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Sharia Calling. America, we have a problem.

Nina Shea

Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old Christian convert now on trial for apostasy in Afghanistan, may be beheaded for his faith, but President Karzai shouldn’t order the sharpening of the executioner’s sword just yet.

Over last weekend, word spread here about the case.

Apparently, in a dispute over the custody of his two daughters, Rahman was outed as a Christian convert and arrested. At his one-day trial last Thursday, the judge explained that under article 130 of Afghanistan’s new constitution, medieval sharia laws against apostasy applied. The prosecutor told the press that he offered to drop charges if the defendant converted back to Islam, but Rahman refused, saying that he is a Christian and will always remain one. According to press accounts, the prosecutor called Rahman a “microbe” who “should be killed.” The judge said he would consider the case for a few weeks but affirmed that if he rendered a determination of apostasy, the punishment would be death.

Evangelical networks began to mobilize and by Monday afternoon an American grassroots campaign to rescue Rahman was in full swing. Christian radio talk shows and websites excoriated the administration. Is this what we “liberated” Afghanistan for? the Family Research Council and others were demanding to know. The mainstream press reported news about the case as well.

The State Department, however, didn’t seem to notice the significance of the case — either with respect to what it said about the character of the Afghan government or its impact on domestic politics. At a press conference on Tuesday, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was asked about the U.S. response to the case. He answered something garbled about process, about needing to “respect the sovereignty of Afghan authorities,” hoping for a “transparent” trial, and, under follow-up questioning, seemed to be making a distinction between Afghan values and the “American point of view” in favor of religious freedom. His annoyance with the persistent line of questioning was his only betrayal of emotion in discussing the case. If Mr. Rahman met up with the sword of sharia, well, it was regrettable, but the democratization project was proceeding apace if the trial was transparent, and the rule of law followed. Whether “self-evident” freedoms were guaranteed or not was simply not a concern.

Burns’s response was very familiar to those of us who had been pressing for an unambiguous assertion of individual freedoms and rights over the past three years during the drafting of Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s constitution. It was this same exclusive focus on process over values — the same impatient shrug of the shoulders-that was given by key officials in the administration whenever the drafts were criticized for containing provisions that ushered in sharia or otherwise negated or clouded individual rights. (For example, the so-called “repugnancy clause,” found in both the Afghanistan and Iraq constitutions, which asserts that no law can contradict Islam.) At that time, our criticism found no echo. In fact, it was drowned out with near universal acclaim from law professors involved in the drafting and from the media. The New York Times editorial page on January 6, 2004, called the new Afghanistan constitution “one of the most enlightened constitutions in the Islamic world” and applauded it on the basis that it “balances the goal of an Islamic state with the promise to abide by the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

This time is it’s not just lawyers debating abstract constitutional provisions. The Burns press conference quickly circulated on the web. By late that afternoon, Chuck Colson had organized a call-in to jam the White House switchboards. Colson bluntly expressed what many of the president’s religious base was thinking:

I have supported the Bush administration’s foreign policy because I came to believe that the best way to stop Islamo-fascism was by promoting democracy. But if we can’t guarantee fundamental religious freedoms in the countries where we establish democratic reforms, then the whole credibility of our foreign policy is thrown into serious question. I hope the president and the administration can recognize what a devastating setback Rahman’s execution would be to the cause of democracy and freedom.

By Wednesday, President Bush had received the message. In a public statement, he spoke to values and was unequivocal about where he stood: “It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another.”

Rahman is not the only case where execution has been threatened over beliefs and ideas in the new Afghanistan. Last year, an Afghan journalist who argued against the heresy law was found guilty of it, and escaped death after international pressure. Before then, a female cabinet member was charged with blasphemy for criticizing Islamic law, but was also spared after international protest erupted. Other journalists were imprisoned for blasphemy after debating the compatibility of sharia law with democracy, but then quietly allowed to leave the country. It is even reported that other Christian converts are in prison there but not much is known about them.

The administration needs to rescue Rahman as he is determined not to be found “innocent” as Undersecretary Burns had hoped.

But this is about more than Mr. Rahman. This will be a persistent, recurring problem under Afghanistan’s sharia apostasy and blasphemy laws. The administration also needs to do more to ensure the reform Afghanistan’s judiciary. President Karzai must be encouraged to wrest it from the control of Islamists like Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari, who once told our National Public Radio that it is his duty as a judge to “behead” those who do not conform to Islamic law. Americans continue to give billions of dollars, and sacrifice their lives to support the Afghan government. It not only serves compelling humanitarian interests to use this leverage now, but it would be a betrayal of America’s deepest national values not to.

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