Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns held out confidence in the outcome: “Our government is a great supporter of freedom of religion. As the Afghan constitution affords freedom of religion to all Afghan citizens, we hope very much that those rights, the right of freedom of religion, will be upheld in an Afghan court.”
But the Afghan Constitution also stipulates that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” Even after the arrest of Abdul Rahman, Western analysts seem to have had trouble grasping the import of this. A “human rights expert” quoted by the Times of London summed up confusion that was widespread in Western countries: “The constitution says Islam is the religion of Afghanistan, yet it also mentions the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 18 specifically forbids this kind of recourse. It really highlights the problem the judiciary faces.”
But in fact there is no problem. The Constitution declares its “respect” for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but never says about the Declaration what it says about Islamic law -- that no law can be made contradicting it. And as for the freedom of religion that Undersecretary Burns hopes will be upheld by the Afghan judiciary – the Constitution circumscribed it from the beginning: “The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam,” it says. “Followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law” (emphasis added).
It is likely that that last clause refers to provisions of traditional Islamic law denying various rights to non-Muslims and restricting freedom of conscience. It is just as likely that most Westerners who read the Afghan Constitution before the arrest of Abdul Rahman had no idea of its import.
In fact, however, the Islamic death penalty for apostasy was not invented either by Karzai or Mullah Omar. It is as old as the Muslim Prophet Muhammad’s command that “if somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him” (Bukhari, vol. 4, bk. 52, no. 260). It is deeply ingrained in Islamic culture -- which is one reason why it was Abdul Rahman’s family that went to police to file a complaint about his conversion, even so many years after the fact. Whatever triggered their action now, they could be confident that the police would receive such a complaint with the utmost seriousness.
Mar 23, 2006
What freedom of religion means in Afghanistan
Robert Spencer explains.