Abdul Rahman: On Trial for Freedom

President Bush recently declared: “Before September the 11th, 2001, Afghanistan was ruled by a cruel regime that oppressed its people, brutalized women, and gave safe haven to the terrorists who attacked America. Today…the Afghan people are building a vibrant young democracy that is an ally in the war on terror. And America is proud to have such a determined partner in the cause of freedom.”

But last month an Afghan, Abdul Rahman, was arrested for the crime of leaving Islam and becoming a Christian—demonstrating that the freedom Afghans enjoy under the Karzai regime is not what Westerners might expect.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack tried to find a silver lining: “Under the Taliban, anybody considered an apostate was subject to torture and death. Right now, you have a legal proceeding that is under way in Afghanistan.” Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was hopeful: “As the Afghan constitution affords freedom of religion to all Afghan citizens, we hope very much that those rights, the right of freedom of religion, will be upheld in an Afghan court.”

But that Constitution also stipulates that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam….The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam. Followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law.”

It is likely that that last clause refers to provisions of traditional Islamic law denying various rights to non-Muslims and restricting freedom of conscience. It is just as likely that most Westerners who read the Afghan Constitution before the arrest of Abdul Rahman had no idea of its import. Thus Congressman Tom Lantos (D-CA), in an indignant letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, took pains to point out that Abdul Rahman’s conversion had occurred long before the Karzai government took power, as if this restriction on freedom of conscience were somehow newly minted: “I find it outrageous that Mr. Rahman is being prosecuted and facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity, which he did 16 years ago before your government even existed.”

In fact, however, the Islamic death penalty for apostasy was not invented either by Karzai or Mullah Omar. It is as old as the Muslim Prophet Muhammad’s command that “if somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him” (Bukhari, vol. 4, bk. 52, no. 260). It is deeply ingrained in Islamic culture—which is one reason why it was Abdul Rahman’s family that went to police to file a complaint about his conversion, even so many years after the fact. Whatever triggered their action now, they could be confident that the police would receive such a complaint with the utmost seriousness.

The Abdul Rahman case is an opportunity for the British and American governments to refine and clarify what exactly they mean by freedom: is it simple one-person one-vote self-determination, which has elected exponents of political Islam in large numbers recently in the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere? Or is it Western concepts of universal human rights and freedoms, as derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition and encapsulated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Abdul Rahman may go free simply as a bid to keep American aid flowing into Kabul. But the deeper problem within Afghan society—and the larger lack of focus in the Western powers’ overall aims in Afghanistan and Iraq—will still remain. We may hope that sometime soon President Bush, having determined to keep his new “partners in the cause of freedom,” will call for the removal of the Sharia provisions in the Afghan and Iraqi Constitutions, and declare his support for full freedom of conscience such as that exercised by Abdul Rahman.

Certainly such a course would lose him many friends in the Islamic world, but it would win him many there and elsewhere as well—among those who hold that the dignity of the human person, and the right not to be coerced into belief, are worth defending.