By Ellen Knickmeyer
KHWAJA BAHAUDDIN, Afghanistan — Public floggings, a ban on women singing in public and the option of amputating thieves’ hands are part of the local law in what has long been the anti-Taliban forces’ center of power.
The Northern Alliance says its interpretation of Islamic law is kinder and more enlightened than the Taliban’s. But it’s still severe by Western standards.
As the alliance seizes territory from the Taliban — including the capital, Kabul — the law in Khwaja Bahauddin may become the law of the land.
"With us, if a person steals money, we will warn him one time, two times. Only on the third time will we cut off his hand," said Mullah Sahaid Asmahail, a cleric appointed with the approval of alliance authorities in Khwaja Bahuaddin.
That punishment has not been imposed during his six years in the town, he said.
But public floggings are common. One took place at least as recently as October, townspeople said, when a heroin dealer was whipped after being paraded before the public.
Khwaja Bahauddin, a dusty town of 10,000 people, became the alliance’s military base in 2000 after the Taliban pushed them out of the city of Taloqan.
When alliance forces took control of Khwaja Bahauddin, the first order they issued was to ban women from singing in public, according to the Keston News Service, a private agency that reports on religious freedoms.
The agency said music also had been banned. It quoted local cleric Ismail Ibrahim, at the central mosque, as saying: "According to Islam, one of the worst sins is to encroach on a person’s consciousness. When someone listens to music, his state of mind changes."
Any such ban is clearly flouted today, however. Military jeeps roll through town blaring tapes of popular Afghan singers. In Taliban territory, that would be enough to merit a beating, prison, or confiscation of the vehicle. When the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996, they draped trees with tape ripped from confiscated music cassettes.
The law in Khwaja Bahauddin is less draconian than Taliban rules in other aspects as well.
The Taliban were notorious for devising ingeniously grisly forms of execution. In Kabul, offenders were hanged from cranes, or killed by having tanks knock walls of rocks onto them. Crowds regularly were summoned into the city’s soccer stadium for public executions.
In Northern Alliance territory, community leaders say, the focus is on remonstration and counseling. Authorities typically ask the family of a murdered man or woman to forgive the killer, then put the culprit in prison for some years, Asmahail said.
Treatment of women also is more lenient, although by Afghan tradition all women must wear the all-covering burqa when they venture out of the home. Even then, women are rarely seen on the streets outside the town’s central market.
"We’re very happy. If we were under the Taliban, we wouldn’t have any rights. We could not be in school, couldn’t work," said 55-year-old Mamh Khall, gazing out through a screen of thick thread in her veil as she shopped in the market.
The Taliban banned education for girls after age 8 and barred women from working outside the home. Khwaja Bahuaddin has a school where girls up to age 16 can learn mathematics and other standard courses.
In general, strictness of the application of Islamic law varies from region to region depending on local commanders. Residents of the central Panjshir Valley speak of a ban not only on alcohol but on tobacco, the Keston report said.
Khwaja Bahauddin is populated mostly by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks and is just 12 miles from the border with the former Soviet state of Tajikistan, which also has struggled with radical Islam.
In the 1990s, Islamic militants from Tajikistan who had been in exile in northern Afghanistan forced their way back into parts of the country. Some of their field commanders set up an Islamic regime even harsher than the Taliban’s — shaving the heads of women who appeared in public without their heads covered, the Keston report said.
Offenders were beaten in mosques, not with whips as used by the Taliban but with devices made from grenade launchers, the report added.
Most of those strictures have disappeared as both militants and local residents rebelled against the harsh measures, the agency said.
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