Commander of the Faithful
Little is known about Mohammed Omar, the puritanical leader who has transformed warring Afghanistan
The Toronto Star
Martin Regg Cohn
SANGHISAR, Afghanistan - WITHIN THE mud walls of the crumbling hut, a dozen young boys huddle on a straw mat after pre-dawn prayers.
In the cool, earthen darkness, the students pick up where they left off the day before: memorizing the Koran, softly chanting the verses of Islam's holy book in Arabic - a language they can read but not understand.
They are the new generation of Taleban, the religious movement that now rules Afghanistan. The boys study, pray, sleep and eat in the dusty courtyard of their isolated madrasa, an Islamic school that molds young minds - and, now, shapes an entire country.
For the Taleban - an Arabic word for students - this mud hut is where it all began.
Under its straw roof, an untutored student named Mohammed Omar began memorizing the Koran and studying sharia (Islamic religious law) two decades ago. This is where he matured from religion student to holy warrior - joining the fabled mujahideen in a jihad (holy war) against the Soviet occupation of their country.
It was here that his mystique took root: Omar lost an eye in the sacred struggle and won the loyalty of his fellow students.
The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was followed by civil war. In 1995, Omar led the highly motivated Taleban to victory against rival factions of mujahideen, culminating with his selection by a council of religious leaders as the Amir-ul-Mumineen - the Commander of the Faithful.
Through its most famous student, this little-known madrasa has inspired a puritanical vision that rules a once-ungovernable land, challenges Muslims abroad and defies the rest of the world. Afghanistan bars girls from school and women from work, shelters accused terrorist Osama bin Laden and, most recently, smashed the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan.
Today, Mullah Omar is the world's most mysterious leader. He may be the only head of state who has never been photographed.
One recent visitor who spent several hours with Omar described him as tall and thin, a soft-spoken recluse given to long silences in conversation as he stares meditatively at the floor. He avoids diplomats and eschews women, issuing commands through trusted intermediaries and confidants. Or on the radio.
``The non-Muslim world is united against the Taleban, but we will not be deterred, we will keep our Islamic way,'' Omar said in a statement last month, after ordering the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas that he deemed idolatrous.
``I ask the Muslim people of Afghanistan not to be afraid of the infidels' pressure.''
Fearlessness and righteousness are part of Omar's mythology. Thought to be in his 40s, he wears no patch over his missing eye but favours dark glasses.
Even those who know Omar find him hard to fathom. In the madrasa where he arrived in 1979, he is remembered as an upright but unremarkable scholar.
``He was popular because of his religious character,'' says Mullah Wali Mohammed, who now teaches in the school. ``He had a dream to found our movement.''
But while his studies inspired Omar to change the world around him, the school's remoteness also fostered suspicion of the infidels lurking outside its mud walls. Few foreigners have made the pilgrimage to this madrasa.
``Where is Canada?'' asks the mullah, after a translator performs the introductions.
``What is your religion?'' Mohammed continues. ``Why have you not accepted Allah?''
The walls are decorated with Koranic inscriptions and, improbably, glossy posters of foreign lands unknown to the mullah. For future reference, he later asks a visitor to label each photograph in ink - the Sydney Opera House, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, a Swiss chalet and a British castle.
There are no pictures of people on the wall because photographs of human faces are banned in Afghanistan. A clean-shaven face, like that of the foreigner sitting across from Mohammed on the mud floor, is also forbidden.
``Why have you shaved your beard?'' the turbaned mullah asks, stroking his own flowing whiskers.
Mohammed leavens his hostility with hospitality: Sweet tea, Afghan bread and cold spinach are laid out on a mat.
He recounts the making of Mullah Omar, summarizing his dedication with an eternal creed: ``To continue raising the sword, and continue the jihad until we reach our goal of Islam: There is no God but Allah and the Prophet Muhammad is his messenger.''
The first big town to fall under Omar's sway, to be remade in the image of the madrasa, was the provincial city of Kandahar to the south, about one hour away by car, along the rutted roads that bear the scars of two decades of war.
The rusting skeletons of Soviet tanks still dot the highways, flanked by impoverished young Afghans who beg for a few tattered notes from passing drivers. The checkpoints are manned by loyal Taleban, who have unspooled magnetic tape from smashed audio cassettes and strung it across the road barriers to dangle in the wind.
Ensconced in the dust bowl of Kandahar, Omar rules almost all Afghanistan. Only a pocket of mountainous territory in the northeastern corner of the country is still held by the Western-backed opposition. The commander and his top Taleban lieutenants never bothered moving to Kabul, the once-cosmopolitan national capital, opting to stay among their fellow Pashtun tribesmen in the southeast.
Omar maintains an office across from the old Artillery Bazaar, facing a shrine reputed to hold a shroud worn by the Holy Prophet, that he is reported to have once draped over his own body. But the Commander of the Faithful keeps his distance from downtown Kandahar. Wary of assassination attempts - there have been several mysterious bombings - he rarely ventures from his heavily secured private compound outside town.
