Afghans confuse democracy with fornication
By Sharif Khoram (AFP) – 2 hours ago
KABUL — Fornication, bare flesh and a descent into Western decadence -- these are Afghan definitions of democracy that expose how little the foreign concept has permeated the national psyche as elections near.
Afghanistan will vote August 20 in its second "democratic" presidential election but centuries of tribalism, decades of war and the draconian legacy of the Taliban ensure that confusion still reigns over what voting will bring.
"Western democracy is freedom and fornication. This is democracy for Western, American and European people and it is developing the same way here," said Wasim, a 28-year-old waiter in a Kabul kebab restaurant.
Mansoor Aslami, 21, a cosmetics shop owner, defines democracy as a boy and girl walking together on the street without being questioned, and is less than keen on some of the trends he sees among his patrons.
"I see signs of democracy among customers with bare arms and necks, but so long as democracy is according to Islam, it is good," he told AFP.
Eight years after the overthrow of the Taliban, much of conservative Afghan society has little understanding of democracy and sees it synonymous with a moral decline from traditional Islamic values, analysts say.
Afghanistan flirted with democracy in the 1960s and 1970s by holding limited parliamentary elections but the experiment was squashed with the 1979 Soviet invasion that set off decades of civil war and foreign intervention.
The 1996-2001 Taliban government banned music and dancing, ordered men not to shave, decreed that women wear the all-encompassing burka and banned girls from attending school. Punishments for violations were brutal.
After the Taliban were toppled by the 2001 US-led invasion -- sparked by Kabul's refusal to hand over the presumed Al-Qaeda masterminds of the September 11 attacks -- woman flung off their veils and celebrations erupted on the streets.
But the abrupt change jarred much of the deeply conservative, rural country. A Taliban insurgency trying to regain power and antipathy for Western troops has cowed many people into reverting to strict Islamic dress.
The country of 26-30 million adopted democratic principles in its post-Taliban constitution but with 70 percent of the population illiterate, the majority know nothing about representative governance.
For many "democracy" ushered in by the 2004 ballot, which swept Hamid Karzai to power, and preparations for presidential and provincial council elections this month have not been accompanied by awareness campaigns.
Access to the Internet and other media is scant. About 20 television channels and 90 radio stations established since 2001 mostly blare out music, offering little political debate or social programming.
But Mohammad Haleem, 25, is a convert. He says he will stand in line to vote for president and council members in his home province of Paktya.
"It allows us to select our fate," he said. "I will give my vote to the person who can serve Islam and the country."
Western films widely available after the fall of the Taliban gave Afghans an impression of democratic nations being morally loose.
"I don't know the meaning of democracy," said Noor Ali, an 81-year-old man with a long white beard sitting in front of a Kabul stall that sells petrol.
"I am old. I only know when I ask women 'why are you out almost naked in the street?' I am told 'uncle, this is democracy'," he said.
"Is this democracy? Dancing, having bare skin, dishonour? If it is, it shouldn't be," said Ali.
Critics warn that widespread corruption, insecurity and so many illegal private armies also threaten efforts to establish democracy.
Karzai's appointment of officials with dubious reputations and government failures to prosecute human rights' abusers and criminals have disillusioned many about the new system.
"I have bad memories of the past seven years," said Allah Mohammad, 60, working in Kabul dress shop and planning not to vote on August 20.
Many feel ideals that took centuries to evolve in modern Western societies were thrust upon the nation. They may eschew the polls or cast their ballot without understanding the issues, said Afghan analyst Wahid Mujda.
"When we ask people what democracy is, they will say democracy means lack of modesty and no religion, and that because of this issue there is a day-by-day increase in insecurity.
"Democracy is something that people have to get used to gradually," he said.