Religion and Afghan Star

I don't watch American Idol, but I think that if I lived in a foreign culture, that country's version of the show would be a great place to learn about that particular society. This rather amazing Guardian story on Afghanistan's Afghan Star television show gives readers a glimpse into a society that we generally only hear in the news when it relates to war, terrorism and international politics. As a reader noted, how often do we hear about the regular people from Afghanistan, the ones who have put up with multiple invasions, governments and a bleak future.

Religion is touched upon in the article, but not to the extent that would give readers a real sense of its nuances and cultural contradictions. For example, the show appears to be a big hit in Afghanistan, a country where music was banned just a few years ago:

Three years later, Afghan Star, the country's equivalent of Pop Idol, was launched by Tolo TV, Afghanistan's leading independent television company. By the time the third series came around last year, the show had become a national phenomenon, despite -- or perhaps because of -- the fact that some entrants were risking their lives by taking part. Women contestants, in particular, have been the object of much anger among religious conservatives. But the prize is considerable: as well as fame, the winner receives £5,000, which is 10 times the average salary.

The Taliban outlawed music for five years. Now hopes are high that this hit show can unite Afghanistan's diverse ethnic groups and help bring an end to conflict. Daoud Sediqi, who presented the first three series, once said that the show's aim was "to take people's hands from weapons to music". Sediqi -- who rebelled against Taliban rule by secretly repairing people's video recorders -- wasn't exaggerating Afghan Star's huge influence. The final was watched by 11 million people, a third of the Afghan population, all voting for their favourite singer by mobile phone; for many, it was their first taste of democracy.

You get the sense initially from the article that music and pop culture is going to unit the country and that everyone was behind the cultural influences of this hugely popular television show, but then you read this paragraph that seems disconnected from the earlier portions of the article:

Sadly, most Afghans are not so open-minded. Setara, a single woman who lives alone (something that is almost unheard of), has much to fear. Although there is nothing in the Koran prohibiting music, many Islamists disapprove of music and dance as incitements to licentious behaviour. Already the show has received a warning from the Islamic Council, for "misleading the people".

As another reader noted to us, the article provides an excellent opportunity for launching into an explanation of Afghanistan's post-Taliban cultural revolution, but it fails to ask the most basic question: why was music banned by the Taliban?

A nice follow-up question would be why do the Muslims there object to music and dancing in particular. One answer given in the article is that it is an incitements "to licentious behaviour." Is the matter simply related to sex, or are there deeper religious reasons particular to their tradition? Prohibitions on music and dance aren't exactly foreign to Puritan traditions in Western cultures, and even the Reformed tradition's John Calvin was known to oppose public dancing.

I had similar questions with regard to National Public Radio's Fresh Air interview with the Iraqi heavy-metal band Acrassicauda. The musicians noted that while Saddam Hussein was in power, they were bothered some, but were generally allowed to go about performing their music discretely.

After the invasion, things became more difficult in terms of their safety and now the band members are in the United States. Was it the mere lawlessness that ensued after the invasion that made living in Iraq impossible, or were there religious reasons making it more difficult for performing artists when the secular Saddam was not in power?

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