Afghanistan’s “New Rushdie”
By: Stephen Brown
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 08, 2008
Afghanistan is reputed to be an ally in the “War on Terror,” but a recent legal case makes one wonder which side its government is really on.
Last Wednesday, the Afghan senate upheld the death sentence a lower court had passed on 23-year-old journalism student Perwiz Kambakhsh. Kambakhsh’s crime: distributing a paper he had downloaded from the internet that purportedly insults Islam. The offending article, allegedly written by an Iranian, discusses verses in the Koran about women. Kambakhsh’s only chance to escape death by beheading is if he receives a pardon from Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai.
Ironically, the deposed Taliban, which is fighting to destroy the Kabul government along with its senators, was the biggest supporter of the Afghan legislators’ sentence. Like the government, the al-Qaeda-allied Taliban has also called for “severe punishment,” naming Kambakhsh “the new Salman Rushdie.”
Kambakhsh’s troubles began on October 27, when he was arrested for distributing the paper at his school, Balkh University. Some students complained to the police, and before long he was in their custody, where he has remained ever since.
Shortly after his arrest, reactionary religious clerics called for the death penalty for Kambakhsh, which an obliging court handed down in January. These leaders next staged a successful demonstration against the young man’s release from prison while his death sentence is under appeal.
Kambakhsh’s death sentence comes as no surprise. While the Afghan constitution’s Article 34 states that “Freedom of expression shall be inviolable,” and Article 7 says Afghanistan has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and will abide the United Nations charter, Article 3 cancels all that by affirming that “…no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” In other words, Sharia law trumps all. And this is the constitution that, according to Freedom House director Nancy Shea, the New York Times editorial page on January 6, 2004, called “one of the most enlightened constitutions in the Islamic world.”
This is not the first time a court in Afghanistan has passed a death sentence on an Afghan citizen for exercising his rights. The most notorious case occurred two years ago, when a 41-year-old Afghan man was to be beheaded for converting to Christianity. The man, Abdul Rahman, refused the judge’s offer at his one-day trial to reconvert to Islam. Like Kambakhsh, Rahman was convicted under Article 130 of the constitution, which allows Sharia law to be applied when no constitutional provisions or other laws exist to cover the case. Fortunately, the ensuing international outcry saved Rahman from the executioner’s blade and he was allowed to emigrate to Italy.
Former women’s affairs minister Sima Samar also feared for her life when she went on trial for blasphemy in Afghanistan in 2002. Samar allegedly had told a Persian-language magazine in Canada that she did not believe in Sharia law. Although the charges were dropped, due to a lack of evidence, she did not return to cabinet, taking a lower-level post instead, indicating that in Afghanistan it is probably better to use one’s head than lose it.
Nina Shea has written that other Afghan journalists have been imprisoned for blasphemy “after debating the compatibility of Sharia law with democracy,” an oxymoron if ever there was one. She adds that there may be additional, unknown Christian converts in Afghan prisons. But Shea helped dispel any doubt about the Islamist base of Afghan jurisprudence when she reported that Afghan Supreme Court Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari told America’s National Public Radio “…it is his duty as judge to “behead” those who do not conform to Islamic law.”
And it gets worse. Balkh province deputy attorney general had stated he would arrest any journalists who supported Kambakhsh, since Afghan journalists have rallied to the cause of their student colleague, who also works at a local newspaper. Moreover, the senators actually had the nerve to criticize the international (i.e.,: western) pressure the case has drawn, while soldiers from these countries are fighting, and dying, to save them and their people from the kind of theocratic conduct they are now exhibiting themselves. The treatment shown Kambakhsh and others like him indicates that Western countries should give up any illusions that Afghanistan can ever become a liberal, tolerant society.
In what is supposed to be a Western-style democracy, Islamists are successfully using the courts to impose their ruthless vision on the whole country without the permission of the people. The Afghan government is becoming Taliban-lite. All of which makes one wonder what attitude Afghanistan will take towards the West once it no longer needs Western financial and military assistance.
Afghan senators’ primitive rulings do not mean that Western military forces immediately should withdraw from the war-torn country. It is in our security interests to stay and oppose the Taliban and prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist base that could once more threaten the West. Moreover, some believe that, with development, a backward Afghan society will become more tolerant and that western countries should use their development aid as leverage to lobby for and promote this end.
But don’t hold your breath. Wherever Sharia law exists, barbarism, as witnessed most recently in the Kambakhsh case, is likely to surface.
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