Jean MacKenzie

Can Islam and Democracy Coexist?

Abdul Rahman Jawed, Afghanistan's most famous Christian, is a free man. He has escaped the threat of execution for apostasy and been granted asylum in Italy, where he arrived on March 30.

But the central question his case has raised is not so easily resolved. At issue is whether Afghanistan can be both a democratic state and an Islamic republic.

Many are still stunned by how a domestic issue blew up into an international incident. Abdul Rahman, who converted to Christianity 16 years ago while working for a relief organisation in Pakistan, spent nine years in Germany before recently being deported back to Afghanistan. The divorced father of two was seeking to regain custody of his daughters from his parents. But his own father, Abdul Manan, reported him to the police, claiming that his son was unfit to raise the children because of his conversion to Christianity. The police promptly arrested Rahman.

"Yes, I handed my son over to the police because he was a Christian," said Abdul Manan. "Now I will respect whatever the courts decide."

It was clear from the start that the case put the government of President Hamed Karzai in an impossible position. On one hand, it needed to justify the western view of Afghanistan as a fledgling democracy by showing that it would defend basic human rights, including freedom of religion. But to placate the Afghan people, it also needed to show that it would enforce the laws of this staunchly Islamic republic.

The contradiction is enshrined in Afghanistan's new constitution. Article Seven states that the country supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its unambiguous mandate of religious freedom. But Article Three states just as clearly that Islamic law takes precedence over any other legal considerations. International religious scholars may debate the finer points of Islamic law regarding the Abdul Rahman affair. But within Afghanistan there remains a clear and harsh consensus: he deserves to die.

"Islam states that those who convert to another religion should be killed," said Abdul Malik Kamawi, deputy chairman of the Supreme Court.

"We cannot forget the dictates of Islam or of God," said Maulawi Habibullah Hassam, a religious scholar who heads Kabul's provincial council. "According to Islam, the punishment for apostasy is death. If a Muslim converts to another religion, he puts 1.5 billion Muslims in danger. They will think, 'This man was with us, but now he is leaving.'"

The sentiment on the street was strongly against the convert.

"I thank my God that I am a Muslim," said Ahmad Farhad, 25, who sells car parts in a Kabul market. "We hate people like Abdul Rahman. He should be killed. If they give him to me, I will cut him into small pieces with a knife."

So fierce is the feeling against him that Abdul Rahman was released into protective custody. The justice ministry was made responsible for ensuring his safety until he was able to leave the country. But what seems like a cut-and-dried case in Kabul unleashed a torrent of international outrage.

According to Abdullah Abdullah, the country's outgoing foreign minister, the Afghan embassy in Washington received more than 10,000 messages in one day protesting Rahman's arrest.

"Every meeting I had in the United States involved a discussion of the Abdul Rahman case," he told a press conference in Kabul upon his return from an extended trip.

President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both expressed concern, the Pope asked for clemency, and German chancellor Angela Merkel made a phone call. All had the same message -- Afghanistan would forfeit international support if it proceeded with the case. The international media also weighed in, condemning Afghanistan and advising their own governments to pull out of the country if the young democracy could not demonstrate elementary respect for human rights.

"If Afghanistan wants to return to the Taliban days, it can do so without the help of the United States," the New York Times said in an editorial on March 23.

Caught between domestic fury and international pressure, the Karzai government frantically sought a face-saving way to duck the dispute. It eventually hit upon the idea of having Abdul Rahman declared incompetent to stand trial. According to Islamic law, the defendant cannot be punished for apostasy if he is shown to be mentally ill.

"We released him because under the law we could not hold him any longer without charging him," said Mohammad Eshaq Alako, the deputy attorney general. "We are now waiting for the results of his doctors' examination. It looks like he has mental problems."

Other officials insisted the government had not bowed to Western pressure.

"It is completely untrue that there is diplomatic pressure on us," insisted Ansarullah Maulawizada, the head of the Kabul lower court which was handling the case. "We are working freely and independently." He added that the investigation preceding the court case had suffered "technical problems."

Protests within the country show no sign of diminishing. Over the weekend, Afghan clerics demanded that Rahman -- who has asked to be called Joel, the name he was baptized under -- be returned to Afghanistan and sentenced to death. Nearly 1,000 people rallied in the town of Kunduz to protest the government's handling of the case.

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