Thursday, 31 January 2008

Superstition vs intolerance

There has been plenty of bad news from Afghanistan recently. The other day, young journalist Sayed Pervez was sentenced to death for the "blasphemy" of distributing a report criticising the abuse of women in the name of Islam. Despite international protests, the sentence apparently stands, and a session of the national Senate in Kabul has taken the unusual step of congratulating the court for its decision and demanding the sentence be implemented. The deputy governor of Helmand province was among several killed by a suicide bomber today while praying at a mosque. (Strange how these religiously-motivated terrorists show such little respect for the sanctity of religious buildings, isn't it?) Attacks by the Taliban are now at their highest level since the extremists were toppled more than six years ago.

To add to the gloom, the Afghanistan Study Group warns that any progress made "is under serious threat from resurgent violence, weakening international resolve, and a growing lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan people". An assessment that ought to surprise no-one.

All these developments suggest that the Taliban, if not exactly back in power, are growing in confidence and influence. A stranger but still telling sign of growing religious repression is this report from the Australian broadcaster ABC about the plight of the country's fortune-tellers. Such people, known as fallben, traditionally hang around mosque precincts reading palms, casting lots and using sundry other methods to divine the workings of fate for their customers.

Ruthlessly suppressed by the Taliban, who regarded their activity as decidedly un-Islamic, the fortune-tellers have made a comeback in recent years. Now, however, their livelihood is once again under threat. In one recent crackdown, dozens were recently ejected from outside the Hazrat Ali shrine in the northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif. "Islam does not permit the practice of fleecing simple people," said the shrine's head, Qari Mohammad Qasim.

As another imam put it,

Fortune telling is not permitted in Islamic law. It has been mentioned clearly in the Koran that this is against Islamic values. Fortune tellers are misusing the sacred religion for their personal advantage.

It certainly sounds un-Islamic. But things are rarely so simple. Over the centuries, like all religions, Islam made its accommodation with earlier ideas and beliefs, and with the probably innate and impossible to remove human need to take solace in the irrational. The methods employed by Afghan fellben demonstrate this fascinating blend of religion and magic. First, the diviner will look at the customer's hand or roll some dice. But the results are interpreted according to a mathematical formula that links them with verses of the Koran. These will provide the answer to the problem. Or the customer may be told to repeat the verse several times a day, or it will be rolled into a small ball and worn next to the skin.

In his recent documentary series Enemies of Reason, Richard Dawkins gleefully laid into astrologers, psychics, homeopathists, crystal healers and similar peddlars of superstitious hogwash. It's hard to imagine a convinced rationalist making common cause with the Taliban, but the mullahs would seem to be with Dawkins on this one. Something of a quandary, this. The existence of fortune tellers and similar exploiters on the vulnerable is surely something to be deeply regretted. But is it not also a sign of liberty and tolerance?