The State Department has had a profound question to ask itself in the matter of Abdul Rahman. Did we intend to make a theatrical point–that we would not stand by in his condemnation and beheading, an arrant interference with the right of a human being to embrace Christianity? Or would we just settle for saving Rahman’s life? Attempts at this were made by Rahman’s lawyers, principally by asserting that he was off his rocker, and therefore not responsible for his conversion to Christianity. That line helped delay the trial, but did not convince the hard-liners. Three Sunni preachers and one Shiite, interviewed by Associated Press, said they did not believe that Rahman is insane. “He went in front of the media and confessed to being a Christian,” said Hamidullah, chief cleric of a prominent mosque. “The government [may be] scared of the international community. But the people will kill him if he is freed.”
One Afghan cleric late last week said that the only way Rahman could escape death would be by fleeing the country and living in exile. This appears, at this writing, to be the most hopeful scenario. However, some Muslim theologians take the position that to permit Rahman to leave the country would be to forsake duty, which is to kill him for apostasy. Spiriting him out of the country might not be easy to effect, but the United States, with the military resources that defeated the Taliban, must be assumed to be able to bring about the rescue of a single Afghan citizen.
Collaterally, the State Department could publicize dissenting Islamic views on the subject of apostasy. Interventionists have pointed out that the Koran does not require the execution of apostates, and it is not recorded that Muhammad himself ever exacted such punishment. Moreover, the Koran holds that there should not be compulsion in the matter of religion. Some scholars maintain that the vindictive wing of Islamic justice is playing off an anachronized 1,400-year-old tradition which fused the religious order and the secular order. A Muslim, back then, owed loyalty not only in the prophet but to his empire, so that any doctrinal defection was simultaneously a blow to the empire and, as such, treasonable. According to Andrea Elliott of the New York Times, there have been fewer than a half dozen executions in the Muslim world, in the past generation, for the crime of apostasy.
So then a dissenting view of Muslim law could be invoked, but this would not necessarily succeed: There is no authority in Islam to which an appeal for definitive doctrinal judgments can be made. Nor can the Islamist enforcers on the scene be dismissed as predisposed to authoritarian rule. The cleric Abdul Raoulf was jailed three times for opposing the Taliban, yet his position on Rahman is, “Rejecting Islam is insulting God. We will not allow God to be humiliated. This man must die.”
Authority in Afghanistan is exercised at two levels. The first, of course, is by the formal government of Afghanistan. Its president, Hamid Karzai, is friendly to the United States–as one would expect, in recognition of our having gone to war to rid his country of Taliban rule. Karzai is friendly but not plenipotentiary. The government of Afghanistan is theocratic: The Shariah is the law of the land.
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns did not earn a medal of freedom for his public statement in the matter, but he was formally correct in saying, “This is a case that is not under the competence of the United States. It is under the competence of the Afghan authorities.”
That’s right. And the hell with Afghan supremacy. If an occupying military force whose presence every day continues to be critical to keep Afghanistan free cannot protect one citizen who embraces the faith of our fathers, then the government of Afghanistan should pause for a moment to worry not about the indignation of the Afghan people if Rahman is kept safe. Thought should be given to the indignation of the American people, who will stare in disbelief at the phenomenon of a country recently liberated by the expenditure of American lives and money failing to protect from the wrath of the mob a 41-year-old citizen whose crime was having chosen Christ.
It is a tough challenge. It is tempting to say: Get this guy out of Afghanistan and put him away somewhere and let’s move on. But the bureaucratic escape does not reflect the passions of the leaders of the world. Australia’s prime minister wants the Afghan government to renounce the thought of executing someone for exercising religious liberty. So do prominent leaders in Germany, Great Britain, and Italy. The Afghan court sidestepped the main issue by releasing Rahman on a technicality. If it arises again, the challenge for the United States will be to devise a means of saying to the Afghan government: You cannot do this. Not while we’re around.