Christianity and Afghanistan


By Chris Stieber

This past week, a middle-aged Christian from the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan has become a flashpoint of controversy, an icon for all the struggles and disappointments in the War on Terror.

Rahman, who converted to Christianity in 1990 and fled to Germany in 1993, assumed that, since the United States had helped institute the new Afghan government, he would be able to peacefully live and practice his religion in his home country in the same way American citizens do every day. Big mistake. Apparently, although we have made great leaps in bringing democracy to the Arab world, it hasn’t returned serve by providing basic religious freedoms to all of its citizens.

To the average American, the story of the Rahman trial has been quite a shock. Afghanistan was, up until the trial, the consistent success story for the War on Terror. Elections have had strong turnout, schools for women are opening, and the general safety of citizens has been demonstrably better than in Iraq. The persecution of this Christian, however, frustrates everything we have worked for. What exactly did heroes such as Pat Tillman die for if not for the freedoms of all Afghans, not just the fundamentalist Muslims who were already in power? While there have been reasons for celebration, a trial like Abdul Rahman’s reminds Americans of just how little has really changed.

The entire saga raises a few questions, and very few ready-made answers.

1. This is yet another example of followers of Islam (“the religion of peace”) demanding total obedience to sharia law. While American Muslim groups such as CAIR demanded the release of Rahman, the majority of Middle Eastern clerics supported Rahman’s execution. We should not question the desire for peace from American Muslims. We should question, however, any claim that would suggest they are representative of global Islam. The evidence continues to pile up that the large majority of Muslims, even those who are allies in the Global War on Terror, refuse to consider non-Muslims as equal citizens with equal rights.

2. While it has not been the sole rationale behind our efforts in the Arab world, democratization and culture change have undoubtedly been a large part of the Bush Administration’s rhetoric. In his second inauguration speech, Bush reached the height of his Wilsonianism with lines like, “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment . . . that is the force of human freedom.” What does the trial of Rahman say for the effectiveness of freedom as a panacea? We’ve invested billions of dollars and thousands of lives into the region, and we have still not managed to break the stranglehold fundamental Islam has on the Arab world. Clearly, we can’t exit the region, but perhaps a revision of our goals is in order.

3. A positive note, however, that came out of this crisis is the near unanimity from Western governments in favor of religious pluralism. An incomplete list includes: Canada, Germany, Austria, Vatican City, European Union, Italy and Australia, all rising to the defense of Abdul Rahman. After the rather shameful response to the Danish cartoon controversy, where everyone backpedaled to defend multiculturalism, a voice for religious freedom is well appreciated. The international voices pressured the courts to exonerate Rahman, but even the court’s decision was not enough to guarantee safety from an Afghan lynch mob. On March 26, Prime Minister Berlusconi of Italy announced that Rahman would be accepted into Italy for protection. Again, it is comforting to see European countries, who typically kowtow to the fundamentalist Muslim crowd (see France), stand up for a courageous man of faith.

It does make you wonder, however, just how often will the West have to rescue the Arab world from itself. The entire West is eager to see the region move into the 21st century. All of the “Bush Lied!” claims to the contrary, the current administration, and a majority of America, have placed U.S. blood and U.S. treasure at risk to ameliorate the life of the average Iraqi and Afghan. Every time an Abdul Rahman is persecuted for his faith, however, the American resolve erodes a little bit more, the desire to cut and run is intensified. How this will end, no one can hope to guess. But it is without a doubt that public support of our strategy in the Arab world will fade quickly if Afghanistan, our “shining success,” refuses to support minority rights. I hoped to end this article with a solution to the problems revealed in the Abdul Rahman case, but I’m not sure if there is one.

In the years of the Taliban, clerics blew up Buddhist statues, much to the dismay of the West. Frankly, I can’t see much difference between the theocrats of the Taliban and the fundamentalist Muslim courts of today. MR