An Eye for an Eye

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Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, perhaps the most isolated government in the world, is routinely accused of repression at home and support for terrorism abroad. In a rare show of openness, two of the Taliban's leading figures agreed to meet with New Delhi bureau chief Michael Fathers. The result: a fresh insight into this little-understood regime. Here, Justice Minister Mullah Nooruddin Turabi defends Islamic principles and the Taliban's insistence on imposing its version of justice. Excerpts from the interview:

TIME: How do you respond to international concern that your implementation of orthodox Islamic law is unnecessarily severe and a breach of human rights?

Turabi: We are Muslims and we are required to follow the Holy Koran and implement the Islamic system of justice, known as Shariat. If we don't follow it we are committing a sin. You also have to look at those countries which are criticizing us. All of them have law and order problems. We constantly hear news of people in the United States and Russia being robbed and murdered. There is a lot of crime there. Our traders tell us that before the Taliban, they were never able to get by without their goods being stolen and their lorries stopped. What we have done is restored law and order. Before, there was complete chaos. Now everyone can travel freely, even at night, and nobody will stop them. In other countries, even those where there are lots of police, there is not this level of safety. It has come about in Afghanistan because we have implemented Islamic justice and Islamic punishment. Let me explain: In every organization there are rules and regulations which you must follow. In our faith there are specific punishments for specific crimes and we must follow them--a robber loses his hand, a highway robber loses his hand and a foot. Murder requires equal revenge. There is no other way for us but to enforce Islamic punishment because that is our belief. We are not bothered by the criticism of other countries. We are following the instructions of God. It is not me saying what should be done. We are told by God what to do.

TIME: Do God's instructions include restrictions on how men and women should dress? Not all Afghans believe women should be veiled behind a burqa (an all-enveloping outer garment) and that all men should wear beards of a certain specification (uncut and untrimmed).

Turabi: Our legal code is not something the Taliban has created. When we were not in power, we called for the implementation of Shariat law. Now that we are in power we are bound by our promises and our faith to carry it out. It is not only a question of beards and burqas; every vice has to be stopped and every virtue promulgated. When we staged our uprising in Kandahar, we promised to restore the Islamic system of justice. That was one of the reasons the people supported us. If we go back on our promise we will go the same way as other governments before us.

TIME: Taliban ordinances concerning women and their right to work and restrictions on the education of girls is a cause of concern abroad and in Kabul.

Turabi: Afghanistan is a country where women work from dawn to dusk in the fields and in the home, and are overburdened. How can you say they are not allowed to work? If a woman wants to work away from her home and with men, then that is not allowed by our religion and our culture. If we force them to do this they may want to commit suicide. We cannot ask our womenfolk to forgo their security. We think women are working as they should--at home. This is what we are taught by our culture and our faith. If you ask me, I would say that about 1% or 2% of women in Afghanistan are not happy with their lot. About 99% are happy. In terms of educating girls, we have in place a system of religious education. We have not stopped that. Girls are also learning skills that will be useful to them in their life. We believe they are being properly educated and are being taught to become good Muslim women.

TIME: Your system of public punishment is considered particularly brutal and inhumane by some Afghans and foreign countries. Does this bother you?

Turabi: We are the only fully Shariat country in the world-- Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries are only partly Shariat. We don't believe in doing things on a piecemeal basis, and we are not concerned by criticism or isolation. As I have said, in the Koran there are specific punishments for specific crimes, and that is the way it has to be done--and in public. For the people that are watching, it is a reminder for them to behave within the law. Public executions actually protect life because they warn people away from committing a similar crime. We want people to see the punishment. We are asked by God to do it that way.

TIME: Why has it been necessary to close cinemas, ban non-religious music and dancing?

Turabi: They can lead you astray. It is wrong to think the people want them.

TIME: People consider you a hard-liner. Are you?

Turabi: I may have this reputation, but I don't think I am a hard-liner. I follow Koranic instructions, and there is a lot of flexibility there.