Many of you have probably already heard about the trial of Abdul Rahman. For those of you who haven’t, his trial was for a potentially capital offense in an Islamic country.
What was the offense, you ask? Murder, terrorism, rape, maybe even treason? No, his offense, for which he faced a possible death penalty, is that he is a former Muslim who has converted to Christianity.
Outrageous, you say? Indeed. So surely this occurred in some Islamic country that is anathema to America, someplace like Iran, or maybe Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule?
Well, no, not exactly. This was an Afghan trial. Or, more correctly, it is an Afghan trial. That is to say, this didn’t happen during the Taliban’s rule; it’s happening right now.
Wait a minute, you say. Didn’t we liberate Afghanistan? Didn’t we drive out the Taliban and their attendant religious nutcases? Doesn’t Afghanistan have a democratically elected government now?
Yes, yes, and yes. But, the judiciary is still controlled primarily by conservative religious clerics, under the power-sharing arrangement mandated by the Afghan constitution. And apparently, although I’m no expert in Shariah (Islamic law), the religious courts in Afghanistan have jurisdiction over this type of “offense”.
To be sure, many moderate Muslims (in Afghanistan and around the world) find this trial to be abhorrent. Even those who recognize the “crime” of apostasy, or leaving Islam for another religion, do not consider it to be a capital offense. Unfortunately for Mr. Rahman, however, those moderate Muslims are not running the show in the religious courts of Kabul.
But at least Mr. Rahman can take comfort from the fact that there are thousands of American troops in Afghanistan, and obviously there’s no way we would allow someone to be executed for their religious beliefs in a country that we militarily occupy, right? Again, not exactly. On Wednesday, President Bush called on Afghan officials to "honor the universal principle of freedom." And on Thursday, Secretary of State Rice called the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, to discuss the matter "in the strongest possible terms," according to a State Department spokesman. Meanwhile, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, has noted that "clearly violates the universal freedoms that democracies around the world hold dear." Mr. McClellan followed that with the forcefully worded assertion, "And we are watching it very closely,"
Watching it closely? Discussing in the strongest possible terms? I haven’t heard any strong terms used publicly yet. It’s time for President Bush to use some really strong language. How about this: “If your government tries to execute someone for being a Christian, after we sent our young men and women in uniform over there to give their lives to free your country from the grips of the religious oppression of the Taliban, after we’ve pumped billions of dollars into your country to try to restore some sense of order and stability, then we’re going to use those thousands of troops we have on the ground to march right into your prison and grab this guy and bring him to a country where he can exercise his religious freedom. To hell with your precious national sovereignty. You wouldn’t have any national sovereignty if we hadn’t given it to you. Oh, and if we happen to blow up a whole bunch of things along the way, including every one of your religious courthouses, well, that’s just inevitable collateral damage.”
OK, so maybe that’s not really what I think ought to happen in a perfect world. But hey, this world isn’t perfect yet, and besides, it felt nice and cathartic to type all that.
This whole incident highlights the ongoing “clash of civilizations” that is the subject of incessant debate. As Tom Friedman wrote in a recent column, discussing the problems inherent in our efforts to “modernize” the Arab-Muslim world:
The real problem was recently spelled out by an Arab-American psychiatrist, Dr. Wafa Sultan, in a stunning interview with Al Jazeera. Speaking about the Arab-Muslim world, Dr. Sultan said: "The clash we are witnessing ... is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on the other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings."
The Jazeera host then asked: "I understand from your words that what is happening today is a clash between the culture of the West, and the backwardness and ignorance of the Muslims?"
Dr. Sultan: "Yes, that is what I mean."
Dr. Sultan voiced truths that many Muslims know: their civilization is, in many places, in turmoil, falling further and further behind the world in science, education, industry and innovation, while falling deeper and deeper into the grip of crackpot clerics, tin-pot dictators, violent mobs and madmen like bin Laden and Saddam.
Is there hope for the modernization of this section of the world, hope that universal human rights will actually be respected and implemented in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia? Of course there is. Will simply slapping on a patch of “democratically elected government” fix the problem? Of course not. The problem isn’t merely with the political structures. The problem lies in the religious and cultural pulses of these countries.
And lest I forget: Is it helpful for America to tell other countries that they should reform themselves, respect universal human rights, and not allow religious courts to interpret and apply the law, while at the same time our political leaders ignore universal human rights and continue to push for the ever-increasing influence of fundamentalist religious voices in our own society? No, I didn’t think so.