The Commander stays out of sight but the Faithful remain on guard. Members of the Ministry of Vice and Virtue patrol the bazaar, peering from behind tinted windows in their black, four-wheel-drive pickup trucks, or perched at strategic street corners.
Amid the daily bustle of the bazaar, they monitor the money-changers squatting on curbs who thumb through thick wads of worthless Afghani money and call out the latest exchange rates. The religious police scrutinize the women cloaked in burkas, beating anyone who reveals an ankle or wisp of hair beneath their thick blue robes.
The most forlorn are the beggars, many of them widows who are without any income because a Taleban edict forbids women to work. Even when they find scraps of food, eating is a constant challenge, for they must not raise their veils over their faces in public. To chew on scraps of bread, they must turn against a wall to avoid exposing their faces to the guardians of vice and virtue; sometimes, two women will join their burkas together so they can eat without giving offence.
One bright spot is the Blue Mosque, which received a fresh coat of paint after the Taleban decided that the old name and colour - the Red Mosque - reminded them too much of the godless Communists they had driven out of Kandahar.
It is as much as the Taleban have managed by way of municipal improvements in recent months. Power blackouts are still common. The site of an enormous new domed mosque planned for the city, named after Mullah Omar, stands idle because funding has dried up.
Along the fetid gutters of Kandahar, life continues as it has for decades. Clouds of dust hover over the city's unpaved streets as horse-drawn carts ferry shoppers past the crumbling buildings of the bazaar, many of them pockmarked by bullet holes from the years of fighting.
The smells of livestock and burning wood and cow dung are everywhere. Vendors haul firewood on carts, potatoes and onions are stacked at curbside, and spices - mostly cumin and pepper - are arranged in neat piles that soak up the dust. Children lug bricks and building materials in mud-encrusted wheelbarrows.
The gloom is broken by the occasional convoy of cars whose passengers are honking and smiling uncharacteristically. It is a marriage party, with the bride and groom in separate vehicles, headed for segregated houses. There is no music or dancing for the families. The highlight of the evening, a recently married Afghan confides, comes when bride and groom set eyes on one another for the first time.
Such segregation of women is a tradition stoutly defended by the Taleban. Sitting one evening with one of Omar's loyal clergy, I hear the Taleban's upright world view contrasted with the depravity of the West.
Islam mandates that a woman must be entirely covered to protect her modesty, explains Mullah Shah Mahmood, who is visiting the home of a mutual acquaintance. I point out that many Muslims believe there is much room for interpretation on this point, but Mahmood is adamant.
``A woman modestly dressed is like a pearl in its shell,'' he says while a group of his disciples sip tea and listen raptly. ``Women should not dance or go to bars because it cheapens them, and then they are treated like animals or used by men as prostitutes, and then people come to watch them copulating in live sex shows.''
I point out that a relatively small number of women work as prostitutes in the West and that a minuscule minority end up in sex shows. While some Muslims in Canada have taken the veil, few believe it should be mandatory, I tell him.
But Mahmood is warming to his subject. Barring husband and wife from seeing each other before marriage in Afghanistan ensures there is no risk of premarital sex, no opportunity for misconduct, he says.
``A woman must save herself for her husband, otherwise she is used and exploited by men beforehand.''
But even six years of Taleban rule have failed to stamp out the vices for which Mahmood faults the infidels of the West. He doesn't mention that in Kandahar's sports stadium a few weeks ago, two women convicted of prostitution were executed after prayers.
The women, accused of ``corrupting society,'' wore burkas over their faces before being hanged. Two other women and 10 men were publicly lashed for adultery.
While the 29-year-old Mahmood expounds on these subjects, his Taleban disciples lie quietly on floor cushions beside him, soaking up every word. At last, they can contain themselves no longer and raise the subject of male circumcision. They ask why it is no longer widely practised in the West and wonder what it means for men.
There is much tittering as one of them asks whether an uncircumcised man can achieve orgasm. Soon, it is curfew and the discussion is adjourned.
Night and day, Mullah Omar's religious police patrol the streets to uphold the Taleban's iconoclastic interpretation of Islam. For the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, vanity among men is as vulgar as female immodesty.
Men who trim their beards are regularly arrested and instructed on the religious ban on trimming facial hairs. Now, hip hairstyles are also haram (forbidden).
Dozens of barbers who gave their customers Titanic trims - copying the look of Leonardo DiCaprio in the Hollywood epic - were arrested earlier this year by the guardians of good grooming.
The look is deemed offensive by the religious police because long bangs can get in the way when men bow toward Mecca for prayers. Many Afghans who saw the movie on trips to neighbouring Pakistan - cinemas were closed here long ago - asked for the same look: long in front, short in back and on the sides.
``Whatever you show me, I can copy it,'' boasts Nazar Mohammed as he snips a customer's hair at the Atefaq Barber Shop.
On request, he did the Titanic cut about a dozen times a month until the religious police ruled against it. Now, no one wears the Titanic under their turban.
``The Titanic hairstyle is definitely forbidden, they say it's against sharia,'' he explains. ``No one dares ask for it.''
