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‘I feel suffocated’: Taliban intensifies clampdown on music in Afghanistan

Taliban fighters. (Department of Defense photo by Lt. j. g. Joe Painter)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Soon after seizing power in Afghanistan, the Taliban outlawed music and publicly beat and humiliated musicians.

Now the militant group is intensifying its clampdown on Afghans playing and listening to music, which it considers un-Islamic.

In the western city of Herat, members of the Taliban’s notorious morality police last month created a huge bonfire of confiscated musical instruments.

Residents who spoke to RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi said the morality police have also started searching vehicles and homes as they seek to enforce the ban, which has been widely condemned.

“When the Taliban stops us at security checkpoints, they first look at the car’s audio system to see what we are listening to,” said Khalil Ahmad, a resident of Herat, adding that the militants confiscate MP3 players and thumb drives containing music.

Locals say members of the Taliban’s morality police patrol the streets and alleyways of the city at night in search of violators. Afghans caught contravening the ban can be beaten or jailed.

The morality police are responsible for enforcing the Taliban’s morality laws, including its strict dress code and gender segregation in society.

“I have a bitter memory of witnessing people being beaten for simply playing music in their cars,” said Ahmad Jawed, another Herat resident.

The 26-year-old said his friends played music inside their house during a birthday party earlier this month.

“We were very afraid and stressed that someone would report us to the authorities,” he told Radio Azadi. “The restrictions have become too much.”

Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan is the only country in the world where music is banned. The group banned music during its first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.

TV and radio stations have been banned from broadcasting music. Meanwhile, sermons or readings of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, have replaced the songs once heard at weddings.

Hundreds of musicians have fled Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover in August 2021. Many musicians who remain in the country have abandoned their musical careers.

Among them is Abdul Khaliq Noori, a folk singer in Herat. The 61-year-old, the sole breadwinner in his family of six, used to earn a living by singing at events and selling CDs of his music. Now, he ekes out a living as a rickshaw driver.

“I can’t breathe. I feel suffocated,” he told Radio Azadi. “I’m heartbroken.”

Noori was among the scores of musicians who once recorded music in the studios along Herat’s Badmurghan Street. Now, the street is home to car repair garages, auto spare part shops, and blacksmith stores.

Despite the Taliban’s intensifying crackdown on music, Afghan musicians are determined to protect the country’s musical traditions.

Singer Khalil Aria fled Afghanistan in October 2021, nearly two months after the Taliban marched into the capital, Kabul. He now lives in exile in Germany with his wife and two daughters.

“I buried my instruments in our garden [in Afghanistan before leaving], which felt like burying my own children,” the 35-year-old told Radio Azadi.

Like scores of leading Afghan singers and musicians, Aria now produces music abroad and hopes to preserve the country’s musical heritage.

During the 1990s, many Afghan musicians fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, where they could practice freely and pass their knowledge on to the next generation. Most musicians who remained in Afghanistan either played secretly in their homes or hid their instruments.

After the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, great strides were made in reviving Afghanistan’s musical traditions. Now, many of those gains are being reversed.

Azizul Rahman Mohajer, the head of the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Herat, says music is forbidden under Islam. “We cannot allow musicians because God will be displeased,” he told Radio Azadi.

But Islamic scholars reject the Taliban’s reasoning. Mohammad Mohiq, a researcher specializing in Islam, says there is no definitive ruling about music in the Koran.

“The issue of music is disputed,” he said. “If someone favors the idea that music is forbidden, they can avoid it. But it is wrong to force people to follow this view.”

Ahmad Sarmast, the self-exiled founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, says that the Taliban’s ban on music is an attack on Afghan culture.

“The Taliban policies are pushing the rich heritage of Afghanistan’s music toward destruction,” he told Radio Azadi. “The absence of music is turning Afghanistan into a sick and violent society.”