KABUL, Afghanistan -- Not much in the manner of Alhaj Maulavi Qalamuddin suggests that he is one of the most feared men in Afghanistan.
The tall, muscular Muslim cleric with the bushy beard and long-tailed turban is a study in gentility, at least toward visitors. He begins by offering cups of green tea. Even when the topic is deadly serious, he has a way of breaking into a barrel-chested laugh.
But Qalamuddin is the head of the General Department for the Preservation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police of the Taliban, the Islamic movement that controls most of the country. Under his command, thousands of young men known as "mohtaseb" -- an Arabic word that translates roughly as "inquisitors" -- roam the land, watching for infringements of the Taliban's taboos, arresting some offenders and meting out summary beatings and floggings to others.
Some of these enforcers roar through dusty streets on Japanese-made pickup trucks equipped with chrome roll bars and flashing blue lights, peering out of the windows through a forest of Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades powerful enough to punch a hole in a tank. Others patrol on foot, often with rifles, sometimes with switches fashioned from tree branches or lengths of electric cable.
Their role is to insure conformity with Sharia, the ancient Islamic social and penal code. The Taliban have ordered the stoning to death of couples caught in adultery, the amputation of the hands and feet of thieves, and public executions where male relatives of rape and murder victims act as one-man firing squads.
Such punishments are not unknown in Saudi Arabia and other conservative Islamic societies. But Taliban rule has also come to mean floggings for women who allow faces or ankles to show beneath the head-to-toe shrouds called burqas that the Taliban have made mandatory. Other Taliban taboos include bans on women talking to men who are not blood relatives, making themselves visible to passers-by through the windows of their homes, or traveling in cars, buses, or trucks alongside men who are not from their family.
Recently, there have been cases in Kabul in which Qalamuddin's men have beaten women for wearing white socks or plastic sandals with no socks, attire Taliban zealots have said was likely to provoke "impure thoughts" in men. Asked about these cases, Qalamuddin said there had been no formal decrees on socks or sandals, only one that admonished women to "walk calmly and avoid creating noise by their footsteps."
But the cleric, a veteran of years of fighting against Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as much as confirmed that women are at risk of a flogging if anything about their feet or legs arouses suspicion among his men.
"Some women want to show their feet and ankles," he said. "They are immoral women. They want to give a hint to the opposite sex."
True to his strict interpretation of Islamic teaching and its proscription of images of the human figure, Qalamuddin refused to be photographed. But many Afghans complain that the Taliban militants make up taboos as they go along. In the villages where most of the young, illiterate Taliban recruits come from, contact between men and women outside of family and marriage has always been forbidden, a frustrating circumstance that better-educated Afghans see as a possible spur to Taliban violence against women.
Although women are the main victims of the "virtue and vice" teams, men are not immune. In an incident this summer, Qalamuddin's men hid on the roof of a house in the center of Kabul, waiting until men in an adjoining house began watching a video of an Indian dance movie, a popular genre in this part of Asia. According to a neighbor, one of the men seized by the Taliban, a 25-year-old welder who had been deaf since birth, died in custody within 48 hours.
Stories like this abound in Kabul, but Qalamuddin denied that the Taliban have unleashed a terror. On the contrary, he said, the Taliban have brought a measure of "peace and security" to the country that had been absent throughout the years of communist rule, guerrilla conflict and civil war that preceded the Taliban. Indeed, he said, the promise of a return to order was what enabled the Taliban to rise from village obscurity to control of most of the country in barely three years.
Referring to a stoning of two adulterers beside a mosque in the southern city of Kandahar last August, he chuckled, saying it had been one of the Taliban's most successful demonstrations.
"Just two people, that's all, and we ended adultery in Kandahar forever," he said. "Even 100,000 police could not have the effect that we achieved with one punishment of this kind."
Taliban leaders often say that Western reporters and human rights organizations exaggerate the importance of Taliban rules banning women from working, denying education to girls, and restricting women and girls past puberty to domestic seclusion. But Qalamuddin's elaboration on what he depicted as the ever-present dangers of sex lent weight to a common impression among ordinary Afghans that it is the Taliban, not their critics, who are obsessed.
Qalamuddin laid out a view of relations between men and women that seemed rooted in an Adam-and-Eve view of men as deeply vulnerable to corruption through unregulated contacts with women. In Islamic society, he said, these risks had been curbed by rules that strictly limited male-female encounters. "If we consider sex to be as dangerous as a loaded Kalashnikov rifle, it is because it is the source of all immorality," he said.
Qalamuddin contrasted this approach with Western sexual attitudes, an issue many Taliban clerics seem keen to discuss. "Young women in your society come into public parks and walk around half naked for all to see," he said, smiling. "In this case, what is the difference between a public park and a jungle? Does not behavior like this reduce men and women to wild animals? In Islam, we say that it is our duty to tame these corrupt instincts."
"The outside world, in conjunction with our enemies at home, have unleashed a false propaganda against us, that we are violating women's rights," he said. "But the reverse is true: the world should take lessons from us. By strictly observing the Sharia law, we have given great honor and dignity to our women."
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