A Young Life Hangs in the Balance in Afghanistan's Cultural War

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 15, 2008

KABUL -- While trolling the Internet last October, Afghan journalism student Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh came across some articles that questioned the limits of women's rights under Islam. According to Afghan prosecutors, he downloaded the articles and circulated them on campus.

In the West, it would have been an innocent act. In Afghanistan, it has just earned him a death sentence.

Now inside a provincial Afghan prison cell, Kambakhsh, 23, sits at the center of a cultural war between two powerful forces that have clashed repeatedly in the six years since the Taliban's extreme Islamic rule ended in Afghanistan.

One is the sway of conservative Islamic leadership and entrenched values that traditionally have dictated every aspect of Afghan religious life. The other is the fast-growing, Internet-driven influence of Western ideas that encourage young Afghan students and professionals to challenge everything, even their faith.

As many older, devout Afghans view it, Kambakhsh committed an unforgivable sin against Islam by circulating the articles, one of which questioned why Muslim men can have more than one spouse at a time but women can't. They support the court's harsh ruling, partly as punishment and partly as a deterrent to such behavior and thinking.

"We believe in free speech, but Islam is more important to us than anything. When someone insults our religious traditions, he is not a journalist, he is a traitor," said Enayatullah Balegh, the imam of a large mosque in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Kambakhsh's actions, he said, were tantamount to "insulting 30 million Afghan Muslims. The court has given the right punishment."

As many younger, educated Afghans view it, Kambakhsh was engaging in the kind of intellectual debate that is inevitably entering Afghan society, healthy for its democratic development and legally protected by its constitution. They view the court's action as unjust, cruel and motivated by political pressure to quash investigative journalism.

"If it is illegal to read and write something, then this is not a democracy; it's a dictatorship," said Rahimullah Samander, president of the Afghan Independent Journalists' Association. He said the ruling, handed down last month by a panel of judges in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, was symptomatic of an older generation of Afghan religious and militia leaders who view themselves as a bulwark of Islamic tradition. "They want to show they still have power," he said.

Afghan officials and analysts said this week that Kambakhsh is highly unlikely to be put to death. The lower-court decision has already been appealed and could eventually reach the Supreme Court, which is headed by a respected, Western-educated judge. Moreover, the final decision on any execution rests with President Hamid Karzai, who generally opposes the death penalty and has found ways to circumvent it in several previous capital cases.

Aside from the religious issues involved, several irregularities have been discovered in the handling of the case by police and the court. Kambakhsh, who did not have a lawyer or a public trial, was hauled from his cell after court hours and privately informed of his sentence by a panel of judges. It is also unclear whether he apologized to the authorities -- which is grounds for leniency under sharia, or Islamic law -- or was forced to confess to a crime he did not commit.

"There will be several opportunities to review the case very carefully, by very serious experts," said Rashid Rasheed, a spokesman for the Supreme Court. "Sharia law is very broad-minded and forgiving. If this accused gentleman has apologized and he is not stubborn, I am hopeful that things will not go harshly and that this will be seen as a fault rather than a criminal offense."

Nevertheless, the case has provoked a domestic and international firestorm, once again squeezing Karzai's government between the demands of Western democracies -- which helped free Afghanistan from harsh Islamic rule in late 2001 -- and the demands of a largely conservative Muslim society that is deeply resentful of foreign interference and highly sensitive to any slight against its religion.

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