Summer 2006, Vol. 9, No. 1

Table of Contents
Summer 2006

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Hold the Prayers

To Print or Not to Print?

Another Melancholy Dane

Raising Hell in Alabama

Mr. Harper Goes to Ottawa

Apostasy in Afghanistan

Religious Politics, Japanese Style

Cult Fighting in Middle Georgia



Apostasy in Afghanistan
by Colin M. Adams

During the last two weeks of March, the international news media were much taken up with the case of 41-year-old Abdul Rahman, an Afghan Christian who faced a possible death sentence for having apostatized from Islam. It was a story in which the issues of principle were clear, the politics delicate, and Rahman’s personal situation rather murky.

The media coverage seems to have gotten off the ground with an Afghani public television news report of a March 16 hearing of the case before a judge in Kabul. Video clips presumably taken from the broadcast (available with translation on the Christian missionary website) show the prosecutor declaring his intention of seeking death by hanging, and Rahman saying he will accept the punishment while insisting that he is neither an infidel nor an apostate but just a “follower of Jesus.”

On March 18, the Voice of America filed a dispatch calling the impending trial “a critical test of Afghanistan’s new constitution and democratic government.” Quoting Rahman directly (“I am a Christian and I believe in Jesus Christ”), VOA pointed out that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had so far not commented on the case—but “political analysts here in Kabul say he will be under significant pressure from the country’s hard-line religious groups to make an example of Rahman.”

The following day, the AP and Agence France Presse picked up the story, with the AP’s Daniel Clooney filing a substantial report that quoted the judge, the prosecutor, an anonymous Christian aid worker, and an Afghan human rights advocate—but not Rahman. Then it was off to the races.

On March 20, Tim Albone’s London Times story pointedly noted that the proceedings came as Britain was preparing to send “3,300 nominally Christian paratroopers to stabilise the troubled south of the country.” Although he succeeded in obtaining quotes from several of Rahman’s cellmates, Albone disclosed that repeated requests to interview the man himself were rejected by prison officials, “who said the Justice Ministry had threatened to sack them if an interview was granted.”

Indeed, during his time in custody Rahman was heard from again only via a human rights worker, who presented him with a series of questions from the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, which published a Q and A March 26. After being set free and spirited out of Afghanistan to asylum in Italy March 29, Rahman gave an interview to Italian TV and then was heard from no more.

Thus, through the course of the story, the media were dependent on a limited and shifting set of assertions in which judge, prosecutor, police, and hostile (or scared) family members portrayed Rahman as a jobless, mentally unstable man who beat his daughters and tried to force his religion on them.

What is uncontested is that Rahman became a Christian 16 years ago while working in Peshawar, Pakistan for an unnamed Christian aid organization run by Catholics. After his conversion, his family arranged for him to be married to a Muslim woman from Kabul. The couple had two daughters before being divorced in 1995.

Subsequently, Rahman lived in Germany, before moving back to Afghanistan in the wake of the 2002 ouster of the Taliban regime by U.S.-led forces. Seeking to gain custody of his daughters, now 13 and 14, he was reported by family members to the authorities, who arrested him and charged him with apostasy.

Rahman “would be forgiven if he changed back, but he said he was a Christian and would always remain one,” Abdul Wasi, the prosecutor in the case, told the New York Daily News’ Derek Rose March 22. “We are Muslims and becoming a Christian is against our laws. He must get the death penalty.”

Afghanistan’s  Constitution (adop-ted in 2004) declares Shariah—Islamic law—to be the supreme law of the land and states that no law can be “contrary to the beliefs and provisions of Islam.” As a number of reporters pointed out, classical Shariah does indeed prescribe the death penalty for apostasy.

But the Constitution also guarantees all people the freedom “to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the provisions of the law.” So does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Afghanistan claims to uphold.

The underlying question of the Rahman case became: Was religious freedom as understood in the West compatible with Islamic law? If it wasn’t, then, so far as Western commentators were concerned, so much the worse for Afghanistan and the Muslim world generally.

On March 22, columnist Paul Adler of the Toronto Star told Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had just paid a visit to his country’s troops in Afghanistan, to give this message to the Afghan leader: “We Canadians are not prepared to shed one more drop of blood to support your government if the sword of your government draws the blood of Abdul Rahman.”

Or as Jim Chiavelli, a former member of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, put it in an April 3 Boston Herald op-ed, “We scattered the seeds of those values-free elections, free media, free markets—in the dusty earth of Kabul. They may have taken root among the elite, but that’s a tiny patch of ground; most Afghans still survive on the bitter fruit of centuries of ignorance and misery. Someday soon we should decide if this garden is really worth a much bigger effort--—or just leave it to the weeds.”

