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Saturday, Feb. 3, 2001

Afghanistan and the gods of little things


God's preferences on dietary matters are well-known: no pork for Jews or Muslims, no beef for Hindus, and no saturated fats or refined sugar for the Western upper-middle class. But this is the first time he has taken such a strong line on haircuts.

True, it is the sort of haircut that would offend any deity of taste: a Leonardo DiCaprio-style haircut, with the gorgeous locks flopping boyishly over the forehead. It's called a "Titanic" in Kabul, and over the past week the Taliban government of Afghanistan has arrested 22 barbers for giving it to their clients.

It's hard enough to earn a crust of bread in Kabul nowadays anyway, what with 20 years of war and no modern economy apart from the drug trade. The barbers were already being tempted into crime by customers sneaking in asking to have their beards trimmed, even though the trimming of beards is also banned by the Taliban. And now comes the Leonardo DiCaprio haircut.

This really annoys the Taliban because it means the proud owners of the haircuts must have seen a video of "Titanic" to get the idea. (The Taliban regime has banned all films, television and even music as contrary to their particularly rigorous interpretation of religion, and has even hanged a couple of TVs in symbolic public executions.) So the guilty barbers are in deep trouble, and so are their clients.

The Taliban government (the name means "students," and especially students of religion) truly does believe that God dislikes the DiCaprio haircut. He must be pretty busy looking after 100 billion galaxies with an average of 100 billion stars each, and only he knows how many intelligent species with immortal souls of one sort or another -- but he still has time to worry about men's hair styles in Kabul.

No need to flog it to death: There are some very petty-minded people in charge of Afghanistan at the moment. The indignities that they inflict on barbers and their customers are nothing compared to what they have done to their female fellow-citizens, who have been driven from almost all employment outside the home, denied any chance of a higher education and subjected to even more minute regulation of every aspect of their dress and behavior. But why is the Taliban so concerned about petty things?

It's not because they are Afghans, or because they are Muslims either. Every country and every religion has some people who get permanently lost in their obsession with rituals and minor details of dress, appearance and etiquette. It's just that in Afghanistan, they happen to be running the place.

In every major religion, there is a kind of schizophrenia between the Big Ideas and the Little Things. The big philosophical ideas like reverence for life are not identical from one religion to another, but they do bear a strong family resemblance. Whereas the Little Things are very specific and local, and they almost always came first.

Depending on your own religious beliefs or lack of them, you may see the similarities among the philosophies as evidence of the divine will at work in the world, or as evidence for the similarity of all human beings. But there is almost always a revelation involved, a moment in history when these universal ideas and values were communicated to the believers. Whereas the Little Things hail back to the long tribal past. The pagan past, if you want to be pejorative.

Christmas is not a Christian feast; it is the old pagan mid-winter festival redefined. The veiling of women, now seen by many Muslims as an Islamic tradition, was commonplace among the upper classes of ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, though rare among the Arabs until they conquered the Byzantines. Circumcision and other forms of ritual physical mutilation are even older.

Fasting, offering up sacrifices, saying special formulas, making special gestures, and scarring yourself in special ways -- all these Little Things come from the time before the revelations. From a time, in fact, when religion was humanity's only plausible means of influencing how the world worked. If we get all the rituals just right, then the gods will make the sun come back, or make it rain, or whatever it is we need right now.

The Little Things are tolerated even after the big revelations because ordinary people get comfort from them. In general, the less educated the person, the bigger the part that the Little Things play in his practice of religion. Being desperate can push you in that direction too. And there are few places more ignorant or more desperate than rural Afghanistan.

This is a country where millions have died in 20 years of war, where two-thirds of Kabul has been destroyed and famine stalks the countryside, where nothing makes sense any more. In the face of such a senseless disaster, the Taliban is a village-based phenomenon whose militants are trying to win back God's favor by imposing a mixture of conservative Islamic values and Pathan tribal customs on the country.

One of the slogans written up outside the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue in Kabul reads: "Throw reason to the dogs. It stinks of corruption." The Taliban is trying to rescue the country by magic, and there's no point in arguing with them about haircuts or women's rights or anything else. Everyone will just have to wait until things calm down.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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