Much is forbidden in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar long ago banned television because it shows the human form and exposes viewers to foreign influences.
Still, many of the most righteous Taleban sneak a peek when they can. I watched a couple of government officials riveted to Rambo action movies one night, which they chose after flipping through a stack of contraband videos.
Such private viewings are Afghanistan's biggest secret. While the public television network in Kabul has been off the air for years, many residents of the western city of Herat tune in to broadcasts from neighbouring Iran.
To receive the banned TV signal from the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, one must take precautions.
Installing a television aerial on the roof attracts attention, whereas satellite dishes are less conspicuous. The safest method, however, is to buy a special computer chip that converts an audio CD player into a video player.
Business was booming for Herat's sole television repairman - we'll call him Hasan - until a crackdown by the religious police threw him off stride.
Like the bordello madam who keeps the credit-card numbers of her most upright establishment clients, Hasan knows the dirty little secrets of the Taleban television junkies.
``Normally, I only fixed the TVs of my friends, but when a Taleban guy brought in his set for repairs, the word got out,'' says Hasan, sitting cross-legged in front of his VCR at home.
A more senior Taleban official found out and rebuked the offending customer, but then came in himself for help in installing a satellite dish.
``He asked me to never tell anyone.''
Sony television sets are the preferred brand for well-connected viewers, whereas ordinary Afghans make do with cheaper black-and-white models made in Iran and China.
``Some customers are so poor they can barely afford to have carpets on their floors, but they have enough money to find a television because that's a priority for them,'' Hasan says.
During eight years in business, he made hundreds of house calls during which he saw the private video libraries of his customers. Most viewers prefer romantic Hindi videos from India or action flicks from North America, although there is also a market for smut.
Now, the people of Herat can no longer call Hasan for help. Enforcers from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue came looking for him recently - he presumes it wasn't for repairs - so he has shut down his service.
``One day, two Taleban guys came to my shop and one of them touched a TV set and asked what it was; the other guy told him not to touch it, because it was `dirty.' ''
Hasan took the hint.
The Taleban's injunctions against television transmissions, and the ban on all human imagery, find their roots within the mud walls of the isolated madrasa in Sanghisar where Mullah Omar acquired his world view.
Here, the Taleban leader saw life through a monochromatic prism with no videos, no sculptures, no mathematics and minimal literacy.
There were only Koranic recitations - and the study of sharia, proffered by Haji Mullah Abdul Raheen, the Islamic scholar who most shaped Omar's thinking.
Shortly after noon prayers, Raheen emerges from the village mosque and takes his customary place on the floor of the madrasa. With his flowing white beard and amber prayer beads, he speaks with the authority of a 72-year-old who has seen history in the making.
Mullah Omar was a fighter, not a scholar, Raheen recalls. It was Omar's unflinching righteousness that motivated his fellow students.
``I knew him when he was a student. Now, he is amir (ruler). He used to come here to learn, ask questions about sharia. But he was not such a gifted student,'' Raheen says, showing the trace of a smile.
After the Soviet atheists were beaten back, civil war erupted among the Afghani mujahideen, who lapsed into corruption and debauchery. Women were raped at checkpoints set up by rival warlords, travellers were routinely robbed and civilians died in indiscriminate shelling.
Sensing that people craved law and order, Mullah Omar set out to provide it with his fellow vigilantes. Soon, rough justice was followed by strict sharia, culminating in the present-day spectacle of public beatings and stonings after Friday prayers.
``He started preaching against those godless people, he fought against them to clear the roads and checkpoints of these plunderers and thieves,'' Raheen says approvingly. It is a common refrain among Afghans, a sentiment little appreciated in the West.
After decades of war against foreigners and among themselves, people savoured the peace and security provided by the Taleban.
But there was a price to be paid for Mullah Omar's brand of law and order. Many are growing weary of the rigid - some would say outdated - interpretation of Koranic injunctions and Islamic jurisprudence first set out 13 centuries ago. But the Taleban are adamant.
``We are proud that we have someone who has reawakened respect for sharia,'' says Raheen. ``When sharia was dead, he brought it back to life.''
In Sanghisar, Omar's vision is honoured. He brought the villagers security and they, in turn, embraced him as family. He came to Sanghisar with only one wife but left with two more - one of them a teenager - when he became leader.
The villagers are anxious to share their good fortune with their fellow Muslims beyond the parched cornfields and vines of their village. They want Mullah Omar to spread sharia across the barren deserts and rugged mountains of Afghanistan and into the big cities that were, until recently, poisoned by foreign influences.
``When the outside world became industrialized, people fell away from tradition and religion, they became rich and materialistic, and cut off from their roots,'' Raheen says.
A dozen men have slipped into the room to hear Raheen's oration, sitting cross-legged and silent.
Only the click of their prayer beads is audible as the mullah's spiritual mentor reflects on Afghanistan's past and the world's future.
``We want Mullah Omar, as he did here, to bring sharia across all of Afghanistan. And all of the world.''
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