Sharia Calling

Abdul Rahman, an Afghan man who converted from Islam to Christianity, is interviewed during a hearing in Kabul on March 16, 2006. Afghanistan Afghan
This column was written by Nina Shea.

Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old Christian convert now on trial for apostasy in Afghanistan, may be beheaded for his faith, but President Karzai shouldn't order the sharpening of the executioner's sword just yet.

Over last weekend, word spread here about the case.

Apparently, in a dispute over the custody of his two daughters, Rahman was outed as a Christian convert and arrested. At his one-day trial last Thursday, the judge explained that under article 130 of Afghanistan's new constitution, medieval sharia laws against apostasy applied. The prosecutor told the press that he offered to drop charges if the defendant converted back to Islam, but Rahman refused, saying that he is a Christian and will always remain one. According to press accounts, the prosecutor called Rahman a "microbe" who "should be killed." The judge said he would consider the case for a few weeks but affirmed that if he rendered a determination of apostasy, the punishment would be death.

Evangelical networks began to mobilize and by Monday afternoon an American grassroots campaign to rescue Rahman was in full swing. Christian radio talk shows and websites excoriated the administration. Is this what we "liberated" Afghanistan for? The Family Research Council and others were demanding to know. The mainstream press reported news about the case as well.

The State Department, however, didn't seem to notice the significance of the case — either with respect to what it said about the character of the Afghan government or its impact on domestic politics. At a press conference on Tuesday, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was asked about the U.S. response to the case. He answered something garbled about process, about needing to "respect the sovereignty of Afghan authorities," hoping for a "transparent" trial, and, under follow-up questioning, seemed to be making a distinction between Afghan values and the "American point of view" in favor of religious freedom. His annoyance with the persistent line of questioning was his only betrayal of emotion in discussing the case. If Mr. Rahman met up with the sword of sharia, well, it was regrettable, but the democratization project was proceeding apace if the trial was transparent, and the rule of law followed. Whether "self-evident" freedoms were guaranteed or not was simply not a concern.

Burns's response was very familiar to those of us who had been pressing for an unambiguous assertion of individual freedoms and rights over the past three years during the drafting of Afghanistan's and Iraq's constitution. It was this same exclusive focus on process over values — the same impatient shrug of the shoulders-that was given by key officials in the administration whenever the drafts were criticized for containing provisions that ushered in sharia or otherwise negated or clouded individual rights. (For example, the so-called "repugnancy clause," found in both the Afghanistan and Iraq constitutions, which asserts that no law can contradict Islam.) At that time, our criticism found no echo. In fact, it was drowned out with near universal acclaim from law professors involved in the drafting and from the media.