Losing faith in
Afghanistan By Syed Saleem
KARACHI - Even as the Bush
administration steps up pressure on Afghanistan
over the plight of a Christian convert, thousands
of youths are descending on Kabul to demand that
he be hanged for renouncing Islam.
President George W Bush and other Western leaders
have latched onto the case of Abdul Rahman, 41,
who was arrested last month and accused of
apostasy for converting to Christianity in 1990,
saying that the issue was one of "honoring the
universal principle of freedom".
Afghans, though, it is just another rallying point
pressure for a broader alliance against the
presence of foreign forces in the country, while
for the Bush administration and its allies it is
an opportunity to rethink their position on
The United States has more
than 18,000 troops in the country, while the
UN-mandated International Security Assistance
Force numbers about the same. Germany and Italy
have already hinted they may reassess military
support for Afghanistan. And German Interior
Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble suggested that
Afghanistan could lose aid or technical support
for reconstruction because of the case. The US
begun reducing its troop strength in Afghanistan
this year and has indicated that it will continue
to do so.
Bush said this week that US
forces did not help liberate Afghanistan from
Taliban rule so that conservative Islamic judges
could issue death sentences against people because
of their religious beliefs. He added that he was
"deeply troubled" by the case, while Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice phoned Afghan President
Hamid Karzai to call for a "favorable resolution
to this case at the earliest possible moment".
The masses in Afghanistan are not
"Regardless of the
court decision [whether or not he is hanged],
there is unanimous agreement by all religious
scholars from the north to the south, the east to
the west of Afghanistan, that Abdul Rahman should
be executed," Engineer Ahmad Shah Ahmad Zai told
Asia Times Online on telephone from Kabul.
Ahmad Shah is a prominent mujahideen
leader and head of the Hizb-i-Iqtadar-i-Islami
Afghanistan. He was an acting prime minister in
the government of Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani
before the Taliban came to power in 1996.
"There is widespread dissent among the
masses against the activities of Christian
missionaries. These missions exploit the poverty
of Afghan people and they pay them to convert.
These activities will only translate into fierce
reaction as Afghans do not tolerate anything
against their religion," Ahmad Shah said.
"Since Abdul Rahman comes from the
Panjshir Valley, people of the area are coming
down to Kabul to show their dissent against him
and demand that the court execute him," Ahmad Shah
Rahman, a former medical aid
worker, faces the death penalty under
Afghanistan's Islamic laws for becoming a
Christian. His trial began last week, and now the
Afghan government is desperately searching for a
way to drop the case, with the latest move being
to call for Rahman to undergo psychological
examinations to see whether he is fit to stand
Senior clerics in Afghanistan,
however, have already given their verdict: he
should die. "We will not allow God to be
humiliated," Abdul Raoulf, a member of the Ulama
Council, Afghanistan's main clerical organization,
told Associated Press. "We will call on the people
to pull him into pieces so there's nothing left."
Asia Times Online contacts in Afghanistan
say that ministers in the cabinet are reluctant to
take a stand on the issue because of fierce public
There are clear indications that
the minute the court gives any decision other than
death penalty, Islamic parties will make it an
issue with which to tackle the US-backed Karzai
government and allied forces for intervening in
the Islamic laws of Afghanistan.
Afghan constitution has contradictory provisions.
Article 7 commits Afghanistan to observing the
United Nations charter and the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees
freedom of religion. But Article 3 says that no
law can contradict Islam.
significant that the issue has come at a time that
efforts are being made by Islamic parties in the
north and south to forge an alliance inside and
outside parliament. Unpublicized negotiations have
taken place in southern Afghanistan between
various tribal leaders so that they can present a
united front against the foreign presence in the
In a separate development, the
Taliban's spring offensive has begun, with the
insurgency significantly increasing its
Rahman's case is the latest of
several controversial issues that have served to
strengthen the hands of clerics calling for a
nationwide, broad-based opposition to foreign
elements in the country.
Last year, anger
swept the country over reports that US
interrogators had desecrated the Koran at the
Guantanamo prison facility in Cuba, while cartoons
published in Europe this year ridiculing the
Prophet Mohammed further inflamed passions.
Religious aspects Apart from
the serious political implications, Rahman's case
raises some thorny religious issues, with
non-Muslims questioning how it can be acceptable
for people of other faiths to convert to Islam,
but not the other way round.
"It is more
of an ontological debate than anything," said
renowned Muslim intellectual Shahnawaz Farooqui.
"If somebody tries to practice his religion or
faith, Muslim society will not stop him or
pressurize him to change his faith. Nobody is
allowed to even motivate a non-Muslim to change
his religion. However, discourse is allowed. After
such discourse, if somebody feels they want to
embrace Islam, it is allowed," Shahnawaz said.
However, for a Muslim to change his
religion, "he will have to be executed because it
is related to an ontological debate".
somebody at one point affirms the truth [belief in
God] and then rejects it or denies it, it would
jeopardize the whole paradigm of truth. This is
such a big offense that the penalty can only be
Execution for apostasy has been
accepted in Muslim society from the times of the
Prophet Mohammed, and there is no difference among
the schools of Islamic jurisprudence, be they
Hanafi, Malaki, Shaafai, Hanbli or Jafari
"At the very most, some
scholars argue that the person should be given
time to rethink, and if he embraces Islam again,
he will be forgiven," said Shahnawaz.
saw President Bush's statement in which he asked
to honor the universal principle of freedom. This
is not a question of social liberty or social
rights or freedom, this is a question for the
affirmation of truth and nobody will be allowed to
distort the truth. No society can give people the
right to distort the truth or play around with it.
As far as execution is concerned, I have the same
questions for the West," Shahnawaz maintained.
"Pope Urban II, while standing in a church
in 1095, called Islam a satanic religion. He
called the followers of Islam wicked and then
called that those wicked people should be
eliminated. That sermon was the start of the
crusade to eliminate Muslims and continued for 200
years in which Muslim territories were attacked
and people were massacred. Why was that?
"Because somebody evolved in his mind a
philosophy of truth and then reckoned Islam as
false and then thought it a threat to spirituality
and the universe, so they decided to eliminate it.
On the contrary, there is not a single instance in
Muslim history in which people were forced to
change their religion, and even if there were an
isolated incident, it would never be endorsed by
Islam or by unified Muslim opinion.
"Having said that, once somebody affirms
the truth [Islam] and then goes into its
rejection, it would jeopardize the truth and it
would also show the spiritual corruption of
oneself; therefore the execution," Shahnawaz said.
"Western countries have occupied nations,
destroyed their political and social systems and
killed thousands of people so that people would
conform to their civilization or their pattern of
thinking ... While doing so, why did they not
bother about 'honoring the universal principle of
freedom'?", Shahnawaz asked.
Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia
Times Online. He can be reached at