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March 28, 2006

Little victories

As far as I understand it, Abdul Rahman was not on trial for being a Christian, but for renouncing Islam. That's what apostasy is — he'd have fared no better as a newly minted Jew or atheist. Now, from most perspectives that's just splitting hairs — it's equally barbaric to put someone on trial for what he believes as for what he doesn't. But the distinction is significant for the west's mission in Afghanistan, and even more so for future missions we undertake to remove regimes like the Taliban.

I believe in the idea that there is a minimum standard of civilization below which regimes should not expect to operate while enjoying all the benefits of sovereignty from the leading nations of planet Earth. The Taliban was one of those regimes (though it was for far more specific and universally appreciated reasons that they were removed), as was Iraq under Saddam (though Bush and Blair unfortunately declined to hitch their wagon to that justification for their invasion).

The fifty-thousand-dollar question is whether the sort of democracy we want to meld onto these countries should be form-based or content-based. Is it acceptable, in other words, for a country like Afghanistan to outlaw the rejection of Islam, and/or the practice of other faiths, as long that reflects the will of the people? Both are distinctly unpleasant, of course, but I think the former is less so than the latter and I'm afraid the answer has to be "yes".

One can believe in Christ and pretend not to — one shouldn't have to, but one can. One cannot pretend not to be a woman, however, and there are a damn sight more women in Afghanistan (about fourteen-and-a-half million) than there are Christians (two or three thousand, by the most biased estimates). The removal of the Taliban has had enormously positive consequences, but the population is fiercely religious and may not be ready to accept pluralism for a millennium or two. That shouldn't impugn the mission, except for those who were hopelessly naïve about the prospects for post-Taliban Afghanistan. It should merely underscore how much further there is to go.

We mustn't "accept" laws against religious freedom, of course. We should and do oppose such laws (well, except in Saudi Arabia), but we must also recognize that in a country whose constitution and laws are based on the Koran, rejecting Islam is naturally going to be problematic. An apostate is to a religious democracy what an anarchist is to a secular one.

Ultimately I am glad Abdul Rahman isn't going to be executed, but I do have to wonder if it bodes well for the future of an independent Afghani judiciary — another of those fun western concepts we are presumably trying to export in the general direction of Mesopotamia — that President Karzai was apparently able to influence the course of Rahman's trial so profoundly at the behest of western leaders like Stephen Harper. Karzai strikes me as a reasonable person, an incalculably valuable ally. I think the best gift Christians can give him in return for Rahman's life is to count their blessings and stay the hell out of Afghanistan.

Posted by Chris Selley at March 28, 2006 11:07 PM

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Comments

That's why I like you Chris: posts like this that are about as likely to piss off both sides of the aisle for being infuriatingly reasonable.

I'm with you in being willing to trade off a little substantive cultural stuff for now in exchange for getting a place like Afghanistan hooked back up to the rest of the world economically and politically. Tolerance and pluralism come after modernism, not before, and they will not be rushed. But it'll take a heck of a lot less than a millennium -- try a few generations.

Posted by: Matt McIntosh at March 28, 2006 11:54 PM

Dude I donno - ever since you started posting over at the shotgun things around here have .....well I think you may have picked up something while you were there or something

Posted by: Nbob at March 29, 2006 10:07 AM

How the hell do you stay on top of all of these current events without a newspaper paying you to do so? I'm always profoundly impressed with not only your perspectives, but also your research and recall. Heck, if a newspaper was paying me to be on top - I still couldn't do it as well as you do in your spare time.

Posted by: Jason at March 29, 2006 11:22 AM

"An apostate is to a religious democracy what an anarchist is to a secular one."

No: more like what a non-voter is to a secular democracy - and I can't recall the last time we put one of them on trial.

I am not sure I understand your argument as it relates to the benefits conferred on Afghanistan's 14 Million women, Chris. Are you saying that if following the ouster of the Taliban the Afghanis had adopted a constitution that included the practices that the Taliban implemented with respect to women that it would be okay, so long as it was 'the will of the people?' If not, what distinguishes that hypothetical instance of the people's will from the current real instance that prescribes death for apostates? If so, what is the relevance?

Posted by: DCardno at March 29, 2006 01:03 PM

"Are you saying that if following the ouster of the Taliban the Afghanis had adopted a constitution that included the practices that the Taliban implemented with respect to women that it would be okay, so long as it was 'the will of the people?'"

More like the will of half the people -- I have a hard time understanding how any female with more than two grey cells to rub together would opt for that sort of lifestyle unless they were under some sort of duress when they did so.

