Rule 17 bans women from public baths. Rule 9 puts a razor to the hair of any man with a Beatles do. Rule 7 orders up to 10 days’ imprisonment for shopkeepers selling materials to make kites.
On its surface, the hardcover white booklet with side-by-side passages in the main Afghan languages, Pashto and Dari, appears as benign as a Farmer’s Almanac. But inside the 142 pages of the “Official Gazette” is the list of do’s and don’ts of life under the Taliban.
Only 5,000 copies were published this year, so many Afghans never even saw the book. Yet for six years, virtually all of the country’s 25 million citizens endured its contents, enforced by patrols wielding batons, chains or worse.
For the Taliban, which belongs to the same ultraconservative Sunni branch of Islam as its Saudi benefactor, Osama bin Laden, the book provided the formula for how a Muslim should behave. Theirs is a harsh interpretation of early Islam and its practice during the time of the prophet Muhammad.
The vision was denounced in other parts of the Muslim world. In neighboring Iran, where the Koran and Islamic system of jurisprudence, or Sharia, reign, the Taliban members are considered heretics. The Organization of the Islamic Conference refused to admit them or their state, which they called the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
“In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful,” intones the Afghan book’s first paragraph, an Arabic creed embraced by every Muslim. “While we are in charge, the universal decree is that whoever has the power is to prevent the people from doing these big sins,” Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar writes, referring to himself as “Emir al Momeini,” a title reserved for the highest disciples of Islam.
It is easy to see the power of the book in governing daily Afghan life. Behind the iron gates of Herat’s abandoned Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice are waist-high piles of shattered televisions, computers and toys, the handiwork of religious police bent on eliminating any distractions from prayer. Binders filled with prisoner names, fingerprints and descriptions of how they violated the Gazette line the shelves of otherwise empty offices.
In the basement, Northern Alliance moujahedeen who guard the compound point to wire and hoses used to flog offenders whose beards failed to meet the prescribed length. A clenched fist under the chin had to have several inches of beard below the last finger.
How the Taliban came up with that edict is a mystery, said Mohammed Reza Dolatabadi, a Shiite cleric, member of the Iranian parliament and vice chairman of its judiciary and legal commission. Although Islam views the beard as a symbol of beauty, not a single canon makes it mandatory or prescribes its length, he said.
“They’ve implemented some laws that don’t have the color or smell of Islam, nor any basis in Islam at all,” Dolatabadi said while reviewing several of the book’s passages Wednesday in Tehran, the Iranian capital. “What I’ve read so far is very stupid and childish.”
Fellow lawmaker Jalal Jalalizadeh, a Sunni with a doctorate in Islamic studies, was more circumspect as he looked at the book Thursday.
“They’ve mixed traditions with Islam and their own misinterpretation of it, and then imposed it on the Afghan people in the name of Islam,” he said.
Jalalizadeh grew agitated as he reached the parts banning children’s activities such as kite flying or playing with dolls.
“This makes no sense,” he said. “If you look at the life of [Muhammad], he used to get down on his hands and knees and put children on his back so they could take pretend camel rides. He did this to make them happy.
“Even when his grandson, Hussein, used to climb onto his back while he prayed, he didn’t push him off,” he said.
Most of the rules listed in the Official Gazette circumscribe the behavior of women, whom the Taliban believe to be lesser beings than men. Nonetheless, it was men whom the Taliban usually punished for women’s offenses.
For example, Article 1 states:
“Every woman who goes out without the hijab [head covering], will be followed to her home where the woman or her husband will be punished, depending on the amount of unveiling she is guilty of. If the above mentioned woman is in a vehicle, the driver must be imprisoned up to five days, depending on the amount of unveiling.”
Then there’s Article 12:
“Women who wash clothes in a desert or near a spring must be prevented from doing such acts. The owner of the house where the woman lives must be punished.”
Article 14 states:
“Women who have their clothes made by a tailor must be chastised and the tailor imprisoned up to 10 days.”
Dolatabadi and Jalalizadeh said they were concerned about how the Taliban’s brand of Islam would warp non-Muslims’ perceptions of the religion.
Added Jalalizadeh: “It has always been said an ignorant friend will damage you more than a wise enemy.”
Since Herat’s recapture by the Northern Alliance on Nov. 5, foreign journalists and other outsiders have gone to the Taliban compound to purchase copies of the Official Gazette for $1 or more. But Afghans such as taxi driver Abdul Vahab say they won’t waste money on a book they’d rather forget.
“We laugh at what it says now, but those laws for a long time made us cry,” Vahab said. Last year he came under the Taliban whip for failing to grow his beard to the proper length.