By Martin Surridge – Few countries around the globe can outdo Afghanistan when it comes to suffering and misery. Just in the last ten years alone, Afghanistan has been the permanent home for the Taliban, the temporary home for Al-Qaeda, the central battlefield for the Global War on Terror and graveyard for thousands of soldiers and civilians, the location for some of the most brutally enforced interpretations of Sharia law anywhere on earth, the world’s number one exporter of heroin, home to a corrupt central government that ignores torture and human rights abuses, with more border issues and election problems than you can shake a stick at. Yet somehow, just when we thought Afghanistan couldn’t surprise us any more, the events in Mazar-i-Sharif earlier this month threaten to undo any progress the country might have been making.
This is Article18-RLTV’s weekly blog specifically dedicated to religious liberty issues in other countries around the world. Each week, we focus on a different nation, and the struggles facing one of its religious communities. This week: Afghanistan, where fleeing Christians and deadly protests over the burning of a Quran by an American reverend combine to paint a bleak picture for those hoping for a peaceful, tolerant future.
Religious liberty is most likely low on the priority list for a nation that has been invaded and occupied by multiple foreign armies during the last century and repeatedly terrorized by terrorist groups within its own population. However, it is clear that this important issue needs to be addressed in Afghanistan if Karzai’s government sincerely wishes to achieve the goal of a modern and truly democratic state.
When Florida pastor Terry Jones ended his showdown with the international media in September 2010 and decided against burning a copy of the Quran, many believed that it was because of the requests made by military and government officials, including President Obama. So when Jones went back on his decision, one which he claimed he made after careful consideration and prayer, and burned a Quran on video, the backlash was intense and dozens were killed in violent protests in Afghanistan, including foreign staff at a U.N. compound. Despite the fact that the burning Jones supervised did not target the beliefs of Afghan Muslims exclusively or specifically, the video, which soon made its way onto Afghan computer screens via the internet, sparked fury among a population who need little provocation to direct anger toward foreigners.
The Quran-burning drew swift condemnation from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Gen. David Petraeus, but in a nation that has been ravaged by war, not even Afghanistan’s central government or top foreign military commander could have prevented such brutal and swift mob violence. The fact that such a devastating and deadly attack occurred in response to a symbolic act of religious free speech on the other side of the globe, however misguided and intolerant that act may have been, shows the extreme difference in values between western nations and Afghanistan, and that no attempt to impose a foreign worldview will be successful any time soon.
However foolish Rev. Jones may have been in burning the holy text of Islam, the murdering of blameless United Nations civilian employees is far worse and totally inexcusable. Perhaps, as J. F. Kelly Jr. of the Coronado Eagle & Journal exclaims, this is a sign that so little progress has been made in winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people that NATO and the United States should end the war and withdraw their troops from Afghanistan for good.
Not content with upsetting Muslims with his disrespectful acts towards one symbol of Islam, Rev. Jones plans to continue his work preaching against Islam. He plans to protest at one of the largest mosques in North America, the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich., “despite a judge’s order that he stay away from the mosque for three years.” It is doubtful the international community has heard the last from this firebrand preacher.
Interestingly, Rev Jones is not the only unpopular Christian making news in Afghanistan. In a nation where apostasy is punishable by death in certain semi-autonomous tribal regions that adhere to Sharia law, stories of conversions from Islam are rare. Yet Shoaib Assadullah, an “Afghan Christian convert, who was also in prison at the same time as more well-known convert Said Musa, was recently released and has made it to a safe country, reported a Christian persecution watchdog group on Wednesday.”
The 23 year-old Christian’s only crime, for which he was threatened with the death penalty, was giving a Bible to another man. The article from the Christian Post goes on to say that even though “apostasy is a crime punishable by death under sharia law, religious freedom advocate Godfrey Yogarajah of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Religious Liberty Commission has pointed out that punishing a citizen for converting from Islam to another religion is illegal under Afghanistan’s Constitution, which does not recognize apostasy as a crime.”
All the Afghan government needs to do is enforce the basic constitutional rights of its citizens and the imprisonment of converts like Assadullah could be avoided. The only problem is that Afghanistan has a rather long to-do list right now.