Under Taliban rule (1996-2001), instrumental music and public performance in Afghanistan were almost totally banned. Instruments that were discovered by the Taliban’s morality police were destroyed; sometimes publicly burned or “hanged” along with confiscated audio and video cassettes, televisions, and camcorders. Only the singing of certain religious songs and unaccompanied hymns of praise to the Taliban were allowed on radio and television. Many musicians hid their instruments in their homes, destroyed them, or left the country. Those who stayed suffered severe repercussions, including public humiliation and arrests.

Over the past 20 years, Afghan musical life saw a tentative resurgence. Some well-known musicians returned from exile; new music conservatories and schools were formed and opened their doors to girls as well. However, even after Taliban rule, the practice of music by women remained a thorn in the side of many. Earlier this March, the Afghan Ministry of Education passed a resolution banning girls and women over the age of 12 from singing in public. 

What will happen now that the Taliban has returned to power? “When they are in power, they will ban all art,” wrote Sahraa Karimi, the filmmaker and president of state organization Afghan Film, in a desperate open letter to the world last week. We spoke to an Afghan musician who has helped to shape the country’s musical development over the past 20 years about the current situation in the country, why music has historically been banned by the Taliban, and what they hope for the future of music in the country. 

Thanks for taking the time. These are probably not easy days for you right now. How are you?

I’m good; in the middle of many many things. I have two phones here in front of me. I’m trying to be on top of everything. 

Two weeks ago, you were planning to go back to Afghanistan. You had to postpone your return due to the developments?

Yes, when I travelled last month, I hadn’t expected the situation to develop in such a totally unexpected direction. So currently I’m postponing my flight for some time to see what’s going to happen, and to see when the Taliban announce their policies towards arts and culture. I’m waiting. At this stage, I’m trying to be constructive.

Were the developments of the last weeks completely unexpected for you?

I was waiting for the real peace negotiations in Doha to eventually begin, and for a political settlement to be found for ending the war in Afghanistan. At the same time, I was believing in the ability of the Afghan army to stand for the interests of the people of Afghanistan. We had a very strong army. Even at the very beginning, when the US announced their total unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan, I was hopeful. My only concern was that the regime could collapse because people from inside the regime would make deals with the Taliban. In 1992, when the regime of [former president Mohammad] Najibullah collapsed, the members of [his] party and army joined different Mujahideen parties and armed forces, which led to the collapse of Najibullah and the civil war. Now we are again witnessing exactly what was happening in 1992. Province after province fell to the Taliban without a shot. That takeover should not be considered the result of a military victory; it was a military of conspiracy and betrayal by Afghan politicians. 

You were the target of a suicide attack by the Taliban. Now the same group that tried to kill you has taken power again. 

I don’t take important stuff personally. The attack was not an attack on me, it was an attack on arts and culture in Afghanistan; it was an attack on the positive changes that were happening in Afghanistan. Despite everything that’s happening right now in Afghanistan, I’m trying to be optimistic. I hope that the Taliban have learned from their past. I hope that they learned that music cannot be silenced, a nation cannot be silenced, and an entire nation cannot be deprived of one of their very basic human rights—to express yourself freely in music. 

Music is not only an art, an entertainment, it is also part of human rights. Freedom of expression in music is a right; musical diversity and community is a right; having access to music education and practicing music is a human right. Making a living from music is a right. Being able to share the beauty of music and arts is a right. I’m also hopeful that the Taliban learned that music is part of the cultural identity of any nation. And I hope that the Taliban also learned that a community, a society, or a nation that does not respect their own culture—that nation cannot exist. A nation is alive when its arts and culture is alive. And music was, and will be, an important element of culture and arts in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are portraying themselves as different from the ones that were in power in the ’90s. Do you believe that, or have they just become more professional in public relations?

Until a week ago I would have said that there are no changes in Taliban attitudes towards anything. But in the last few days, when they captured important provinces such as Herat or Mazar, they put on a more civilized face for the Afghan people and the international community. So again, it can be temporary, or it can be a real change. At the end of the day, maybe there are some changes in the policy and in the leadership of the Taliban; but who will ensure that these changes will also occur in the minds of the ordinary Taliban members? Today I was watching a video on social media, in which you can clearly see disrespect for religious tolerance and also for ethnic differences. I saw on the gates of Kabul they were taking off not only the national flag of Afghanistan, but also they were taking the Shia flags, which they normally put up during the holy month of Muharram. 

