Afghans' Uneasy Peace With Democracy
In Discord Over Convert's Trial, Muslims Say They Identify With Islamic Law First

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.

This month, the Karzai administration is attempting to solidify its power by naming a new cabinet and Supreme Court. The high court appointments are especially sensitive because the chief justice, an elderly Muslim cleric, has used his office to battle all forms of liberalization, including women singing on TV and editorials questioning Islamic law.

Karzai, seeking change through compromise, has reappointed the chief justice but nominated several justices known to have more moderate views. One is Qasim Hashimzai, the deputy justice minister, an articulate man who wears pinstriped suits and returned several years ago from long exile in the West.

"The principles of Islamic jurisprudence are perfectly logical and consistent with democratic political institutions, and the Koran gives people lots of freedom," Hashimzai said. "But it all depends who interprets Islam -- a rigid person, a moderate person or a one-eyed person."

He said that severe legal punishments, such as execution for converting to another faith, stemmed from earlier times, when Islam was under threat, and made less sense today. In the case of Rahman's high-profile prosecution, he said, "I think political hands were behind it. Someone wanted to test the system, to put the government in confrontation with Islam and with the West."

Day to day, there is little friction between politics and religion here. Most Afghans seem eager to choose leaders and express political opinions, but they are careful to adhere to Islamic cultural customs, such as arranged marriages, and say they would not dream of converting.

The government, for its part, invokes Islam at every turn but has so far refrained from carrying out extreme physical punishments reminiscent of Taliban rule. On the other hand, some legislators say Afghanistan's post-Taliban democracy is too young to withstand disruptive assaults on its official religion.

Shahzada Shahid, a member of parliament and Muslim cleric from Konar province, said he tried to calm his colleagues during two days of emotional debate last month over the Rahman case.

"I told them, 'We are a new democracy, our government is weak, and we need the international forces here to defend us,' " Shahid said. "But the West has to be very careful." It should not encourage people such as the novelist Salman Rushdie, the target in 1989 of an Iranian death order, or other people who speak against Islam. "These simple issues could bring about a real crisis in our society," Shahid said.

A few younger, educated Afghans said they strongly disagreed with executing a convert or enforcing harsh punishments, but they said they could not afford to be quoted for fear they would be ostracized and possibly hounded.

One young man, who works as an interpreter for a foreign government office, said he was the only one among his friends who thought Rahman's life should be spared. "It was shocking to see how obsessed people became over this," he said. "There are some moderate Afghans who think the way I do, but our mullahs are very strict, and many people are not educated, so they follow them."

He said many Afghans were upset with the president for allowing Rahman to leave the country. "They think Karzai has become a symbol of the West," he said.

At the Herati Mosque on Friday, several hundred men crammed into the sanctuary for weekly prayers. They included blue-jeaned teenagers, uniformed soldiers, middle-aged men in business attire and graybeards in robes and turbans. Afghan women are not permitted to worship in mosques.

After the service, worshipers offered nearly identical opinions, saying Islam was a democratic and beneficent faith -- but that no one had the right to leave it.

"Islam is the most perfect religion in the world. We have accepted it, and we should stick to it," said Mahmad Humayun, 35, a clean-shaven science instructor at Kabul University. "Islam is the basis for democracy. It gives rights to all people. Therefore, we must all think very carefully and never do anything to cause Islam problems."

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