Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 4, 2001
For Afghan rebels, a matter of faith
Northern Alliance fighters see themselves as the true believers - and Taliban as infidels. 

At War With Terror

SAYOD, Afghanistan - Every morning Commander Razeq's troops rise before dawn, carefully wash themselves, and then kneel by their rifles in a mosque near the front line of Afghanistan's civil war. In the first of five prayers of the day, the Muslims implore Allah for peace and the conquest of their enemies.

Razeq says their foes are not America nor the West, but infidels of another type: the Taliban, the rigid Islamic extremists who control most of Afghanistan and whose troops they face across the battlefield.

"I can't agree with the Taliban and their Islam," said Razeq, who is a military commander as well as a mullah, a Muslim spiritual leader. "The Taliban say they defend Islam, but they are not Islamic. They practice some other type of religion we do not know."

Contrary to impressions in much of the outside world, the Taliban does not have a monopoly on righteousness in Afghanistan.

The troops who make up the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance refer to themselves as mujaheddin - holy warriors. Most of the commanders and veteran troops served in the long war in the 1980s to liberate Afghanistan from a communist government and Soviet domination.

With the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, the mujaheddin faced a new jihad - this time against the Taliban.

The guerrillas of the Northern Alliance say they are second to none in the strength of their faith. Many commanders keep copies of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, at their bedsides. Not a few commanders are, like Razeq, also Muslim holy men.

"According to Islam, I have the right to struggle to free my nation," said Razeq, who sees no contradiction in serving simultaneously as a warrior and a servant of God.

The troops in his unit receive religious instruction as well as military training. If they miss one of the five daily prayers, their absence is noted.

"We believe in God and trust him," said Abdul Hai, 24, one of Razeq's soldiers responsible for spiritual training. "We've been fighting a jihad for many years. We are fighting to defend the faith of the country."

Like many civil wars, the conflict in Afghanistan has - in addition to political and economic elements - a strong ethnic component: The Taliban is led by Pashtuns, Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group; the Northern Alliance is dominated by minorities from the north - Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

A significant religious dispute also underlies this war: The Taliban grew out of hard-line Islamic schools that regard the West as a threat; it came to power promising a purer Islamic state, to replace the squabbling factions of mujaheddin who took control after the collapse of communism.

"Afghans love Islam, and because of that the Taliban were able to use Islam to get into power," said Razeq. "The safety they brought to this country was like that in a prison."

Many people in opposition territory despise the Taliban's draconian interpretation of Islam - its ban of movies, music and art, and its banishment of women from all but household roles. Opposition commanders say it is a retrograde understanding of a religion they view as more flexible and modern.

"Islam has been here in Afghanistan for about 14 centuries," said Razeq, 40. "Nobody ever behaved like the Taliban. We don't know what religion they're practicing."

That is not to say, however, that life in opposition-controlled Afghanistan is a model for a modern secular Islamic state.

In this conservative culture of arranged marriages and multiple wives, women can work in some jobs, but they still must wear the all-concealing robes called burqas in public. There are no female shopkeepers, no women working where they might come in contact with men.

As in many steadfast Islamic states, there is a strong belief in Islamic or sharia law. An evangelical Christian would not be tolerated. While there are no religious police to interrogate citizens about their understanding of Islam, as there are in Taliban areas, there is considerable pressure to conform.

"Why do you wear a beard?" two men asked a foreigner recently in a public bazaar in Jabal Saraj, an anti-Taliban town. "We are forced to wear them, but we hate them."

On the other hand, in anti-Taliban areas, people listen openly to music, although it is mostly Afghan or regional music with little Western influence. And there is some sense of freedom here that the anti-Taliban forces say does not exist on the other side of the front line.

"Here I am free," said Razeq. "I can talk with journalists without approval from the highest-ranking commanders."

Razeq said the Taliban's chief crime is that it has imposed its order on Afghans against their will and must flog nonconformists and bribe mullahs to toe the line. He said the abrupt execution recently of opposition leader Abdul Haq exposed the Taliban as un-Islamic outsiders, directed by extremists from Pakistan and the Middle East.

"Islam is forgiving, but the sudden execution of Abdul Haq without trial shows they are people of bad faith," said Razeq. "Islam isn't like this."

Razeq grew up in the Safi Mountain area in Kabul Province on the southern edge of the Shamali Plain. He attended Islamic school as a youth, qualifying him to be a mullah. At 17, he joined the military to fight against the communist government.

"All my family are educated people," said Razeq, who is an ethnic Pashtun. "My 18-year-old son has learned the Koran by heart."

When the Taliban entered Kabul in 1996, Razeq was forced to abandon Safi Mountain. He and the 150 soldiers under his command now can view their home village a few miles across the plain from their front-line positions, but it has been five years since he visited his house.

"We're refugees in our own country," he said.

Two years ago, he said, Taliban leaders visited his father and tried to persuade him to denounce Razeq, who, they argued, as a mullah and as a Pashtun should be a member of their movement. His father refused and was put in jail for 40 days, where he contracted an infection that later killed him.

Last year, Razeq said, he was approached by 15 Taliban mullahs.

"They said to me: 'You are a Pashtun. You are a mullah. You should join us.' But I told them, 'You killed my father, I can't join you. You don't practice Islam.' "

Now he waits on the front line for an opportunity to attack. "We'll be the first ones to break through the front lines," he said. "We're in a hurry because we want to free our area."

He and his troops said they welcome the American involvement in their long civil war because it might, at last, tip the balance in their favor.

"We thought the terrorist attacks in America were horrible," he said. "But we have a saying in Persian: 'If something bad happens, it may lead to something good.' Now America is paying attention to Afghanistan; we hope it will lead to good things, like the disintegration of the Taliban state." home page   
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