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    South Asia
     Mar 25, 2006
Losing faith in Afghanistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

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.

US 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".

For many Afghans, though, it is just another rallying point to step

up 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 Afghanistan.

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 listening, though.

"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 explained.

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 trial.

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 reaction.

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.

The 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.

It is 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 country.

In a separate development, the Taliban's spring offensive has begun, with the insurgency significantly increasing its activities.

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".

"If 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 death."

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 (Shi'ite).

"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.

"I 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.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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