A question asked of President Bush at a Town Hall Meeting in West Virginia on Wednesday has focused public attention on the plight of Abdul Rahman, an Afghan on trial for the crime of 'rejecting Islam'.
The 41 year old Afghan has been an aid worker liaison working with Christian missionary groups assisting Afghan refugees in Pakistan for almost 2 decades. As a result of his contacts with these groups he converted to Christianity from Islam 16 years ago. This had not been raised as an issue until this year, because he was living in Pakistan. Things changed when he returned to Afghanistan with the downfall of the Taliban regime. He recently divorced his wife, and and her family raised the issue of his religion as grounds for denying him custody of their children. From there the extremely conservative Islamic court in Afghanistan picked up the case and brought charges against Rahman.
Under current Afghan law when the existing civil codes don't preclude it Islamic Sharia law can be applied. In this case the punishment for conversion from Islam under that law is death, derived from Mohammed's statement “If anyone changes his religion, kill him”. This is the penalty which head Judge Ansarullah Mawlazezadah is pursuing in this case, despite the fact that it appears to be contrary to the post-Taliban constituton of Afghanistan which says that in keeping with the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights “everyone has the right to freedom of thought (and) to change his religion or belief.”
Mawlazezadeh maintaints that “Islam is a religion of tolerance.” So tolerant that he is willing to grant mercy if Rahman voluntarily converts back to Islam. Rahman's defence has identified a different tactic in the face of undeniable evidence that Rahman is a Christian - he was arrested in possession of a Bible. They are planning to argue that Rahman was insane at the time of his conversion and remains mentally unfit to stand trial. This despite the fact that in interviews he seems to be articulate and quite clear about his beliefs. Their position appears to be that in Afghanistan only a madman would admit to converting to Christianity given the risk of execution.
The Bush administration and other western governments and human rights groups have spoken out strongly on the Rahman case. On Wednesday President Bush stated:
We have got influence in Afghanistan and we are going to use it to remind them that there are universal values. It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another … We can solve this problem by working closely with the government that we've got contacts with -- and will. We'll deal with this issue diplomatically and remind people that there is something as universal as being able to choose religion.
Meanwhile, as the Rahman case proceeds towards trial, nearby Iran continues to set the standard for Islamic justice, executioning men, women and children for crimes like blasphemy, adultery, prostitution and homosexuality. The extraordinary application of Sharia law in the Rahman case raises the question of what removing the Taliban regime has really accomplished if the more balanced justice of the new Afghan constituton is being ignored and law no better than that in the most extreme fundamentalist Islamic states continues to be enforced.