Opinion Afghanistan's Democratic Deficiency

A few caricatures in a Danish newspaper caused bloody riots in the Muslim world. But now an Afghan man has been sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. Afghanistan has told the West it should mind its own business. Come again?

By Claus Christian Malzahn

Abdul Rahman holds a translated version of the Bible at a Kabul court.

Abdul Rahman holds a translated version of the Bible at a Kabul court.

Asked in autumn 2001 what the German army wanted to do in Afghanistan, then defense minister Peter Struck replied that his country's liberty needed to be defended not just at home, but in the Hindukush as well. Not much later, NATO chased the Taliban out of Kabul. A murderous regime collapsed -- a regime that had terrorized its population, especially its female population, in the worst possible way for years. For the first time in a quarter century of war, Afghanistan seemed able to look forward to better, more peaceful times.

But German liberty has not arrived in the Hindukush -- not that it was to be expected. True, the Taliban have withdrawn into the southern part of country and into the region around its border with Pakistan. But radical Islam has remained. Even today, outside of Kabul, few women would dare to step onto the street without a veil. In fact, the veiled women one sees on the streets are privileged -- since most women are not allowed to even leave the house at all. The presence of the German army in Kabul has not changed the fact that women are being denied basic human rights in Afghanistan, just as in many other parts of the Islamic world.

Nor should anyone have expected German military intervention to change this state of affairs. Afghanistan is a country shaped by archaic traditions. And the Islamic constitution ratified by the Loya Jirga, or grand council, in Kabul is certainly an improvement over the murderous charade of justice the country knew under Taliban rule. But Afghanistan is no properly democratic state. The fact that a Muslim is now facing the death penalty because of his conversion to Christianity shows how far this country still is from guaranteeing its citizens the most basic rights. In neighboring Pakistan, an ally in the war on terror, the situation is hardly any better. There Christians, who make up between five and 10 percent of the population, live in ghettos, faced with the constant threat of violence. Many Christians living in Islamic countries exist in a state of religious apartheid.

The response to Western criticism of the Kabul verdict is being dismissed as a case of foreigners "meddling" in Afghanistan's "domestic affairs." This means it's high time to send a clearer message. It's not just about Abdul Rahman, who has chosen to become a Christian for reasons that are no one's business but his own. It's also about the women locked away in Afghan prisons for having been accused of adultery. It's about female students who can't walk down the street by themselves because a few male illiterates might get it into their heads to attack them. And it's about the many hundreds of thousands of Afghan women forced to live their lives behind walls -- without access to education, without the right to happiness. There is a good chance that President Hamid Karzai will pardon Abdul Rahman, as he has many of the imprisoned women, who are often convicted on bogus adultery charges made up by men who simply want to get rid of them. But this is not about mercy; it's about basic human rights. The West should insist on nothing less.

This is in no way merely a domestic matter -- it is a question of the validity of international human rights. When a Danish newspaper published a few more or less idiotic cartoons, Islamic rage flared up. Now that human lives and basic rights are at issue, we're hearing statements that could just as easily have been made during the Cold War. Back then, the phrase "domestic affairs" was invoked by the Soviet empire every time the West criticized its human rights record. What concerns Abdul Rahman and the women of Afghanistan concerns us too. And if the German army can't defend this kind of liberty in the Hindukush, then it should leave. Our soldiers have sworn allegiance to the rights enshrined in the German constitution; there's no reason to turn these soldiers into toothless operetta characters.

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