghanistan who enjoy the escapist world of the fictional Bombay rich. Anywhere else, the family dramas with wooden acting and creaking sets would be thought tame. They have, however, offended the country’s new moral enforcers, who fear that the soaps will fuel a craze of “stone worship”, or veneration of Hindu idols.

The enforcers are also urging the Government to take action to get a young generation of rappers and pop stars off air. The old men accuse the musicians of polluting the nation’s moral standards and they have chastised Afghans who watch television when they could go to the mosque.

Before turning their sights on Kabul’s buoyant new media world the scholars’ main campaign was to bring back public executions, last seen in the capital when the Taleban were in control. The battle to censor television is also a throwback to the days of Taleban rule when entertainment was banned and Kabulis had to watch smuggled videos in the secrecy of their own homes at the risk of jail.

The campaign is also an illustration of the renewed grip Islamic fundamentalists have in Kabul six years after the Taleban’s fall from power.

New television stations have proliferated in the past three years, offering a mix of hard-hitting news, which is often critical of the Government, and light entertainment shows, which draw the wrath of religious hardliners.

Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s first commercial channel, shows three Indian dramas, The Story of Every House; The Trials of Life; and Because a Mother-in-Law Was Once a Daughter-in-Law Too. Some channels show as many as six daily. Clerics accuse the dramas of encouraging “stone-worship” even though Hindu images are pixellated and scenes of Hindu worship are cut.

The hardliners also oppose Tolo TV’s pop programmes—Hop, a local MTV-style show, and Afghan Star, a talent contest.

After meeting the President, an Islamic council spokesman said: “The unrestrained programmes on TV have angered and prompted the ulemas [scholars] to react. Hop . . . is spreading immoralities and hurts the sacred religion of Islam. Afghan Star encourages immorality . . . and is against Sharia.”

Saad Mohseni, the director of Tolo TV, said: “We have so many problems in this country—kidnapping, terrorism, inflation—so why is the Government making a big deal about something which is pleasing to the eyes and ears of most Afghans?”

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