It clearly shows that there might be changes in the mind of the leadership of the Taliban, but the danger is coming from their soldiers: from the people they might have no control over. And that’s gonna cost Afghanistan once again; a very, very high cost. And the people of Afghanistan will pay a very high price for such intolerance.

How has the Afghan music scene developed over the last 20 years?

There were many positive changes. Of course, the return of music after years of being banned is already a positive change. The return of girls and women to music was a positive change. Afghan musicians have played on stages like Carnegie Hall, the British Museum, Portugal’s Gulbenkian Concert Hall, Berwald Hall in Sweden, the World Economic Forum. In the last 20 years, Afghanistan has produced professional conductors, pianists, violinists, Afghan rubab players. We’ve successfully revived the musical traditions of Afghanistan. The music came a long way in 20 years. And hopefully we will be given the opportunity to further continue in that path, in order to make sure that the musical rights of the Afghan people are respected. 

Are many musicians trying to get out of the country?

Yes, the entire music community of Afghanistan is very, very fearful and panicking. All of these people are very fearful because of their popularity within the community. They are scared that if the Taliban sees them, they will be punished. But I hope that the Taliban won’t go down that path, because that’s not going to bring glory to them. 

In Kandahar, the Taliban have supposedly taken over the city’s radio station and banned music from airwaves.

That is what I’m very worried about. I’m trying to get more information about it: whether it was part of the policy of the Taliban and enforced by them, or if it was an initiative to make the Taliban happy in order to continue to run their businesses. As of right now, I haven’t seen any official decree or instruction from the Taliban asking stations not to broadcast music.

Where does the Taliban’s hatred of many forms of music—especially musical instruments—come from, and how is it justified?

It’s not a new phenomenon in Islam. That contradiction began in the 10th century, when Islamic scholars began interpreting the holy Quran as well as the sayings of—peace be upon him—the prophet Muhammed. It’s a narrow interpretation, but also a misleading interpretation. In the last twenty years it’s become more strongly advocated for. It always existed, and I’m sure it will continue to exist. But in reality there’s nothing against music in the holy Quran. Absolutely nothing. And from the perspective of Islam, the Quran is the most important guide for us Muslims. And therefore, if there’s nothing in the Quran against music, our Prophet—peace will be upon him—also cannot be against music. The hatred of music is based on misinterpretation and a narrow interpretation of Islamic teaching.

In recent years, there has also been progress, particularly in the area of education and educational rights for women. Is there a fear now that it was “all for nothing”?

I’m not going to say that it has all been for nothing. First of all, the educational system progressed a long way during the last 20 years. In 2001, we had a couple hundred thousand [children] in the schools of Afghanistan; no girls’ school existed at that time. Now, instead of a couple of hundred thousand students, we have millions of boys and girls enrolled in the schools of Afghanistan. Thousands of private and public schools exist in the country; there have been many new private universities established; many students were educated outside of Afghanistan and returned back with master degrees and PhDs. That’s a very positive development. The changes that happened in the last 20 years, they will not be gone overnight. Yes, there might be some restrictions imposed, but the minds of the people will not be changed. You can’t censor the mind and ability of the people to think freely. 

Also the values, the open-mindedness of the Afghans and their access to social media, all of this has played a significant role in the changes of the mentality of the Afghan people. Education played a significant role. Being connected with the rest of the world has left a big imprint on the ability of Afghan people to think, no matter what kinds of restrictions are imposed. People’s desire for freedom will be much much stronger than in 1996, when the Taliban came into power. The people of Afghanistan are very well aware of their rights now. And they are not willing to give up their rights under any circumstances. Yes, today there is a big mess in Afghanistan. But this big mess will settle down in a week or two or three. And then the time will come that we see what impact the changes of the last 20 years had on the mind of the Afghan people: on the way they think, on the way they will act. ¶

... earned degrees in development studies, Asian studies, and cultural anthropology from universities in Berlin, Seoul, Edinburgh, and London. He is a founder of VAN, where he serves as publisher and editor-in-chief.