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Afghan mullah offers ancient wisdom to youths on Facebook

When this Afghan mullah needs to find an answer in the Koran, he Googles it

For years, said Mohammad Sajad Mohseni, a 63-year-old mullah, young Afghans took one look at his salt-and-pepper beard, white turban and coral-colored prayer beads and dismissed him.

"They just saw me as another mullah," Mohseni said.

But that changed three years ago when he opened a Facebook account.

Suddenly a man who seemed like a relic of the past had begun to speak the language of a new generation of Afghans skeptical of traditional religious figures but open to social media. Mohseni said he has seen a surge in the number of young Afghans who attend his mosque here in northern Afghanistan and who comment on his Facebook page.

Seated cross-legged in a room lined with red and gold mattresses in his simple brick home, Mohseni uses his white Samsung Galaxy cellphone to write daily reflections of his readings of religious texts. He also posts his favorite verses from Persian poetry.

Taught to use the smartphone by his son — as with many Afghans, the phone is his only source of Internet access — Mohseni is quick to respond to direct messages but hasn't gotten the hang of commenting.

"Mainly I just go through and hit the 'Like' button on interesting posts," he said.

Ewaz, a Bamian driver in his mid-30s who "friended" the mullah on Facebook, called him "a great man."

"He knows when to be serious and reflective and when to be more joking and approachable," said Ewaz, who uses only one name. "That's why young people who may otherwise ignore religious figures come to him."

In a country where many clerics regard the Internet as synonymous with pornography and sin, this isn't the first time Mohseni has challenged the conventions of his conservative peers.

In 2008, when he was serving as head of the Bamian provincial council, Mohseni led a delegation of local political and religious leaders to greet then-First Lady Laura Bush, who was making an official visit. Mohseni was the only mullah to shake Bush's hand, causing controversy in a country where strict Islamic doctrine frowns upon physical contact between men and women who aren't husband and wife.

"The other mullahs said, 'You shook the hand of a kafir [nonbeliever] woman and her husband wasn't even around,'" Mohseni said. "But she had reached out her hand to me. It would have been rude to turn away."

A photo of the handshake went viral and, ironically, helped spark Mohseni's interest in social media.

"Everyone was criticizing me, saying, 'We saw your picture on Facebook, we know what you did,'" he recalled. "So I had to find out what this Facebook was."

Since then he has embraced the immediacy of the Internet, as well as its anonymity, which allows Afghans to obtain counsel on personal matters they would not air publicly.

"Young girls who previously couldn't ask me questions in person in the mosque now ask me things I know they wouldn't otherwise dare to," he said. One young woman asked about the rights of a woman in the Muslim marriage contract and what it meant because her family had not explicitly reviewed it at her marriage ceremony.

He's received some questions he couldn't readily answer, the historical context of a certain passage, for example, or the number of times the Virgin Mary is mentioned in the Koran. For those, he acknowledged, he often turns to Google.

"In the past there were questions that would take hours or weeks of searching through the Koran that can now be answered in a matter of minutes," he said.

Although use of cellphones and social media has taken off among Afghan youths, the nation's religious leaders have been less quick to adopt new technology. In the poorer provinces, smartphones and mobile data plans, to say nothing of computers with Internet access, are too expensive for most mullahs, Mohseni said.

But Mohseni, a Shiite Muslim, said influential Islamic leaders from as far away as Qom, an important center of Shiite scholarship in Iran, have been receptive to religious leaders using modern tools.

"It is insanity to me that in the 21st century there are still religious leaders who rely on 1st or 2nd century technology. If something is available to you, why not use it?"

As for those who regard Facebook and its ilk as immoral and corrupting, Mohseni offered a simple response.

"The Internet is like your eyes: You can choose to use them to look toward God or toward things that destroy your character."

Latifi is a special correspondent.

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