JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Mohammed Tariq was looking after his uncle's music shop one recent afternoon when two bearded men with turbans pulled up on a motorcycle to deliver an ominous warning.
"Where is your uncle?" one of the armed men demanded of the 14-year-old boy. "Tell him to shut down this shop. If he doesn't, we will blow it up."
Within days, Farouq Pacha had cleared most of his shelves of the music cassettes he'd sold on the street for years.
"I was heartbroken when I heard this — and now I work secretly," Pacha said.
Pacha's shop was one in a string of music stores to become a new target for militants many suspect are Taliban enforcers looking for new ways to re-impose their conservative views — even in once-stable havens such as Jalalabad.
In recent months, as the U.S. military and Afghan government have turned most of their attention on Taliban sanctuaries in southern Afghanistan, Islamist forces have made major advances in other parts of the country.
In northern Afghanistan, Taliban ordered the stoning of a couple who defied local conventions, had an affair and tried to elope.
In some parts of Logar province, south of Kabul, Taliban insurgents have warned residents not to watch television.
And in Jalalabad, roving enforcers have started targeting music stores in Afghanistan's largest eastern city.
During the five years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, music was banned. If religious police spotted a music cassette in a driver's car, they would pull him out onto the street, beat him and destroy the tapes. There were public burnings of music tapes.
Since the U.S. pushed the Taliban from power following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, music has once again become a staple of life. Afghanistan has its own version of "American Idol," and the leading TV stations routinely play risque music videos.
"The Taliban want to show their power and they think that they can be victorious over the army of 46 countries here in Afghanistan," said Vahid Mojdeh, an Afghan political analyst who served as a diplomat during the five years of their government. "Some people were thinking that due to the changes, the Taliban had changed too and become more moderate. But we see that they have become more extreme."
A few weeks, ago Jalalabad business owner Zainuddin was on a trip in Pakistan when he got a late-night call: His music store had just been bombed. Unlike Pacha, Zainuddin, who like most Afghan uses one name, said he received no warning of the attack on his store, which he opened soon after the Taliban were ousted.
With little confidence that the Afghan government would step in to protect him, Zainuddin transformed his music store into a cell phone shop.
"Before when there was an incident, even the governor would visit the site of the incident, but now it's not happening, and it looks like the government has gotten weaker," said the 45-year-old father of eight. "The government says that we shop owners have to take care of ourselves, but we are disappointed: What are these security services for?"
Security officials in Jalalabad said they're aware of the problem and looking for ways to keep the intimidation in check.
Gen. Ghafoor Khan, the police chief in Nangarhar province's Surkhroad District, said police have arrested suspects in recent bombings. However, in a nod toward Afghanistan's conservative culture, Khan also said the government had set up a special provincial commission to restrict the sale of "immoral" cassettes.
Ahamad Saeedi, who's served as an Afghan diplomat in Pakistan and is a candidate in next month's parliamentary elections, blames Pakistan-based militants for the threats.
"We are due to hold parliamentary elections, and in such a sensitive situation Pakistan is trying to damage our sovereignty," he said. "These are all Pakistan provocations and interference not to hold elections in eastern provinces of the country."
Despite the threats, ordinary people continue listening to music. Some people think that it's part of Afghan culture.
"Music is not allowed in our religion but something acceptable in our culture" said Abdul Majeed, a sunglass seller in Jalalabad. Azizullah, a money exchanger from Jalalabad city, says music is "like food for the soul," and that time "does not pass without music." He said those who are threatening the music shops are either Taliban or Hezb-I- Islami, another opposition group led by former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose fighters are mostly active in the eastern part of Afghanistan.
Other people think the music shops are spreading immorality. "Afghanistan is an Islamic country, and does not accept the foreign culture," said Mohammad Ayoub, 70, who works as a porter with his one wheeled cart. "These shops have destroyed the lives of the youth and persuade them toward immoral crimes," he said, adding that he thinks the shops also distribute pornographic movies.
President Hamid Karzai is under pressure from the Ulema Council of Afghanistan, the religious body composed of the clerics and preachers from across the country.
They see the implementation of Sharia (Islamic law) as a way to stop the growing insurgency in the country. They seek bans on some programs run on some private TV channels, and during an intense parliamentary debate this year, many members called the non-Afghan serials aired on these channels un-Islamic.
Early in August, more than 300 members of the council called on Karzai to revive Islamic punishments such stoning, amputation and execution for various crimes. Islamic clerics have deep influence in the traditionally conservative Afghan society and has played a substantial role in backing — and ousting — of past regimes.
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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