The Undead

They’re ba-ack. The dear Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Discouragement of Vice is making a comeback. Nostalgic, innit.

Behind a desk in a spartan government office, a bearded official says he is swamped with job applicants for a proposed department to promote virtue and discourage vice, which would send out religious monitors to uncover and correct un-Islamic behavior in the populace.

I bet. I bet he’s swamped with applicants who want to go out to uncover and correct things that other people are doing – laughing, singing, talking to friends, going outside; sinister stuff like that. Uncover it and correct it, quick, before everything goes to hell.

The cabinet also approved reviving the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Discouragement of Vice…It became notoriously punitive under Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, when turbaned enforcers whipped women if their veils slipped and arrested men for wearing too-short beards or playing chess…”We would be as different from the Taliban as earth and sky,” said Sulieman Hamid, an official of the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs who would oversee the virtue and vice monitors. “They used Islam for political purposes. We only want to stop people from committing bad acts and help maintain the honor of Islam.”

Ohhhh, well then – nothing to worry about. Yes indeed. I know if I learned that the government was going to set up a Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Discouragement of Vice and it assured us that it only wanted to stop people from committing bad acts and help maintain the honor of Christianity, I wouldn’t be worried at all that it might be ever so slightly intrusive and coercive and that its ideas of ‘bad acts’ and ‘honor’ might be different from mine. Nope, that wouldn’t be an issue. Everything would be fine.

“We would not beat people or force women to wear scarves. But we have to do something to protect society, to tell people they should not drink alcohol or smoke hashish or kill their Muslim brothers.”

Tell people? Just, gently, softly, in a nice voice, tell them? Or…something a little firmer than that? And then – drinking alcohol and killing are the same kind of thing? ‘Dear sister, you should not drink that vodka martini, it is un-Islamic. Dear brother, you should not kill that Muslim brother, it is a bad act.’ And then – it’s only Muslim brothers people will be told not to kill? So it’s okay to kill women and it’s okay to kill infidels? And then – isn’t killing people against the law anyway, so isn’t a Virtue Committee to amble out and whisper to people that they ought not to, a bit superfluous? Or could it be that the final item was thrown in to make up the numbers, so that the alcohol and hashish ones wouldn’t look quite so footling? Hey, all we’re going to do is tell women they shouldn’t let their faces stick out and they shouldn’t murder people – is that so harsh?

If the parliament takes up the issue, it is likely to pit factions led by Islamic clerics and former militia leaders against others composed of professionals, women and Western-educated figures. These groups represent major competing strains in Afghan society as it charts a path between traditional Islamic values and modern democratic norms.

That’s a rather stupid and confused opposition, the one between traditional Islamic values and modern democratic norms – because traditional Islamic values can perfectly well be democratic: as long as a majority prefers them, that’s what they are. What the writer probably means is ‘modern secular norms’ – but that’s not really an acceptable thing to say in US mass media. It might be okay in The Nation or Mother Jones, but not a big newspaper; so journalists say ‘democratic’ instead, even though it makes the argument a little meaningless. But it’s interesting that (if I’m right) ‘secular’ is not an acceptable word here – interesting and somewhat alarming.

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