No Freedom of Conscience for Afghans, Mr. Obama?

Afghan Interior Ministry intelligence authorities have arrested an Afghan citizen, Said Musa, for apostasy – converting from Islam to Christianity, in yet another case that raises serious questions about what the U.S. is hoping to accomplish in Afghanistan, and how likely it is to be accomplished.

This has happened before. In 2006, an Afghan named Abdul Rahman made international news for being arrested and facing the death penalty in Afghanistan for converting from Islam to Christianity. Rahman was ultimately spirited away to live in freedom, albeit in hiding, in Italy. But the questions his case raised about the Karzai regime and the nature of the “freedom” that the U.S. was bringing to Afghanistan were never answered, and have reappeared with the Said Musa case.

Qamaruddin Shenwari, director of the Kabul courts’ north zone, explained that Islamic law – which mandates a death penalty for apostates from Islam – would be a determining factor in Musa’s case: “According to Afghanistan’s constitution, if there is no clear verdict as to whether an act is criminal or not in the penal code of the Afghan Constitution, then it would be referred to sharia law where the judge has an open hand in reaching a verdict.”
Indeed, the Afghan Constitution stipulates that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” It declares that “the religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam,” and 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 the “beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam” forbid Muslims to leave that religion, on pain of death. The Islamic death penalty for apostasy is as old as the Muslim Prophet Muhammad’s command that if a Muslim “discards his religion, kill him.”

The Said Musa case thus offers the Obama Administration an opportunity to clarify what exactly it intends to accomplish in Afghanistan, and to demonstrate its commitment to human rights, including the freedom of conscience that is denied by Islamic law. Obama has spoken repeatedly about according Islam and the Muslim world “respect,” and about his determination to fight for the rights of women who wish to wear Islamic headcoverings in the U.S. He has even said that he considers it his duty as president to fight against negative characterizations of Islam.

So far, Obama’s solicitude for Islam has not extended to victims of Islamic jihad activity or of the strictures of Islamic law, such as the persecuted Coptic Christians of Egypt or prisoners of conscience like Said Musa. Musa’s case also points up a deeper problem: the utter lack of focus of U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Is the goal there to create a stable free society and a democratic republic? Then the authoritarian and coercive aspects of Islamic law will eventually have to be confronted.

And if they are not confronted, as is almost certainly to be the case, then what has been the point of expending so much blood and treasure in Afghanistan for all these years? To establish a Sharia state, in which people like Said Musa are terrorized for exercising their free conscience? Afghanistan was already a Sharia state under the Taliban. The Karzai regime is arguably a few degrees less draconian in its enforcement of Sharia than was the Taliban – a group that in any case looms increasingly as a major player in Afghanistan’s next government.

Was it worth all the lives and all the money and all the trouble to prop up a Sharia regime that is just slightly less brutal than its predecessor?

Obama should, but will not, call for the removal of the clause mandating the supremacy of Islamic law in the Afghan Constitution, and declare his support for full freedom of conscience. He should call for Said Musa’s release, and for the Afghan government to protect Musa from rampaging mobs. 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.