Saturday, March 25, 2006

In Afghan Christian, Story Of Larger Conflict

By Roger Cohen
International Herald Tribune
March 25, 2006

BERLIN--Edmund Stoiber, the conservative German who runs the conservative and successful state of Bavaria, put his country's outrage bluntly. "A change of belief is supremely private," he said. "The state has nothing to do with it."

The change in question was that of Abdul Rahman, an Afghan Muslim who converted to Christianity. Apostasy is about as bad as it gets under Islamic law and Rahman is facing a possible death sentence in Kabul.

The plight of Rahman, who was denounced by his family for abandoning Islam and is in jail in Afghanistan, has got Germany in a tizzy. The case has all the elements to stoke German outrage.

It also has elements that should lead everyone to ponder whether the West's problem is really with a "perversion" of Islam, as politicians from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain have insisted, or with Islam itself.

German ire has been particularly intense for several reasons: Rahman once lived in Germany; the country is ferociously opposed to the death sentence; it is ferociously attached to freedom of religious choice; and it has over 2,000 troops in Afghanistan to promote precisely the democratic values it sees being trampled in the Rahman case.

Rahman's words in a recent Kabul court appearance have become a kind of rallying cry for an indignant Germany: "I'm not an apostate, I'm obedient to God but I'm a Christian, that's my choice."

Seems reasonable enough to the average citizen of the West. But not to the conservative religious leaders who dominate Afghan courts. The judge told Rahman, who converted 15 years ago while working for an aid group in Pakistan, he could face the death penalty if he refused to become a Muslim again.

So what, Germans wondered, were their troops doing in this faraway place, if a 41-year-old man who has not hurt a flea but prefers Christianity to Islam could face execution?

Politicians have scurried to register outrage. Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat, called the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to protest. She then declared that "Afghanistan must keep to its international obligations," whatever they may be.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democratic foreign minister, has also been on the phone, speaking to the Afghan foreign minister, Abdullah. He expressed hope that a solution might be found and cautioned that the withdrawal of German aid or soldiers - a measure demanded by several members of Parliament - could "play into the hands of those who would like to reverse the process of recent years."

Germany, of course, is not alone in its indignation. Bush has said he's "deeply troubled." Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, has given Abdullah an earful. A State Department spokesman has alluded to the flouting of "universal democratic values." Christian talk shows in the United States have moved into overdrive.

With all this commotion, it seems reasonable to take a deep breath and ask what's actually going on. Afghan prosecutors have no doubt Rahman's a "microbe," as they've called him, and that they are fulfilling their obligations under Shariah law.

European and American politicians have no doubt that the values of the civilization they represent are being threatened in a state they are striving to remake, if not in their image, at least in an image acceptable to the West.

The mutual incomprehension, and anger, is strong. It reflects a basic fact that Western politicians have tended to shy away from: Islam, the youngest of the world's major religions, is still, more than a quarter-century after the Iranian revolution, in the midst of a tremendous political effervescence.

After the eclipse of Nasserite pan- Arabism, it became the political refuge of millions of people questing for some alternative to the corrupt Middle Eastern tyrannies they saw being supported by the West, particularly the United States. The contemporary rise of Hamas, and the political success of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, are just two illustrations of this phenomenon.

Such political Islam takes many forms, but central to it is the notion that the Koran and other sacred texts provide a complete system of laws for societies and individuals. The Western notion of a separation of Church and State, of religion and politics belonging respectively to the private and public spheres, is anathema.

In this sense, two worlds often confront each other across the gulf between the West and Islam, worlds that the West would characterize as modern and anti-modern. To ignore this seems treacherous.

But Western leaders have striven to confine the scope of the conflict. They talk of being at war with Islamic fundamentalists who have "perverted" their religion in the name of a murderous and fanatical ideology. They insist their quarrel is not with Islam itself.

This is understandable: Islam is a great world religion followed by more than a fifth of humanity. No Islamic text exhorts the random slaughter of civilians, although every violent and fundamentalist group of the bin Laden school has tried to sanctify its actions through references to jihad against the infidel and claims to represent a purer, more authentic Islam.

In reality, it seems, there is an overall conflict and there is a war. The war has been declared by Bush against Islamic extremism, the kind that produced the 9/11 attack. The overall conflict is illustrated in the Rahman case.

Here, over the fate of a Christian Afghan, the values of the West and the values of Islam fight each other. They are violently at odds; no ecumenical circumlocution gets around that.

The West and Islam also fight each other in European societies where honor killings take the lives of young Muslim women, or homosexuals get assaulted. Two views of society and the place of religion within it vie with each other.

In this sense, Rahman offers a timely reminder. The West and Islam are not at war, but they are in conflict. And it seems myopic and counterproductive to view the war as anything but the extreme expression of that conflict.

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