[NOTE: I wrote the bulk of this post late last night, and am now happy to report that the charges against Rahman have been dropped. I've added to the post to reflect that updated information, but the issues involved are still basic controversies and tensions that exist between Islam and the West, and within Islam itself.]
The blogosphere is abuzz with the Abdul Rahman apostasy case in Afghanistan. It’s an extremely dramatic example of the ways in which Islamic law is in basic conflict with cherished Western Enlightenment ideals of religious freedom and human rights.
What the case allows the West, and the moderates, to do is to give a name to the enemy, and the name is shari’a…The question thus becomes, which way is the current trend trending? In many ways, it seems the moderate Islamic states are on the defensive against the radicals. The Rahman case, by publicizing the most odious side of shari’a, will ultimately help move the trend in the right direction. Either the man will be martyred, or the authorities will have to back down. And if they back down, it will be clear that they, and the forces of radicalism and repression, have suffered a defeat.
Today we have learned that, at least for now, the forces of repression have suffered a defeat. The line in the sand was drawn, and the sharia court blinked.
Courts–even sharia-based courts, it seems–have myriad ways of avoiding coming to certain verdicts that they wish to circumvent. In this case, the ostensible reason for the dropped case was lack of evidence. But the truth is probably that the pressure brought to bear by the West was too great, and that a guilty verdict would have damaged the fragile Karzai government.
But there’s no way to know to what extent this result also reflects moderate forces within the nation and Islam itself–because such a war is going on, and has been going on for a very long time. It’s very hard to gauge the actual numbers of the forces on each side, but it seems fairly clear that, since the Iranian revolution of the late 70s, the forces of repression have been in the ascendance. Whether or not this case represents a turning point in that process remains to be seen. But allowing for and encouraging such a turning point was one of the goals of the Afghan War.
The fact that this case was brought at all is an outrageous state of affairs, especially in a country liberated by the West from the yoke of the Taliban (and, somewhat off the topic, it’s no surprise to me that the issue was first raised in the bitter atmosphere of a custody battle). Who doesn’t recall those Christian aid workers who were facing the death penalty at the hands of the Taliban for proselytizing, and who were freed by the Afghan invasion, much to our great relief? Now, irony of ironies, the government that replaced the Taliban, installed at the cost of bloodshed, seemed about to come close to committing a similarly egregious offense against religious freedom.
Historical parallels with the Inquisition and the low points of other religions in this arena are quite beside the point; as the Baron at Gates of Vienna points out, this case happened now.
Since the entire question of change is one that interests me greatly, this case has made me think about the more general question of how laws evolve (much too big a question for me to tackle in depth at this moment, but maybe someday…). The horrific excesses of the Inquistion, as well as our traditional laws outlawing heresy (originally punishable by death) and blasphemy didn’t disappear overnight, after all. Their demise was the result of a process of slow attrition reflecting cultural and philosophic changes in society as a whole. The usual course of events in such matters is a slowly decreasing number of prosecutions through a lessening of prosecutorial zeal, increasing leniency of sentences, and then the repeal of the law (that last de jure step is often eliminated, if it has already happened anyway, de facto). The disposition of the Rahman case–dismissal–is consistent with this process, speeded up no doubt by outside pressures.
It’s not unheard of that gradual internal processes of change are accelerated by more forced external pressures. For example, when we took over countries through force in the past, we usually imposed certain rules on those countries from the outside (for example, in post-WWII American-occupied Japan, MacArthur and the Americans wrote the Japanese constitution to conform to our idea of what was needed). With great responsibility came a great ability to dictate things.
In recent years, however, we’ve shied away from imposing our will out of respect for and tolerance of the belief system of other cultures. The Rahman trial not only starkly highlighted the inevitable conflict between moderate Islamic countries (or those striving for moderation) and the parallel track of sharia law in those states, but the conflict between our new efforts at nation-building and our desire to conform to PC delicacy while doing so. Both conflicts seem inevitable, and certainly are not going to disappear with the disappearance of the charges against Abdul Rahman.
Here’s an excellent summation of the contradictions inherent in the hastily-drawn-up Afghan Constitution. The Constitution explicitly endorses the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which defends religious freedom–and, in particular, the freedom to convert–while it upholds sharia law, which of course requires the death penalty for Moslem apostasy. So here we have a conflict of laws situation.
Freedom of religion is a secular, Enlightenment viewpoint, the result of massive societal change that occurred in the West over the course of centuries. If we seek to drag a country such as Afghanistan into supporting freedom of religion, there is going to be a disagreement of fairly huge proportions. Old-fashioned imperialists were upfront and–well, imperial–about this sort of conflict; they didn’t shy away from imposing their points of view, and believed in the superiority thereof.
There’s that old British statement about the custom of suttee in India (the burning alive of the wife when the husband dies) which I quoted here in a post about the contradictions inherent in tolerating the intolerent. Mark Steyn has quoted the same incident in a column directly about the Rahman case:
In a more culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of “suttee” – the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Gen. Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural:
“You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks, and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
The truth is that the whole concept of “tolerance” is a mockery if it extends to tolerating the intolerent. Logically speaking, one precludes the other; the two contain a paradox that renders them incompatible. And what we tolerate within our own borders and society is one thing; what we allow another society to do is another. Ordinarily we have no say in the matter, but Afghanistan is a case in which, although it’s a sovereign country, we have what one might call a “special relationship” towards it.
So the outcome of this case–which was a test of how far the Afghan government is willing to go towards tolerating the intolerant within its own borders–was also a case of how far we are willing to go in tolerating the intolerent in a country in which we have, for better or for worse (and so far it is for better) engaged in regime change and nation-building. The fact that the Afghan court backed down allows us the luxury of taking our time to answer the question of how far we are willing to go, but it’s a question that won’t go away (and who knows what pressure we in fact brought to bear behind the scenes?).
Nations are not built–or rebuilt–in a day, and profound cultural change is ordinarily not a fast process. Fast-tracking such change has been a dilemma faced over and over in the last several hundred years, with differing consequences: from Russia and Peter the Great, to Western imperialist ventures around the globe, to our own “melting pot,” to Turkey and Ataturk, to the aforementioned Allies and Japan, to the Shah and Iran, to France and the wearing of the veil among her Moslem immigrant population–and to the coalition and the Karzai government in Afghanistan. No doubt similar dilemmas will face us in Iraq.
The dismissal of the case has allowed Karzai to buy time. Personally, I would love to see the Karzai government abolish the death penalty for apostasy. But in doing so against the will of the people, it might be setting itself up for that very thing so many are wary of in Iraq: civil war. Feelings run high; Karzai is in an “awkward position” indeed.
Sometimes it doesn’t pay to go too far too fast; the results can be a retrenchment. As it is, it seems likely that Rahman himself may have to go into exile for his own protection against those who would take an extra-legal sort of revenge against him.
One thing is certain: this case has spotlighted the glaring intolerance of sharia law and traditional Islamic rules about apostasy, an intolerance that is at odds with the defense of human rights to which the new government of Afghanistan aspires. This contradiction will not go away easily, and must be faced sooner or later by that government and that society, within Islam itself, and between Islam and the West.
The only question is whether it must be faced sooner and through radical change, or whether a temporary way out can be found in order for a more gradual process to occur–and whether such change is compatible with Islam. Can a change about such a fundamental part of the religion ever be assimilated into Moslem thought in the way in which similar changes have been integrated into other religions? The jury is still out on that one.