Insurgents get their message across by distributing music and videos to cell phones
By Hejratullah Ekhtiyar
KABUL, Afghanistan –– Dawlat Khan says his 5-year-old son has suddenly become an ardent music fan.
“He asks me to play the Taliban songs for him and then sings along with them,” said the resident of Nangarhar province, who keeps the tunes, along with video clips produced by the insurgents, stored on his cell phone.
It seems the Taliban, long known to be the enemies of both music and technology, have discovered the value of both, delivering musical messages designed to stir up emotional support among young people for their battle against the government.
In fact, Taliban tunes appear to have gone viral, capturing the popular imagination in ways that more overt appeals for support – from both the insurgents and the government – have failed to do.
The government, on the other hand, struggles to counter allegations that it presides over warlordism, corruption and lawlessness, while the NATO-led troops have often aroused danger because of civilian casualties, intrusive house searches, and perceived slights on the Muslim faith.
“I’ve got about 50 Taliban songs on my phone. They’re much better than the meaningless music, dramas and movies that are on TV,” Dawlat Khan said. “You aren’t committing a sin by listening to the Taliban songs, but you do so every second if you watch TV.”
Music might seem an unlikely vehicle for the Taliban to use. But songs extolling Islamic virtues or Afghan patriotism in the past were not only allowed, but encouraged and have long been broadcast on the Voice of Sharia, the Taliban’s radio service.
Now, they are enjoying a revival, especially in parts of Afghanistan where Taliban influence is strong, thanks to new phone that support video as well as audio formats.
Everyone offers a different reason for watching the film clips or listening to the songs, from simple enjoyment to a degree of sympathy with the Taliban cause. The clips even circulate among local government officials and members of the Afghan security forces whose job is to fight the insurgents.
A member of the Afghan National Army who comes from Nangarhar’s Khogyani district said the main reason he had material like this on his phone was that it might save him if he ever fell into the insurgents’ hands.
“The truth is that I keep these songs in my mobile phone to protect my life,” he said. “Besides, there’s nothing bad about these songs, anyway. They are all songs about the country, and Islamic poems. We too are children of this country and we are Muslims. So we listen to them.”
Asked about videos showing young people preparing to carry out suicide bombings, the soldier said, “Yes, it’s true there are songs and clips encouraging young people to fight and to prepare for suicide attacks. I don’t endorse them, and I’d even like to see them banned.”
Sitting in a bookstore in Jalalabad, three young men were watching a Taliban-produced video of a child singing to a mother as he’s about to go off and fight for Afghan freedom.
When asked what attracted them to the video, they initially said they were attracted to the singer’s voice.
But when asked about the video’s message, which extols the virtue of fighting against the government, one of them angrily answered, “Why don’t you ask about the impact of music, foreign movies and [TV] dramas? They are full of immorality, they are driving society to destruction, they make young people forget their country, honor and religion, and they are destroying our culture, language and history.”
Taliban songs are “a thousand times” better than Afghan TV channels, he said, adding, “The children of this country are fighting for their country. They are our brothers and we listen to their songs unashamedly.”
Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, a spokesman for the governor of the province, said that while people were free to listen to whatever they wanted, the authorities would try to prevent the dissemination of propaganda intended to draw civilians to the insurgent’s side.
But he admitted this was a difficult task.
“These songs and clips are produced and disseminated secretly. There isn’t an obvious center that is doing it in Nangarhar. Our security agencies are trying to block this kind of thing,” he said.
Hejratullah Ekhtiyar is a reporter in Afghanistan who writes for IWPR, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict. (Copyright, 2011, The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 48 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8LT, U.K. www.iwpr.net)