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March 27, 2006

From Abdul Rahman To - Where?

Rather than pass judgment on Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who converted to Christianity when he was working for an aid agency in Pakistan 16 years ago, the court declared him mentally unfit for trial Sunday, saying that "He is a sick person," and that he would be transferred to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. In other words, you have to be some kind of nut to convert from Islam to Christianity, and as one would expect, there are many in Afghanistan who aren't happy about the outcome.

However, here's a few excerpts from MET that spells out an important "take home message" and a crisp perspective on the world's (as opposed to the Afghan street) reaction to the plight of Abdul Rahman (interestingly, much of the remaining comments in the article constitute an anti-American anti-Iraq diatribe):

... This week we witnessed America and Europe at their very best - rallying in unison against the unjustifiable trial and possible execution of a man whose only crime was that he freely chose to become a Christian. What is especially heartening about this case is the West's concern over the plight of a single individual Afghan. This could be or should be the start of a very beautiful thing.

(...) Rational human beings the world over are demanding an explanation from the Afghan government. What part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights don't they understand? Article 18 of this powerful document, which affirms the dignity of each and every individual on the planet, is very explicit:

(...) "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

(...) Abdul Rahman freely chose to convert and had the courage to publicly proclaim his new faith. That he did so in Afghanistan shows the depth and sincerity of his belief. So, let the man be and change that medieval law while you're at it.

(...) Muslims around the world should be the first to rally to the cause of Abdul Rahman whose name translates into the "servant of a merciful God". From a purely practical standpoint, they have the most to gain by honoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the most to lose by breaching it.

The apparent outcome of the Abdul Rahman case has not resolved the problem of true religious freedoms in Muslim countries, especially in in Afghanistan, where "modern laws are clashing with ancient traditions". Other countries where Rahman's case illustrates a significant contradiction between Afghanistan's constitution, which upholds the right to freedom of religion on one hand but enshrines the supremacy of sharia law on the other. The issue still remains that most mainstream schools of Islamic jurisprudence call for converts to be executed. And that is simply not acceptable in the community of man.

While state executions for apostasy are rarely carried out, laws allowing them remain on the books in not only Afghanistan but in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan.

More generally, while countries like Egypt and Pakistan guarantee religious freedoms in their constitutions, they limit religious speech and local police frequently lean on people to recant if they seek to convert (from Islam).

The Rahman case has served to turn our eyes to the issue of democratization of the Middle East, most specifically to the idea that Islam is incompatible with democracy:
(...) ... when Muslims speak, they mean different things. He gave a telling example: during the Cold War, the Russians wished to catch up with the Americans, and the first thing they tried was copying the Russian-American translation machine used by the Americans. At the opening ceremony held in the Kremlin, the Russians put in this sentence: "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." The result from the machine: "the vodka is good, but the meat is thin." (Or something very similar.)

(...) ... his point was very good: whatever values we have, when we say things we attach to the words a different meaning from someone who uses the same word but lives in a different culture. "We are not making a value judgement," Israeli said. "This isn't saying Islam is good or bad." He also pointed out that the Muslims believe Islam is the final revision of Allah's religion, and that the perfect way of life is outlined in the Koran and Sunna/Hadith - how, then, can Muslims live another way? Is this not heresy? He finished with this description of the modern Muslim world: looking for democratisation in the Muslim world is like sending a blind man in to a black room to find a black cat that isn't even there.

(...) ...Taheri is a Muslim. I say that now because it is crucial when trying to understand his points. Islam, he said, has provided the basis for society. Each category has been assigned rights. First, Muslim males, then Muslim females; then Jewish or Christian males, then females; finally, non-Jewish/Christian males, then females. Clearly, this is incompatible with democracy, a fundamental element of which is equality before the law of the land. Apostasy, too, must be permitted for a citizen to have equal rights. But it is not permitted by Islam. Even the nominal democracies in the Muslim world, Indonesia and Turkey, are not truly Islamic. Taheri said that he knows the leaders personally, and they always tell him that they acting not as Muslims, but as democrats. For under Islam, there is no separation of church and state, and never can be.

(...) ... The majority, therefore, believes that Islamic democracy is an oxymoron. The implications of this are huge. If they are right, President Bush's plans for Middle Eastern democratisation are doomed to failure. Iraq and Afghanistan will fall back in to tribalism and war as soon as we hand them their freedoms.

(...) If this is true, just what the hell do we do instead?

And that's the ultimate question, isn't it! Just what the hell do we do instead? There's this:
I asked David Pryce-Jones, who was good enough to autograph my copy of 'The Closed Circle', just that question. He told me that the next few years, in Iraq especially, are a test of strength. We must convince the Muslim world that to stand and fight against us will cost them more than they are willing to pay, and after that we can engage on a more ideologically level. A war of ideas? I venture. Yes, exactly, he said. Then, in a rather conspiratorial voice, he told me that not only did he think we would win this test of strength, but we would win the war of ideas, too.
We need to recognize that Islam is incompatible with democracy, and proceed in figuring out how to live together on this planet together, somehow, and we need to do it damned soon! Abdul Rahman's plight has been a wake up call, as was the Muslim cartoon controversy. So let's follow through with what has begun, all of us open our eyes wide, breathe deeply, and face the facts. The only way that Muslims can build a democratic society or participate in a democratic society is if they treat Islam as a matter of personal, private belief and not as a political ideology that seeks to monopolise the public space and regulate every aspect of individual and community life.

I'm not sure that the majority of Muslims are willing to do that, and in this, lies a very big problem.

I have Muslim friends that I believe to be comfortable with democracy, but I can't speak to their level of comfort. I have friends that have converted from Islam to Christianity, have moved from their native countries to America, and never speak of their conversion out of fear. I know of a Christian that has converted to Islam, and speaks of it openly, even going out of her way to make her faith be known, adopting Muslim dress, carrying a prayer rug around with her to use in front of a restaurant - obviously not afraid of being attacked by Christians for "leaving the faith".

I am a Catholic, my daughter's Godfather is a Jew, I have close friends that are Muslim, others that are Hindu, and we're all here in America - together. So I know that we can all get along together, in America, but somehow it's looking more and more like a very difficult experiment to reproduce elsewhere. Perhaps, in an existing democracy free of despotic rulers and ruling clerics, Muslims feel free to treat Islam as a matter of personal, private belief and not as a political ideology that seeks to monopolise the public space and regulate every aspect of individual and community life. However, on that matter the jury is still out in diliberation.

Abdul Rahman: Dead Man Walking?

Posted by Richard at March 27, 2006 2:10 PM

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