Young Afghans defy extremists to crown an 'Idol' at music marathon

Click to follow

More than 300,000 people voted in the final of Afghanistan's version of Pop Idol and hundreds more crowded into a hotel in Kabul yesterday, shrugging off angry religious protests.

Music fans from across the country voted by text message as two male finalists battled it out on stage, just a few hundred yards from a massive demonstration by Muslim extremists.

Hundreds of young Afghans queued for hours to see the final held at the Intercontinental Hotel, which was once a favourite stomping ground of the Taliban. The building was protected by armed police with machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks, while just beyond the gate crowds waved placards protesting against European cartoons and a film which they say insults Islam.

Elsewhere in the country, two policemen were killed and four people wounded in blasts in Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif. Inside the hotel, fans waved glow sticks and chanted for their favourite singers, as previous Afghan Star winners – now household names – performed their signature tunes to rapturous cheers, whistles and applause.

Their exuberance would have landed them in jail, or worse, under the hardline Taliban regime, which ruled the country until 2001. Shakeeb Hamdard, its first winner who is now one of the biggest Afghan stars, said: "People love music, and we love singing."

Rafi Naabzada, 19, an ethnic Tajik, was crowned this year's winner, beating Hameed Sakhizada after a three-hour music marathon. Both men wore suits, one white, one silver, for their performances, while most of the audience wore jeans and Western clothes.

The show's makers claim it gets 90 per cent of the country's television audience and it is especially popular with young people.

But it has drawn fierce criticism from religious hardliners. The influential Islamic Council petitioned President Hamid Karzai to ban it. One performer, Setara Hussainzada, was forced to flee her home last month after she received death threats for letting her headscarf slip as she dared to dance on stage.

Most performers simply walk around with one arm outstretched towards the audience. Ms Hussainzada bobbed up and down as she sang.

One of the show's owners, Zaid Mohseni, said most of the opposition comes from the government, which he accused of launching a campaign of harassment against his television station, Tolo. He said: "We have experienced systematic intimidation resulting in self censorship." A government adviser accused Tolo of acting like "rogues".

Najib Manalai, an adviser to the Information and Culture minister, said: "We are disgusted by what they do, but we allow it. We are not impeaching them. Tolo behave like a rogue TV station." Tolo has also come under fire for broadcasting Indian soap operas, which hardliners claim are undermining Afghan culture.