Editorial after editorial blasted the Afghan government and judiciary, citing this as yet another case of the “religious intolerance that characterizes much of the Muslim world today,” in the world of a Montreal Gazette editorial of March 28.”

“[T]he case is more than deeply troubling; it’s barbaric,” thundered the New York Times March 23. “[S]ome ideas are so retrograde—barbaric, in fact, that their moral repugnance need not be denied,” pronounced the Omaha World-Herald March 29. “This is the case with the notion, ludicrous in the 21st century, that to change one’s religion is a fundamental danger to one’s society.”

Quoting Syrian intellectual Mo-hammed Sahrour (“The concept of ‘human rights’ is barely beginning to penetrate the region”), Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin wrote March 28 that Rahman’s plight “should jolt any illusions about the ease of bringing democracy to Afghanistan or the Middle East.”

There was some recognition that the differences lay not simply between East and West, but within Islam itself. Alongside making apostasy a capital offense, some pointed to the Koranic injunction, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” As the Seattle Times opined March 30, “Leave it to the Islamic faithful to reconcile seemingly conflicting sentiments that there be no compulsion in the religion, and that those who leave the faith must be killed.”

For his part, Rahman might well have claimed to be speaking for Islamic values when, in response to La Repubblica’s questions, he said, “I have done nothing to repent, I respect Afghan law as I respect Islam. But I chose to become a Christian, for myself, for my soul. It is not an offence.”

Early on, the governments of Canada, Italy, and Germany called on Karzai to have the case dropped, but President Bush, despite his missionary zeal for spreading liberty around the globe, did not go that far. Rather, according to Pamela Constable’s March 23 dispatch in the Washington Post, he described himself as “deeply troubled,” adding, “That’s not the universal application of the values that I talked about.”

At first blush, Karzai’s options appeared limited, and not merely by the political peril of taking on the powerful Afghan clerical establishment and its allies in the judiciary. 

“Our Constitution says that the judiciary power is independent, and the president has signed the Constitution,” Afghan religious affairs adviser Moulavi Balooch told Sultan M. Munadi of the New York Times March 27. “We cannot intervene in this case, and it is up to the judges and the court what to do with it.”

In the end, it is clear that a deal was worked out, though the mechanics never got reported. Rahman’s prosecution was suspended pending further inquiry, on the grounds that he might be mentally unfit. He was released from prison and disappeared from sight, apparently into U.N. custody. Then, after being flown to Italy, he was immediately given asylum.

Rahman’s release drew criticism from members of the Afghan parliament and religious leaders, and in at least one case sparked a popular protest, according to the internet news service Afghan Islamic Press Online.

In a March 26 New York Times op-ed, J. Alexander Thier of the United States Institute of Peace, who served as a legal adviser to Afghanistan’s Constitutional and Judicial Reform Commissions, called the case “a discouraging illustration of the uneasy balance between the democratic norms Afghanistan’s Constitution enshrines and the conservative Islamic values its judiciary upholds.”

Similarly, the Houston Chronicle editorialized on April 3, “The concept of casting a ballot appears to have caught on in Afghanistan and Iraq, as it did earlier among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The next step is establishment of the essential freedom of thought and conscience without which democracy is simply a means to choose one’s oppressors.”

But from the Afghan standpoint, the opposition between democratic norms and conservative Islamic values was a good deal less clear. On April 22, after the smoke had cleared, the Washington Post’s exemplary Pamela Constable paid a visit to the Herati Mosque in Kabul to explore the issue with its imam Abdul Rauf—“one of the few local clerics to criticize the rigid Islamic views and harsh punishments of the Taliban.”

“You must understand how shameful it is for us that a Muslim would become a Christian,” Rauf told her. “If other people want to join Islam, we encourage and appreciate them. But ours is the complete and final religion. If you leave it, that is like throwing God away.”

While granting that he had criticized the Taliban for being so harsh and torturing people, Rauf nonetheless declared, “If Abdul Rahman stood before me right now, I would kill him myself.”

“Ask most Afghans about the potential conflicts between Islam and democracy, such as those exposed by the Rahman case, and they vigorously deny the questions’ premise,” Constable wrote. “Many point out that Afghanistan now has a freely elected president and parliament, an independent judiciary and press, and a new constitution that says no laws shall contract the principles of Islam.

“After the service,” Constable reported, “worshipers offered nearly identical opinions, saying Islam was a democratic and beneficent faith—but that no one had the right to leave it.”


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