We should have no illusions that Afghanistan–in many ways the backwater of the Islamic world–will soon embrace Western-style religious pluralism. But the trial of Abdul Rahman, who faces a potential death sentence for converting to Christianity some 15 years ago, is an affront to civilization. If there is always a balancing act between accommodating the religious beliefs of a traditional society like Afghanistan and coaxing it toward reform, the Rahman case is not a close call–killing or jailing someone for his religious beliefs is always wrong, and is especially galling in a country so dependent on American military forces and aid.
The Afghan constitution is a work of studied ambiguity when it comes to religious liberty. Article 2 says Islam is Afghanistan’s religion, but it also stipulates that other religions are free to perform their ceremonies “within the limits of the law” (whatever that means). Article 7 says the state shall abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–which includes the right of conversion–but Article 130 says, where there is no guidance for the constitution or other laws, Islamic laws apply. This is the kind of “living constitution” Ruth Bader Ginsburg can only dream about in the U.S. The Afghan document was deliberately written vaguely to bridge the divide between the country’s modernizers and its Islamists. The latter surely want to use the Rahman case to embarrass our ally President Karzai and to advance their interpretation of the constitution.
Yesterday, the State Department’s Nicholas Burns adopted the right tone and substantive position when asked about the case by reporters. He said that, as far as the U.S. is concerned, the Afghan constitution guarantees religious liberty, and therefore Rahman shouldn’t be punished for his conversion. But he also emphasized our respect for Afghan sovereignty. It is important that, while we push for justice in the case, we don’t play into the hands of Karzai’s enemies, who are eager to capitalize on the fears of a very traditional society. We should make it clear privately, but very firmly to Karzai–who would have to sign Rahman’s death warrant–that we expect him to find some Afghan way to short-circuit the case before it ever gets to that point.
Conservatives in this country have been admirably willing to accept the compromises and frustrations that come with President Bush’s attempts to reform recalcitrant parts of the world. The judicial murder of a Christian convert by a government that exists only on the basis of American power and good will, however, would be intolerable.