What sort of government is harboring suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden?
A religious regime that has demolished grand Buddhist artworks, ended schooling for girls past the age of 8, decreed that Hindus must wear identification patches and imprisoned eight western aid workers for allegedly preaching their Christian faith.
According to the zealous Taliban, who have ruled in Afghanistan since 1996, fidelity to Islam requires unprecedented harshness.
Their practices have been disparaged by many Muslims outside Afghanistan, but the bin Laden case could prove to be one instance in which some Muslim support emerges for Taliban policy based on religious grounds.
Traditionalists may sympathize with Taliban contentions that, under strict religious law, bin Laden's responsibility for terrorism can only be determined after trial before a court of fellow Muslims. And some may feel Afghanistan is justified in preparing for a holy war of self-defense against the United States.
On other matters, however, many Muslims -- particularly moderates and scholars -- have said the Taliban are mistaken about what Islam requires.
The Muslim world has largely spurned the Taliban up to now. The Organization of the Islamic Conference refused to admit the regime and only three of the 56 member nations (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) have granted it full diplomatic recognition.
Even neighboring Iran, whose 1979 revolution energized militant Muslims worldwide, rejects the Taliban, although that hostility stems from alleged Taliban persecution of fellow Shiite Muslims. Islam's larger Sunni branch dominates in Afghanistan.
While bin Laden is suspected of directing a terrorist network aimed at the West from Afghanistan, the nation has also become a haven for thousands of activists believed to be preparing to overthrow more moderate Muslim regimes in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Islamic states of nearby Central Asia that were part of the former Soviet Union.
One notable incident this year caused worldwide outrage. The Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, on Feb. 26 ordered demolition of two monumental mountain carvings of the Buddha on grounds that they violated Islam's ban on idol worship.
Egypt's highest Muslim authority, Grand Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel, joined a noted scholar from Qatar, Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi, and others in a fruitless emergency mission urging the regime not to destroy the Buddhas.
"Such behavior comes to undermine the image of Islam," former Egyptian diplomat Hussein Ahmed Amin wrote at the time.
An Afghan scholar in the United States, Amin Tarzi, charged that his homeland's rulers feed off the peoples' "illiteracy and lack of knowledge of traditional Islamic teachings."
The Taliban have employed Pashtun tribal traditions along with religion "to legitimize their rule based on a terror system," said Tarzi, of the Monterey (Calif.) Institute of International Studies. (The Pashtun are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.)
Others are baffled by the regime. "I personally don't have any idea where they get some of their ideas," said Professor Anis Ahmed of Pakistan's Islamic University.
Some tenets come from literal interpretation of the Quran, the Muslim scripture, Ahmed explained, but "if you take things literally that will lead to extremism." He said the Quran must be read in light of its context and application in the Sunnah, the authoritative sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Taliban emerged in 1994, promising peace to the war-ravaged land of 21 million and rebelling against Islamic factions whose conflicts had killed 50,000 people.
They are led by Omar, the self-declared "king of the Muslims," and a circle of eight to 10 colleagues from Kandahar in the deeply tribal southeast, near the Pakistan border.
Omar described his followers in a movement magazine as "a simple band of dedicated youths ... determined to establish the laws of God on earth, and prepared to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of that goal."
Taliban means "students," and indeed many followers attended conservative Muslim schools in Pakistan as refugees during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. One important training ground was Dar-ul Uloom Haqqani in Akora Khattak, one of Pakistan's largest Muslim campuses.
It was the academic source of the Taliban gender policies. "It is biologically, religiously and prophetically proven that men are superior to women," said a spokesman at the seminary, Maulana Adil Siddiqu.
Yet Tarzi noted that the Quran (7:189; 16:97; 33:35) mandates religious equality and training for men and women alike.
As for the Buddha-smashing, Muhammad cleared Arabia of idols when he inaugurated the religion, and pious artists consequently do not depict the human form. But Muslims did not destroy pre-Islamic statuary in lands they conquered soon after Muhammad's lifetime.
In January, Omar decreed that anyone who converts from Islam to another religion will be killed, although the Taliban have not said what the penalty could be for the aid workers accused of preaching Christianity.
Other Taliban rules follow fundamentalist Islamic or Pashtun traditions that most believers do not see as faith requirements.
The only allowable music for Muslims is religious song, unaccompanied by instruments. Television, movies and videos are banned. So is kite-flying, seen as a distraction from a life of prayer.
The Taliban rules are meticulously enforced by religious police patrols from the omnipresent Ministry of Virtue and Vice. The "virtue" squads coordinate Islamic education, while "vice" squads stamp out forbidden evils and enforce the movement's conception of "pure" Islam.
The Hindu identity patches were necessary, the Taliban said, so that the religious police would not force them to follow Islamic rules. But so far, the Taliban are not enforcing the order.
The ministry wields almost unlimited power in the 95 percent of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban. Those who know the country say its grip is only strengthened by tensions with the outside world.
Overall, said Tarzi, the Taliban are creating a variant that Islam has never before seen. In his view it extends far beyond the Wahhabi movement, the puritanical Islamic reform imposed in Saudi Arabia beginning in the 19th century that is bin Laden's inspiration.
"This is absolutely new," Tarzi said. "No other Islamic country comes close."
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Kathy Gannon, AP's Islamabad bureau chief, reports regularly from Afghanistan. Richard N. Ostling is an AP religion writer. Salah Nasrawi of AP's Cairo bureau contributed to this article.
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