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Unfathomable Zealotry

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

What strikes me about the threat to execute Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who converted to Christianity, is not that Afghanistan remains deeply medieval and not even remotely the democracy that George W. Bush would like it to be, but that with the exception of the (largely) Christian West, the rest of the world has been mostly silent. The Americans have protested, the Brits have protested, the Vatican has protested and so (I assume) have some others. But if there has been a holler of protest from anywhere in the Muslim world, it has not reached my ears. That is appalling.

The murder of a person for his religious belief ought to be inconceivable. It is something we in the West stopped accepting hundreds of years ago, and while Americans and others continued to kill on account of race deep into the past century, the right of the government to take a life on account of religion has not even been argued in the longest time. We are way beyond that.

Afghanistan was once under Soviet occupation, and it may have learned something from those days. Just as the Soviets sometimes pronounced political dissidents to be insane (why else would they question a perfect system?) so have Afghans decided that Rahman is nuts. (Why else would a Muslim choose Christianity?) Now that the case has been dropped and he has been placed in solitary confinement for his own protection, he will probably be spirited out of the country. To remain in Afghanistan is to remain in grave peril of death.

Rahman's troubles began, as they do for so many, with a divorce. In contesting his attempt to gain custody of his children, his wife told the court that Rahman would be an unfit father because he had converted to Christianity about 16 years earlier. This is what's known in football as a late hit. Nonetheless, when the prosecutor heard of the conversion, he promptly charged Rahman with apostasy, which is punishable by death. Rahman's choices were once to repudiate his conversion or plead insanity. The latter would have been the more sane choice.

"The world is too much with us," Wordsworth once wrote. This is certainly the way I feel. To be confronted on an almost daily basis with the horrors of Iraq is profoundly disturbing. The torture and decapitation of huge numbers of people, the casual homicides, the constant suicide bombings -- all of this makes you wonder about your fellow man. It is no longer possible, as it once was, to see the world only from your front porch, being disturbed only by the ringing of the bell on some passing ice cream truck. In Africa, Asia, too much of the world -- it is Joseph Conrad much of the time: "The horror! The horror!"

But you can say that these horrors are usually being inflicted by a minority. You say it is a few crazed terrorists of Iraq who are doing the killing. It is not most Iraqis. You can say the same about suicide bombers and torturers and rogue governments, like the one Saddam Hussein once headed. You can take solace in numbers. Most people are like us.

Then comes the Rahman case and it is not a solitary crazy prosecutor who brings the charge of apostasy but an entire society. It is not a single judge who would condemn the man but a culture. The Taliban are gone at gunpoint, their atrocities supposedly a thing of the past. In our boundless optimism, we consign them to the "too hard" file of horrors we cannot figure out: the Khmer Rouge, the Nazis, the communists of the Stalin period. Now, though, this awful thing returns and it is not just a single country that would kill a man for his beliefs but a huge swath of the world that would not protest. There can be only one conclusion: They were in agreement.

The groupthink of the Muslim world is frightening. I know there are exceptions -- many exceptions. But still it seems that a man could be killed for his religious beliefs and no one would say anything in protest. It is also frightening to confront how differently we in the West think about such matters and why the word "culture" is not always a mask for bigotry, but an honest statement of how things are. It is sometimes a bridge too far -- the leap that cannot be made. I can embrace an Afghan for his children, his work, even his piety -- all he shares with much of humanity. But when he insists that a convert must die, I am stunned into disbelief: Is this my fellow man?

cohenr@washpost.com

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