When the U.S.-led assault on Afghanistan ousted the Taliban in November 2001, the assumption was that the U.S.-backed Afghan government that took its place would usher in a democratic regime that respected civil liberties and human rights.
Reality proved assumptions wrong.
In April 2003, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, whose commissioners are appointed jointly by the White House and Congress, wrote President Bush to raise concerns that the constitution then being drafted in Afghanistan may codify repression, rather than secure freedom, and thereby undermine the support of the American people for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
The letter pointed to “troubling signs in the human rights situation in Afghanistan, including abuses against women and girls, torture and other human rights abuses committed by official agencies with apparent impunity, and public statements by the Afghan Chief Justice reminiscent of the Taliban period, including charging political opponents with blasphemy.”
The commission’s fears proved well founded. Less than a year later, the commission noted that “Afghanistan adopted a Constitution that does not include any guarantee of freedom of religion or belief or expression for members of the country’s majority Muslim community against unjust accusations of religious ‘crimes’ such as apostasy and blasphemy.”
The following cases illustrate what the commission has called “Taliban-Lite.”
Death Sentence for Questioning Sexist Marriage Law:Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh is an Afghani journalism student. In October 2007, he disseminated an article at his university entitled “The Koranic Verses that Discriminate Against Women.” Originally written by an Iranian internet journalist, the article questions why men may have up to four wives while women are prohibited from having more than one husband. Kaambakhsh was arrested. In late January 2007, a panel of three judges sentenced him to death for blasphemy and defamation of Islam. An appeals court is reviewing the case.
Imprisoned for Translating the Quran:In November 2007, Ghows Zalmay, a former journalist and attorney-general’s spokesman, was imprisoned for publishing a translation of the Quran into Dari. Conservative religious leaders said the translation was “un-Islamic” and misinterpreted verses about adultery and begging. Some members of the Afghan parliament have even accused Zalmay of being “worse than Salman Rushdie,” the British author of “The Satanic Verses” (published in 1988). Zalmay faces the death penalty.
Al Jazeera Banned:In April 2007, Afghanistan banned the re-transmission of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arab news channel, through Afghan television stations. The channel could still be accessed directly by satellite, but most Afghans don’t own satellite dishes. The Afghan government accused the station of “inflicting a killer blow to the cultural and the legal authority of the government.”
Death Sentence for Converting to Christianity:In 2006, Abdul Rahman was a 41-year-old Afghan who chose to convert from Islam to Christianity. He was arrested in February that year and sentenced to death. By strict interpretations of Islamic law, conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, and may lead to capital punishment. Immense international pressure, including the intervention of Pope Benedict XVI, led to Rahman’s release and asylum to Italy in March 2006.
Imprisoned for Publishing Articles Challenging Sharia Law:In 2005, “Women’s Rights” (Haqoq-e-Zan) was a monthly published in Kabul by Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, an Islamic scholar, a Shiite, and a former refugee in Iran (where he studied). The articles Nasab ran in his magazine have, among other things, questioned the harshness of certain punishments under Shari’a law, such as the stoning to death of women found guilty of adultery, and argued that it is no crime to give up Islam. A religious adviser to Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, filed a complaint about Mohaqiq Nasab with the Afghan Supreme Court. Mohaqiq Nasab appeared twice before the court, without a lawyer, pleading not guilty to a charge of publishing anti-Islamic articles. He was found guilty of blasphemy and convicted to two years in prison with no possibility of appeal. Under Afghan law, the nation’s Media Commission is supposed to try press offences. But the commission announced that it no longer recognized Nasab to be a magazine editor.
Prohibition:The Afghan constitution bans the sale, production or consumption of alcohol. In April 2005, in what was termed a “compromise,” Afghanistan authorities allowed the sale of alcohol to foreigners in hotels and bars. “This double standard,” the Chicago Tribune reported, “has caused resentment among liberal and conservative Afghans. Many liberal Afghan men would like to drink alcohol. Conservative Afghans would like to rid the country of all alcohol, and, if necessary, the foreigners blamed for bringing it in.”