By Wendy Grossman
September 07, 2009 12:00 PM

During five years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, TV was outlawed. So was singing in public. And elections? A dim memory for anyone under age 12. So when Afghan Star debuted in 2005, it was more than an American Idol clone. “Once young people saw how to vote for singers, they could begin thinking of how to vote for a president,” says a 23-year-old fan of the show from Kabul.

Afghan Star also made a celebrity of its host and creator, Daoud Sediqi, who rose from illegally repairing TVs in the Taliban era to appearing before 11 million rapt viewers—a third of the population. But now Afghanistan’s biggest star is a refugee, living in Virginia.

Merely hosting a music show had put him on the resurgent Taliban’s radar, and Sediqi says he received death threats by phone, text, even on the street: “In three years, I never went out without a security guard.” He accepted that peril, but then a documentary about his show that played last January at the Sundance film festival (now in limited release, Afghan Star will run on HBO in 2010) increased the threat to his life, he felt. The movie reveals that he was more than a host: He used the show to subvert lingering fundamentalist attitudes. It was his decision, for instance, to air footage of a female contestant dancing, a move that brought calls for her to be stoned to death. Says Sediqi: “American soldiers fight with guns. I did the same with music.”

He traveled to Sundance for the premiere and was sobered by what he saw—and the crowd’s reaction. “Everybody asked me, ‘You’re not afraid?'”

He made calls to friends at home and decided that this film might seal his fate. During a layover in Atlanta, he stayed up all night debating what to do. In Kabul, “I had a good life,” he says, but ultimately, he didn’t get on the next plane. Instead he applied to the U.S. government for asylum, which was granted in June.

Now he is improving his English and looking for a job far from his parents and seven siblings, whose educations Sediqi had helped fund. He also longs for the still-hot show that continues without him. “I miss my stage, my audience, my stars,” says Sediqi. “I hope I can go home again. But nothing is more important than my life.”