Afghanistan's Cultural Gap Grows Wider The culture clash in Afghanistan between modernizers and traditionalists, and between urban and rural society, has been a constant source of tension.
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Afghanistan's Cultural Gap Grows Wider

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Afghanistan's Cultural Gap Grows Wider

Afghanistan's Cultural Gap Grows Wider

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Here's one more factor for the U.S. and its allies to keep in mind as they try to maintain stability in Afghanistan. Throughout its modern history, Afghanistan has seen a series of revolts in the countryside. That's where rebels have fought against governments in Kabul, which were accused of being un-Islamic or corrupt, or both.

In deeply conservative, rural Afghanistan, once again, there is a growing rejection of the cosmopolitan lifestyle taking root in the Afghan capital. NPR's Ivan Watson examines a clash of cultures.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Seventy-eight years ago, Amanullah Khan, the King of Afghanistan, returned from a trip to Europe and asked his wife to appear in public without a veil. The move was part of a wave of radical, Western-style reforms, which the king hoped would modernize Afghanistan. But the unveiling of Queen Soraya outraged Afghanistan's clerical establishment; and the reforms, which included laws to promote women's rights and to expand the authority of the king's central government, infuriated both tribesmen and clerics in the provinces.

Barnett Rubin is an Afghan scholar at New York University.

Dr. BARNETT RUBIN (Director of Studies, Center for International Cooperation, New York University): They started an uprising, and because the government had been doing things like allowing girls to go to school, making people wear Western clothes in Kabul - which was really quite silly - the mullahs of the Shinwari tribe sanctioned that revolt as a jihad.

WATSON: Propaganda pamphlets distributed by the rebels depicted the uprising as a fight against an infidel king, who had insulted Islam and imported corrupt foreign culture.

Within a year of Queen Soraya's unveiling, Amanullah Khan was overthrown and a rebel army from the provinces had occupied the Afghan capital.

Mr. WAHEED MUJDA (Writer, Afghanistan): (Through translator) One of the big problems that we have had in our history has been the social, cultural and economic gap between the cities and the villages.

WATSON: Writer Waheed Mujda says throughout Afghan history there has been a recurring clash between deeply conservative rural society and the cosmopolitan culture and affluence of the cities. Mujda says he saw it firsthand in the '80s, when he was with the mujahideen in the mountains fighting against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul.

Mr. MUJDA: (Through translator) Hundreds of (unintelligible) rockets were launched at to Kabul City. And when somebody asked mujahideen, why do you attack Kabul city and innocent people die there, they would say, no, all those who live in Kabul City, they are infidels and they are criminals and they should die.

WATSON: Today, Kabul is going through a period of staggering change and modernization, which observers say has widened the gap between urban and rural society more than ever.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: A construction boom has transformed parts of downtown Kabul, throwing up modern buildings like this brand-new shopping mall, outfitted with glass elevators and a coffee shop serving lattes.

(Soundbite of crowd noise in mall)

WATSON: An explosion of fashionable clothing shops like this one, cater to Afghan women in Kabul, who have increasingly discarded the all-concealing blue burka for headscarves and stylish robes.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: Meanwhile, young Kabuli men walk the streets, showing off the latest clothing fashions from Asia and Europe. One of these young peacocks is 20-year-old Javed Yusufzai, who sports shoulder-length hair, a bright yellow open-collared shirt with a large gold necklace, tight pants and pointy leather shoes. Yusufzai and his friend are shopping for what they call, fancy clothes.

Mr. JAVED YUSUFZAI: (Through translator) I want a shirt which would be pink or yellow and that will be very good with black pants.

WATSON: It's one in the afternoon and Yusufzai has already been drinking, which is prohibited in Islam. He concedes he would not be welcome dressed like this in villages in the outskirts of Kabul.

Mr. YUSUFZAI: (Through translator) They will kill me if I go to the countryside like this.

WATSON: It takes a half-hour to drive from Kabul to the village of SauSang, but you may as well be going back in time.

(Soundbite of call to prayers)

WATSON: The village mullah has to make the call to afternoon prayers without loudspeakers, because there are barely three hours of electricity a day here. The residents are mostly farmers, living in mud huts, dressed in traditional salwar kameez and turbans. Women are nowhere to be seen, and it's impolite to even ask about them. Locals say they welcome the new construction and jobs in Kabul, but they express visible discomfort at what they see as the lack of morality in the city.

Mr. ABI DULAH(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: We need schools, medical clinics and clean drinking water here, says one man named Abi Dulah. Instead, the government is promoting foreign TV channels and nudity.

Mr. ABDUH RAHIM(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: This foreign culture is unacceptable to us, says another farmer named Abduh Raheem. We like freedom, but only within the framework of Islam.

Haji Mullah Tarakhel is a 33-year-old Afghan parliament member and cleric who has frequently criticized what he calls the growing un-Islamic behavior in the cities.

Mr. HAJI MULLAH TARAKHEL (Member, Afghani Parliament): (Through translator) The more, you know, the things that are not accepted by Islam, the more support it will give to Taliban, and Taliban can get a pretext by which they can justify their war.

WATSON: Taliban rebels are also waging an effective propaganda campaign. They accuse the government of Hamid Karzai of being un-Islamic and corrupt. Afghan and foreign observers say this has struck a chord with clerics from the religious establishment who, until now, have been allied with Karzai. Again, Afghan historian Barnett Rubin:

Dr. RUBIN: The clergy, the ulamah, are close to reaching the conclusion that this is not an Islamic government, in which case they will start preaching that it is people's obligation to wage jihad against the foreigners and against the government. So far, they have not preached that.

WATSON: Privately owned TV channels, like Tolo TV, have been a major target of criticism by the religious conservatives.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: Under pressure from the Karzai government, the channel has begun digitally blurring the barred midriffs on female singers in Turkish, Arabic, Indian and American music videos. One of the channel's flashiest hosts is Mustapha Aziziar, a 19-year-old with the heavily gelled haircut of a Turkish pop star and the hand gestures of an American rapper. He says one of his fellow music video jockeys had to flee the country after he was repeatedly attacked in the street.

Mr. MUSTAPHA AZIZIAR (Host, Tilo TV, Afghanistan): Sometimes we receive some warning from the people that says they'll kill you, because you're not good people for Afghanistan.

WATSON: Azizzhar says he's trying to educate young Afghans, so that the country can become more like other nations around the world. But Afghan observers say the more urban Afghans, like Azizzhar, embrace global culture, the more this will exacerbate tensions in society that go back to the time of King Amanullah.

Ivan Watson, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can see the cultural divide in Ivan Watson's photographs of an ancient village and of the Kabul City Center Mall by going to

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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