Dionysus and the Devil: The Silence of Enslavement in Afghanistan (Part 2)

For Part 1, click here
Not all of the Mujahedeen proscribed music, and a number of tapes, many no longer extant, containing epic songs that recount the exploits of Mujahedeen groups, were taken into Afghanistan for ‘entertainment purposes’. One tape included a forty minute epic song about a particular Mujahedeen group fighting in North Afghanistan. The lyrics included the lines: ‘It was in the dark of the night when the Mujahedeen were fighting. It was difficult to tell between friend and foe. In the morning it was time for the third attack; Allah o Akhbar could be heard amongst the bombardment. The Mujahedeen advanced into the district, And they were happy for the blood they shed in martyrdom, When they made their third attack on the town’.
There existed a great deal of rivalry between the Communist government and certain Mujahedeen groups to support singers. The Pashtun singer Naghma described this rivalry:
‘During the Communist times I was singing on television. I was in danger from people who objected to me singing. They were the Mujahedeen of Islam. They wanted me to sing for them and not appear in public. On one side the Communists wanted me to sing for them, and the Mujahedeen wanted me on their side. Several times people tried to shoot me when I performed. Many times I was told to stop singing for the Communists. My husband and I had threats and our lives were in danger. But I continued to perform and one night when I was out they killed my sister in error because she looked like me''.
After 1980, Islamic fundamentalists murdered a large number of musicians, including Fazal Ghani and Khan Qarra Baghi. Anwar described these attacks as part of a campaign against ‘un-Islamic’ practices: ‘Fundamentalist rebels are not only the major enemies of the Soviets, but also of music, education, art and literature which they consider interventions of the devil … It can be safely said that the rebels have launched a crusade against modern knowledge’.
The Mujahedeen finally deposed the Communist government in 1992.  In the following four years, Afghanistan was ruled by an uneasy coalition of Mujahedeen groups under President Rabbani, leader of the Tajik Mujahedeen party – also known as the Jamiat-e Islami.
Rabbani attempted to shut down the cinemas and ban music at the beginning of his rule, but as Abdul Hafiz Mansoor observed, ‘it proved to be an unrealistic ideal which only lasted a few weeks … It’s difficult and potentially dangerous to take away a few simple pleasures from people who live in a ruined city with no electricity or running water and which comes under constant rocket attack’
During this time, a Mujahedeen commander named Islmail Khan, who was an ally of Rabbani, ruled the city of Herat. Khan was known for his support for various social programmes during the war, and even championed education for girls – a notion which the Taliban would violently oppose in later years. Islamists had a strong say in how the city was run, and set up an ‘Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice’.
Herat’s rulers enforced severe restrictions on music. Professional musicians had to apply for a licence with the proviso that only songs that praised the Mujahedeen could be performed. The great tradition of love songs and dancing songs so enjoyed by Afghans was now prohibited. The licence also proscribed the electronic amplification of music, a decree also enforced in the refugee camps in Peshawar in 1985.
Male musicians could perform at private parties indoors, but women were absolutely forbidden to perform, and several were imprisoned for failing to abide by this law. Although male musicians were supposedly allowed to play at private indoor parties, agents of the Office for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice would often arrive to break up the party and confiscate the instruments. Conversely, the local administration did occasionally call upon the same musicians to play for important visiting foreign delegations.
In Kabul, the censorship of music was not as strict as in Herat. President Rabbani had tried to set up a similar Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, but this venture had failed because of opposition from certain members of the Government, such as Ahmad Shah Masud, who did not believe in ‘such strong measures to control the populace’.
During the last few days of the Rabbani Government, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was appointed to the office of Prime Minister. He quickly closed Kabul’s cinemas and banned the broadcast of music on radio and television. A Government spokesperson told the Pakistani newspaper The Muslim in 1996 that ‘no music or musical instruments should be heard on radio or television … Any sort of music being played on air was illegal because it has a negative effect on people’s psyches’.
The Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, and immediately imposed a draconian level of censorship. They enforced an absolute ban on playing, making and owning any kind of musical instrument other than the frame drum. Unaccompanied singing was not thought of as ‘music’, and thus was permitted by the Taliban.
