Afghans' Uneasy Peace With Democracy

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 22, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan, April 21 -- The Herati Mosque stands in one of the Afghan capital's most modern neighborhoods. Its imam, Abdul Rauf, was one of the few local clerics to criticize the rigid Islamic views and harsh punishments of the Taliban movement when it ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

But last month, when an Afghan man was put on trial here for converting to Christianity, Rauf led the emotional charge to demand his execution under Islamic law. The public would "cut him into pieces" if the authorities failed to act, Rauf said.

The convert, Abdul Rahman, was hastily flown to Italy on March 29 after prosecutors declared him mentally incompetent to stand trial. That averted a showdown between the Afghan government and the Western powers that have financed and defended it for the past four years.

Since then, though, the incident has resonated bitterly among Afghan Muslims and put President Hamid Karzai on the defensive, highlighting the difficulties of trying to establish a modern democracy in a Muslim society where deeply held religious values stress submission and conformity over individual rights.

"You must understand how shameful it is for us that a Muslim would become a Christian," said Rauf, a cheerful man who rides a bicycle to his mosque each day. "If other people want to join Islam, we encourage and appreciate them. But ours is the complete and final religion. If you leave it, that is like throwing God away."

Sitting cross-legged in his tiny office, Rauf proudly showed an itinerary of a trip he made to the United States two years ago, visiting mosques and churches in several states. Then he opened a copy of the Koran and read in Arabic a verse saying that Allah is the God of all creation.

"It is true, I criticized the Taliban because they were so harsh and tortured people," Rauf said. "But if you leave Islam, our law says you must be killed. If Abdul Rahman stood before me right now, I would kill him myself."

Ask most Afghans about the potential conflicts between Islam and democracy, such as those exposed by the Rahman case, and they vigorously deny the questions' premise. Many point out that Afghanistan now has a freely elected president and parliament, an independent judiciary and press, and a new constitution that says no laws shall contradict the principles of Islam.

Members of the clergy, traditionally the most influential segment of this tribal, largely illiterate society, tend to add a major caveat. The Western world, they say, has no right to interfere in Afghanistan's religious affairs, and outsiders should not confuse Afghan desires for political freedom with a shift to permissive views on personal behavior.

"We have no enmity with the West, but if the West wants us to live in democracy, it must let us make our own decisions," said Enayatullah Balegh, imam of the large Pul-I-Khishti mosque. "Islam is everything to us. It is more powerful than our constitution. We appreciate honest help, but we ask that you not interfere, or else we will have no choice but to become suicide bombers."

In public, few Afghans are willing to question the authority of the clergy or the inviolability of Islamic law. But some, including college students, journalists, human rights advocates and government officials, say they support a more moderate interpretation of their religion.

Some suggest that extremists may have provoked controversies such as the Rahman case to incite religious fervor or weaken the Karzai government. Islamic insurgents are trying to destabilize the country, and Muslim sensitivities have been aroused by the publication of anti-Islamic cartoons in Europe and the mistreatment of Muslim detainees in U.S. military custody.

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