KABUL (Reuters) - Indian soap operas with their tales of family drama and trysts among the rich and beautiful have transfixed Afghans brought up on turgid state broadcasts and under a Taliban ban on television.
But not everyone is a fan.
Conservative Muslim clerics and some politicians are outraged by the soap operas aired hour-after-hour by more than a dozen private television stations that have sprung up since the Taliban were ousted in 2001.
Branding the programmes immoral and against Islamic culture, the critics have launched a campaign to press the private channels to pull the plug on the soaps.
At Friday prayers at Kabul’s largest mosque, Enayatullah Balegh, an influential cleric and university teacher, told reporters he and his followers were adamant.
“We are 6,000 people in this mosque, our intention ... is to go and blow up all the TV antennas if they do not stop it,” Balegh said in front of his congregation.
“God is greatest, we are ready,” the congregation chanted in response.
The clerics’ campaign gained traction this month when some members of parliament, supported by the Ministry of Information and Culture, issued a declaration to private TV channels to stop broadcasting five Indian soaps.
But the television stations appear defiant.
“It is against the media law,” Masoud Qiam, a senior presenter for Tolo TV, told Reuters, referring to the declaration.
“We will not stop the airing of the soap operas,” he said.
Tolo is Afghanistan’s most popular TV channel, broadcasting a mix of news and entertainment. It has had several brushes with conservatives over its fare.
“We don’t consider any of the programmes against our culture. These are the most watched programmes that people like,” Qiam said.
Conservatives object to the Indian soaps as they show men and women together, “immodestly” dressed women and the worship of Hindu idols.
The channels have made concessions, cutting scenes of Hindu worship and blurring areas of bare flesh. But that hasn’t appeased the critics.
“These programmes have changed the behaviour of our women and children, we don’t want them. All Muslims know that these things are not allowed in Islam,” said Gullab Khan, who was attending Balegh’s Friday prayers.
Afghan law forbids publication of material “contrary to the principles of Islam.” Problems arise in the interpretation of the law.
Despite a wave of unprecedented freedom since the overthrow of the puritanical Taliban, Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative Islamic society.
But more and more Afghans are returning from exile, bringing back new ideas. A large youthful population, particularly in the cities, is eager for new ways.
Afghanistan has its own pop stars who sing ballads and folk songs, and even a rap star. The Afghan version of the American Idol talent show, put out by Tolo, was a sensation but it also raised criticism, especially when a woman came third.
President Hamid Karzai, who has a reputation as a liberal but has been under pressure from conservative forces over several issues including television, has stepped gingerly into the fray.
Trying to keep both sides happy in the run-up to a presidential election he is expected to contest next year, Karzai has insisted media freedom will be upheld but added that unsuitable material should not be broadcast.
“There will never be interference with media freedom but media freedom should be compatible with the culture of the Afghan people,” Karzai told a recent news conference.
“We wish television to stop them,” he said, referring to programmes “in contradiction with daily life.”
Most viewers don’t see any contradiction.
“I like Tulsi a lot, my children like her a lot,” said mother of six Dell Jan, referring to the main character in one of the most popular Indian soaps. It is broadcast by Tolo and it is one of five shows the conservatives want taken off the air.
“When the serial starts on TV we stop all work, even eating, and watch it. We love it, it’s entertainment for the children.”
Editing by Robert Birsel and Megan Goldin