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Kandahar's Confused Censors

Clerics in Kandahar are confiscating books right, left and centre, and it's not always clear why.
By Hafizullah Ghashtalai

There's no shortage of people leafing through the books in the narrow streets which make up the Arg bazaar in Kandahar's old town. The owners of the 40 or more bookshops are doing good business, but they would be happier still if the religious authorities would stop confiscating titles they disapprove of - often for no apparent reason.


The traders accuse religious officials on the Council of Ulema (Muslim clergy) of arbitrarily seizing books that are not Islamic enough, books with Islamic fundamentalist content, books that are too communist, and some books that were also banned by the Taleban.


Local government officials say they disapprove of the way the clergy are acting, and want to take over control of deciding which titles are fit for public consumption.


The clerical watchdogs' latest target is the Nawakht magazine, which is published in Peshawar and has been critical of the Afghan government. Recently, a consignment of 600 copies was seized, and the trader concerned fled to Iran. Other booksellers have reportedly been jailed for three to five days just for selling the publication.


Clerics seize some books direct from the shops selling them, but mostly they go to the customs office where they inspect them and remove any that are deemed offensive.


Akhtar Mohammed Talib runs Kabul Bookstores in central Kandahar, and has compiled a list of titles confiscated by the council. It includes A History of Afghanistan, apparently seen as too Pashtun nationalist in outlook, books sympathetic to the 1980s communist regime, a translation of Ahmed Rashid's bestselling Taleban and an apparently innocuous English-language historical guidebook to the country.


"The book bans have sliced our business in half," Talib told IWPR. "If the situation continues as it is we will have to leave the country. It's illegal! I was a bookseller in Quetta for 20 years, and nobody interfered in my business."


And, said Talib, the clerics do not stand on ceremony, "When they seize the books and I demand some documentation, they say, 'no documents, or else we'll put you in prison'."


It is not so much the principle that sensitive or irreligious books should be withheld from sale that annoys the booksellers, it's the confusion about which ones are banned.


Mohammad Ismail, who specialises in religious works, told IWPR he had no problem with the ban on works by people such as senior Taleban cleric Maulavi Abdul Ali Deobandi. Since the rules on this were perfectly clear. "We don't acquire them and we don't sell them," he said.


But other criteria applied by the clerics are less clear. "We don't know what kinds of books are legal, or whether the ulema approve of them," said bookseller Fazil Ahmad Qani. "In a situation like that we cannot obtain or sell new books."


When IWPR spoke to Maulavi Abdullah Faiaz, who chairs the Council of Ulema, he admitted that confiscations happened, but outlined only two main categories - books that contain propaganda from the communist era and works that seriously deviate from accepted Muslim principles.


"We ban books which are harmful to our beliefs such as communist books… such as A Short History of the USSR, a book written by Sada Taraki. These are published to support communist ideas," he said. "We also ban un-Islamic or al-Qaeda books because they would create enmity."


As examples of un-Islamic works, he cited ones that questioned the Koran or contained pictures of Jesus and other figures revered as prophets in Islam. These came from Iran, Faiaz said.


He confirmed that the council tried to check consignments of books at the customs posts rather than after they reached the shops, but insisted this was done in an orderly fashion and was fully documented.


"If we check them in the shops, the owners will hide the banned books and it will be difficult to find them," he said. "When [they] are at customs, the owners can apply to us. We will list and seize those which are illegal, and there will be two copies of the list - one for the bookseller and one for the council."


Faiaz rejected the charge that his council was confiscating a wide range of books. When IWPR showed him the list of works said to have been seized in Kandahar, he said, "It's a lie, we didn't take those. Maybe they got lost."


The deputy director of the customs service in Kandahar, Mohammad Zahir, told IWPR that since books were not subject to import tax the confiscations had nothing to do with his office. "The Council of Ulema take the books themselves. We don't know how many, or what sort, they have taken, so we cannot issue receipts for them," he said.


The Kandahar office of Afghanistan's culture and information ministry is well aware that books are being confiscated. Its head, Abdul Majid Babi, says it has informally asked the Council of Ulema to desist and let his office conduct the checks instead, although he has yet to request this in official terms.


"The culture and information office is not aware of the standards or reasons under which the council bans books," he said.


"The imposition of [such] bans by the Council of Ulema constitutes interference in our administrative work. Our office has a religious affairs department whose director Maulavi Lutfullah is an expert on sacred books, so we don't accept that we are unable to check the books."


Back in Kabul, deputy culture and information minister Abdul Hamid Mubariz, who is in charge of media affairs, expressed surprise and concern when IWPR put these issues to him.


"We don't know anything about Nawakht magazine, though I can say that we have not banned it," he said. "As for the other books - if you give me that list we will send a letter to the governor of Kandahar and ask why they have banned them, because we have no right to stop people reading."


Hafizullah Ghashtalai is an IWPR contributor in Kabul.


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