Monday, May 01, 2006

It Can Happen Here

We all cheered when Abdul Rahman , the Christian convert in Afghanistan who faced execution for renouncing Islam, was released and sent to Italy to avoid being killed by mobs in his native country. Our State Department said they were pleased by this development. After the deaths of hundreds of Americans and the expense of billions of dollars, the specter of Rahman’s execution by the new democracy we helped create to replace the Taliban was to say the least an embarrassment the US government could ill afford.

Unfortunately, this is the most publicized of a number of cases of religious intolerance in Afghanistan. Afghan Christians have reported police raids on their houses and places of work. The small numbers of Christians who haven’t fled Afghanistan live in constant fear of their lives.

But, it’s not just Christians who are under constant attack form the Afghan government. Freedom House, a nongovernmental human rights organization, reports that Afghan journalists and others who dare to criticize Islamic law have been charged with heresy or blasphemy. Only through international pressure has the Afghan government found ways to spare these people; in some cases get them out of the country.

These cases demonstrate the fundamental flaw that could destroy the new Afghan democracy. The new constitution contains two contradictory clauses: One guarantees religious freedom, while another states “no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam.”

You can’t have it both ways either you have religious freedom or you have a theocracy; a state religion which governs both religious and secular life. Islamic law, or sharia, in the hands of moderate Muslims can find verses in the Quaran which seem to support religious tolerance. In the hands of more radical fundamentalists sharia heresy and blasphemy laws are used to deny religious freedom.

American evangelical Christians were first in line to condemn the theocratic oppression on display in the Rahman case. Unfortunately, what is good for Afghanistan does not seem to be good for the United States in the opinion of these same conservative so-called Christians. The irony is inescapable. Some of the same American evangelicals who demand separation of mosque and state in Afghanistan and Iraq have repeatedly condemned the “myth” of separation of church and state at home. Some, like former Alabama judge and current gubernatorial candidate Roy Moore, call for a “Christian America” where the US Constitution is interpreted in light of biblical law. I assume their interpretation of course.

The words “separation of church and state” may not be in the Constitution, but the principle is not only in the First Amendment it is also the bedrock of religious freedom in America. That’s why in the US, unlike Afghanistan, religious law cannot trump our constitutional commitment to universal human rights.

Kabul is a long way from Washington. But the danger of radical religion shaping government policy is close at hand. Religious freedom and theocracy, whether Muslim or Christian, can never coexist. We must never let these radical religionists triumph over reason and freedom.

David M Goldberg