Afghanistan: Islam and the Declaration of Human Rights


MOSCOW, (RIA Novosti political commentator Pyotr Goncharov)

Luckily, the saga of Abdul Rahman, a Christian convert from Afghanistan, has come to a happy end.

Having escaped a death sentence for converting from Islam, Rahman has arrived in Italy, where Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini has guaranteed him political asylum.

This saga has ended because the world community, which puts freedom of conscience and human life above other humanitarian values, has made it clear to Kabul that it is not indifferent to Rahman's destiny.

Nevertheless, massive attacks on the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the quality of Afghan democracy, as well as sincere indignation at the Afghan mentality, which is a far cry from that of the West, are not always appropriate.

It would be naive to lash out at today's version of Sharia, Islamic law, because it is supposedly no less radical than that of the Taliban. In Afghanistan, Sharia has always been the same. The length of beards of those who practice Sharia is the only thing that has changed since the times of Taliban.

As for the Western-style Afghan Constitution, which nonetheless proclaims that Afghanistan is an Islamic state and that no laws should contradict Islam (or Sharia), there is no reason to blame the constitution's Islamic authors or the court system for being unprofessional. Nor is this an unsolvable problem. I don't think it was negligence on the part of world-renown theologians like Sibghatullah al-Mojadeddi, Burhanuddin Rabbani and Fazl-ul-Hadi Shinvaril. The constitution was the result of a sensible compromise between the technocrats who were gaining strength from 2002-2004 and moderate fundamentalists like the same Sibghatullah al-Mojadeddi and Burhanuddin Rabbani. It is enough to recall what criticism befell the Governor of Kandahar Shir Agha at the extraordinary Loya Jirga, when he suggested removing the word "Islamic" from the name of the Afghan state. But the brilliant speeches by al-Mojadeddi and Rabbani saved the situation, which was rapidly reaching boiling point. As a result, the draft of the new constitution left room for Western standards as well, such as the Declaration of Human Rights. Though the outcome could have been different.

This is a delicate moment in the life of Afghan society. For many years, the mojaheddins were fighting, arms in hand, against their ideological foes and later on, against the Taliban (this time not for ideological reasons) for their ideals and their right to build a fundamentalist Islamic state. But having come to power, they are making many concessions to their former ideological enemies.

The Afghan nation is going through a very painful process of regional and ethnic consolidation. The number one problem is whether Afghanistan should become more secular or more clerical. The case of Abdul Rahman has shown how difficult this process is. Is there a point to blame the Afghan clergy, court and constitution for cruelty and imperfections, or criticize the president for lack of action, if Muslims all over the country insisted on the death penalty? If the human rights champions had gone too far in their efforts to save Rahman, the result might have been the reverse. To average Afghans, Rahman has betrayed the religion of his ancestors.

The Afghans have a reverent attitude to Islam, sometimes with prejudice to other religions. In October 2001, I talked at length about different subjects with mujaheddin field commander Obaidullah in the Tahar Province. I had the impression that he was worried by something. Eventually, he lost patience and said, "I can't understand whether you are a Muslim or not." When I told him that I was a Christian, he seemed to be irritated and even came up with a warning that I ought to think about accepting Islam. But when I explained that despite all my respect for Islam, I was not going to change the religion of my father, my grandfather and so on, his reply was laconic: "That makes sense."

The Rahman case is not as unique as edifying for modern Afghanistan. Indeed, for the first time in its history, a faithful Muslim dared change religion. Under the laws of Sharia, he has committed a crime, which is punishable by death. The clergy and the court were facing a dilemma - how to resolve the problem without giving the Islamic radicals an excuse to blame the current Afghan leaders for pro-Western reforms. Most probably, the death penalty, which was announced immediately and without any reservations, is meant to teach a lesson to human rights advocates who have become much stronger in Afghanistan of late.

Such is Afghan reality today. Of all people, the Afghans know best how to combine traditions with the Declaration of Human Rights.

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