The Taliban issued a number of decrees concerning the prohibition of music:
To prevent music … In shops, hotels, vehicles and rickshaws, cassettes and music are prohibited … If any music cassette is found in a shop, the shopkeeper should be imprisoned and the shop locked. If five people guarantee, the shop should be opened and the criminal released later. If a cassette is found in the vehicle, the vehicle and the driver will be imprisoned. If five people guarantee, the vehicle will be released and the criminal released later. To prevent music and dances in wedding parties, in the case of violation, the head of the family will be arrested and punished.
The ‘disembodied audio cassette, tape waving in the breeze'' had become the icon of Taliban rule.’ Musical instruments were ‘destroyed and hung from trees in mock execution or burned in public in sports stadiums’. The Islamist authorities justified these actions with the following hadith: ‘Those who listen to music and songs in this world, will on the Day of Judgement have molten lead poured into their ears’
Without music, Taliban agitprop would have been non-existent except for the creation of tarana (song/chant). Tarana was a genre invented by the Taliban and comprised of unaccompanied singing of religious texts. The lyrics lauded the Taliban, the commitment to Islam, and the desire to sacrifice oneself for their country. The message was unadulterated collectivism; this was music to incite martyrdom.
Some musicians - echoing Shostakovich’s approach to the Stalingrad symphony albeit less subtly - managed to add their own message. Nairiz, a well-known radio singer, recounted, ‘I was put in charge of “songs without music.” They wanted to hear me sing, so I chose one that went: “Remember the poor are protected by God, One Day He will answer their cries, And their oppressors will be punished.” The Taliban liked the song but didn’t understand its meaning. They were proud Pashto speakers, but I sang in Farsi and the song was a big hit’
In 2001, invading American forces destroyed the Taliban Government, and ‘spontaneous outbursts of music greeted the liberation of the towns and cities.’ Music became one of the very symbols of freedom. ‘Once music was heard coming from a local radio station, people knew that the Taliban had lost control over their area’.
However, the euphoric sense of liberty was short-lived. The Afghan coalition that ran post-Taliban Kabul continued to enforce strong censorship of music. In Kabul, women were banned from singing on state-run radio and television, and on the stage or concert platform. The explanation for the ban was that allowing female participation in the arts would provide the fundamentalist enemies of the new government an ‘easy excuse to sir up trouble.’ A number of musicians were attacked in southeast Afghanistan.  In a village near Paghman, two musicians were murdered when hand grenades were thrown at a wedding party.
Music became a symbol of power. A younger farmer in Paghman noted: ‘The majority of the people hate the governor, and his meanness, and his people. They are hypocrites. They have weddings! They have music at their weddings! But they prosecute us for having the same. Well perhaps we disagree about whether Islam allows music at a wedding, but look: they have music. If the gunmen have music, why can’t we?’
During the jihad period, the Mujahedeen groups had enforced a ban in the refugee camps but enjoyed music for entertainment while fighting. The double standards that are so apparent suggest to the rational observer that the reservations about music are not predicated upon a religious premise, but rather there is a fear over the power of music, its mix with politics and its effect upon the masses. Music is the sound of freedom.
Western music was not just perceived by Afghan leaders as a threat to the masses’ cultural mindset, but also an affront to the Islamist notion of providential morality – an affront that illustrated the espousal of enforced homogeneity of cultural, political and moral values. In contrast to the application of musical agitprop by Islamist groups in the European Islamic Diaspora, North Africa and the Mediterranean; the Taliban’s absolutist response is indicative of a total rejection of Western ideas, made possible by the almost autarkic isolation from European influence.
Let us hope that for many years to come, the Sound Cental festival continues to express the sounds of freedom for the sake of the Afghani people, peace and liberty. It was Kant who first suggested the ‘art as evidence of humanity’. He believed that the aesthetic experience of beauty takes us beyond the “purposive striving of nature” and is part of ‘the cultivation of our higher destiny’ and the ‘development of our humanity’.
If, as Kant proposes, art is humanity, then the attempts by the Taliban to proscribe music - for fear of its enlightening effect upon the individual - illustrate that Islamists do not just fear the consequence of free artistic expression upon the society they wish to control so tightly; they fear the very notion of humanity itself.