Religious Freedom in Afghanistan

Joseph M. Knippenberg

March 1, 2006

Sixteen years ago, while working with a Christian relief group in Peshawar, Pakistan, Abdul Rahman converted to Christianity. After spending nine years in Germany, he returned to Afghanistan in 2002. Now, in the middle of a dispute with his family over the custody of his daughters, he has been charged with apostasy from Islam, a capital crime under Islamic law. The prosecutor offered to spare his life if he recanted his conversion. To his credit, and perhaps at his peril, Rahman refused.

Just a few short weeks ago, President Bush had this to say in Kabul:

In our country, you can worship freely. You’re equally American if you’re a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jew. You’re equally American if you don’t believe in an Almighty. Under the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, there is no religious freedom. You have no chance to express yourself in the public square without being punished. There is no capacity to realize your full potential.

Should he have asked, “Has anything changed in the ’new’ Afghanistan? Did we spill our blood just to change the identity of the executioners?”

Afghanistan’s new constitution has all sorts of noble words and phrases. It asserts that “liberty is the natural right of human beings,” that “the liberty and dignity of human beings are inviolable,” that “followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law,” and that Afghanistan respects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” including “freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom…to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The constitution also declares that Afghanistan is an Islamic state and that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”

Given Mr. Rahman’s plight under Islamic law, it’s hard to know what to make of all the words we Americans like. How is he free? How is his dignity not being violated? What kind of religious freedom is there in Afghanistan?

One not altogether satisfactory answer is that, in Afghanistan, non-Muslims are free, so long as they don’t proselytize among Muslims. Western Christians can worship, but not evangelize, which is to say that they can’t fully live up to the requirements of their faith.

Religious freedom, in other words, exists in the context of Islam, to the extent, and only to the extent, permitted by Islamic law. The latter permits conversions from other faiths to Islam, but not from Islam to other faiths. Apostasy from Islam, as noted above, is punishable by death.

The American way, also endorsed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is different. We place Islam in the context of religious freedom, as one religion among many, all available for conscientious adherence or abjuration. As James Madison said in his “Memorial and Remonstrance,” “The Religion… of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” This is not a merely secular opinion, indifferent to religious truth. It doesn’t make us the ultimate judges. Rather, it affirms simply that consciences must be freely won and cannot be compelled. A genuine faith is a free faith.

Mr. Rahman is not the first, and surely will not be the last, ex-Muslim to be charged with apostasy. But he apparently is the first so charged in a country whose “liberation” was accomplished with the assistance of American arms and blood. I have no doubt that we and the Afghans are better off with the Taliban out of power and with the government not aiding and abetting al Qaeda. But Hamid Karzai’s government has to realize that we can’t tolerate an execution that would make a mockery of our beliefs and efforts. Other Muslim countries have found means of finessing this law, permitting ex-Muslims to settle elsewhere as refugees. Even the Taliban eventually released the Christian missionaries they detained in the run-up to the war.

I recognize that the Karzai government is in a difficult spot. They don’t want to hand ammunition to their adversaries by seeming un-Islamic. But there’s inevitably also a cost associated with antagonizing us. President Bush has to make it clear that our commitment to liberty is genuine and that we cannot continue to support a government whose only distinction from its predecessor seems to be that it is an unwilling, rather than willing, host to al Qaeda.

I recognize also that if Islam is to be reformed, if its coercive tendencies are to be weakened and its tolerant ones strengthened, reform must come from within, not be imposed from outside. Hamid Karzai and his supporters have an opportunity here to strike a blow for a kinder, gentler Islam, one that displays its kinship with the other “Abrahamic” religions. If they do so, I can only hope that responsible Muslims living in the U.S. and Europe, and their courageous brethren around the world, offer visible and vociferous support.

It’s time for President Bush quietly to step up to the plate, for President Karzai publicly to do the right thing, and for Muslims around the world to show that Islam is genuinely not our enemy, that it can coexist peacefully with us in a pluralistic world.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.