Posted by: Sean at March 29, 2006 04:11 PM

Sean, fair point - but assuming they did (or if men were a 50.5% to 49.5% majority) the question remains, would it be okay? I am not sure that is even a satisfactory response, though: if we changed the target of convenience from women to left-handed men (or some other suitable minority) we could probably find a majority vote in favour of the practice. We normally understand human rights as the practices necessary to safeguard minorities - if we are willing to abandon minorities in Afghanistan, just because they are minorities then it suggests that we do not expect Afghanis to understand or respect our notions of human rights. If so, why are we there? It sounds very much like "they may be barbarian murdering bastards, but at least they are our barbarian murdering bastards." I don't mind realpolitik - but I would like to hear about it in advance

Posted by: DCardno at March 29, 2006 04:49 PM

"If so, why are we there?"

Because of 9/11, last I checked, and then to try to help establish the most stable possible post-Taliban situation. A situation in which any minority is persecuted is unnaceptable, but in this case it seems to be inevitable. My point was simply that if one group has to be persecuted, better it be Muslim apostates than women. I guess we'll have to cross the bridge of a democratically approved woman-persecuting constitution when we come to it.

Posted by: Chris Selley at March 30, 2006 12:17 AM

I believe in the idea that there is a minimum standard of civilization below which regimes should not expect to operate while enjoying all the benefits of sovereignty from the leading nations of planet Earth. The Taliban was one of those regimes (though it was for far more specific and universally appreciated reasons that they were removed), as was Iraq under Saddam (though Bush and Blair unfortunately declined to hitch their wagon to that justification for their invasion).

I see the assertion but not the evidence. Perhaps some quotes from Bush and Blair would be in order. Maybe starting with Bush's speach to the UN of Sept 2002.

Posted by: Sean Pelette at March 30, 2006 09:27 AM

"The fifty-thousand-dollar question is whether the sort of democracy we want to meld onto these countries should be form-based or content-based."

This question is irrelevant unless we can first establish that we have the power to meld any kind of lasting government on these countries. So far, I'm prettty unconvinced.

On the other hand, given that we are committed to making the effort, I guess your question is still relevant, but nonetheless, it has a bit of a deck chairs on the titanic ring to me. I wonder if the Soviets ever had these sorts of debates.

Posted by: Declan at March 30, 2006 12:31 PM

"My point was simply that if one group has to be persecuted, better it be Muslim apostates than women."

That's a pretty good-sized "if" in there, Chris.

Posted by: DCardno at March 30, 2006 01:41 PM

"Is it acceptable, in other words, for a country like Afghanistan to outlaw the rejection of Islam, and/or the practice of other faiths, as long that reflects the will of the people?".

We are in the process of establishing a democracy in Afghanistan and there are questions of how much input is legitimate but it seems to me that you are equating to closely democracy with majority rule and that is an oversimplification.

In the current meaning of the word, democracy includes independant interoperable and balanced arms of government. Voting in a majority is a plurality not a democracy. Volumes have been written about the need to protect minority rights in a liberal democracy.

I'm not telling you anything you don't know but it seems legitimate to me to insist on some content along with some form; some minimum minority rights guarantees as well as a structure that ensures their continuity.

But, I suppose there a lots of people more clever than I am who are trying to assess just how far and how fast you can move without risking the rejection of the whole endeavor. And, perhaps Declan is right that the effort is much too small to accomplish the task.

Posted by: keving at March 30, 2006 03:34 PM

Any decent government must start with a Constitution -fundamental principles defining how the people's power of self-determination is granted in part to the government to protect and encourage the common good. This has been our error since WWII--not imposing an enlightened Constitution on any nation that has become such a problem that it must be militarily defeated, as we did with Japan and Nazi Germany. Only with that foundation, can a government ever really reflect and respect the will of the people--the empowerment of both must be truly voluntary, which cannot be the case, if fundamental beliefs, like religion are dictated by force. From another perspective, how weak and cowardly must a religious institution be to require threats of death to force people to "believe". That is, of course, the revolutionary aspect of Christianity, that it is based on and propogated through acceptance by faith in the heart and mind of the Christian, such that no worldly force can stand against it--no taquiyah, no denial of belief or deception for tactical advantage. Islam cannot really compete with that and it is islam's pitiful, mean fear that its tyranny will be broken that requires the brutality of sharia law. Abdul Rahman stood up to the petty tyranny of islam and gave it a good punch in the nose. I'm proud that Danes, Americans, Italians and many others were able to help--but it was Rahman who didn't back down when it was his life on the line. Perhaps it will weaken the stranglehold of the islamist barbarians on real civilization in Afghanistan and everywhere else the story is told.

Posted by: AyUaxe at March 31, 2006 06:01 PM