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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Afghanistan: Mind the God gap

This month's NATO summit in Chicago has provided many writers and analysts a moment to debate possible outcomes of the U.S. endeavor in Afghanistan.  Commentary ranges from David Ignatius "thinking the unthinkable" about the Taliban returning to Kabul, to former First Lady Laura Bush urging the international community to remember the women of Afghanistan.  The meeting provides a timely inflection point about the price paid in blood and treasure, and the future return on this costly investment. 

Yet there is a glaring gap in this conversation, one that ignores the on-the-ground reality of Afghanistan.  It is the role of religion and its influence on the trajectory of the Afghan government.  By paying it little or no heed, the United States is omitting a key piece of the complex jigsaw puzzle that is Afghanistan's future. 

My meeting with Afghan Minister of Justice Habibullah Ghalib in Kabul drove home the importance of religion and its influence on matters of state.  Our conversation in December 2010 quickly turned to the application of Islamic religious law to the affairs of men and women, especially the issue of apostasy, a topic which places core freedoms of religion and conscience at the center of government policy.  At the time, a convert to Christianity was being detained, but similar cases had arisen where Muslims were charged with "criminal" activity considered blasphemous.  He justified government actions on Islamic law, brushing aside my counterarguments for freedom of religion and belief based on international standards, the Afghan constitution, and even Qur'anic references. 

It wasn't surprising that the Minister was unmoved in his view that apostasy and blasphemy were crimes to be punished by the state, as it reflected past Afghan government actions against Muslims and non-Muslims to stifle freedom of thought and restrict expression.  However, it underscored the cost of not addressing the role of religious tenets in law and governance. 

Afghanistan's legal system is a big part of the problem, despite Article 7 of the Afghan constitution stating that the Afghan government "shall abide by" the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  In practice, Afghanistan has established a restrictive interpretation of Islamic law through the vague repugnancy clause in Article 3 that states that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."  Consequently, there are no protections for individuals to dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy, debate the role  of religion in law and society, advocate for the human rights of women and religious minorities, or question interpretations of Islamic precepts.

David Ignatius' "unthinkable" thought of a Taliban return to Kabul could happen, but perhaps even faster than he imagines.  The Afghan constitution's provisions referencing undefined notions of Islamic law give Taliban sympathizers legal cover to apply their regressive religious interpretations through laws against human rights, religious freedom, and women's rights.

Religion matters in Afghanistan, and promoting religious freedom and tolerance can help achieve human rights and security goals.  Repression of religious freedom strengthens the hand of violent religious extremists.  As I've written elsewhere, conditions of full religious freedom allows for the peaceful sharing of differing views and interpretations.  This openness can displace extremist influences from social and religious networks, thereby limiting their ability to influence populations of concern and turn them towards violence.  Recent studies and research are building an empirical case that limitations on religious freedom lead to more, not less, societal instability. 

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom -- where I work -- has documented Afghanistan's poor religious freedom record and placed Afghanistan on our Watch List.  USCIRF has described the situation as "exceedingly poor for dissenting members of the majority faith and for minority religious communities."  Regarding religious minorities, USCIRF reported how "the small and vulnerable Christian community experienced a spike in arrests, with Christians being detained and some jailed (and later released) for the ‘crime' of apostasy."  The Hindu and Sikh communities continue to face discrimination and violence, while the small Baha'i community operates basically underground, especially since a 2007 ruling by the General Directorate of Fatwa and Accounts decreed their faith to be a "form of blasphemy."  Even the much larger minority Hazara Shi'a community, which has experienced greater freedoms, was targeted by suicide bombers in late 2011. 

A string of events in recent months bears further witness to religion's unmistakable role in Afghanistan: 

Taliban response to Strategic Partnership Agreement - There were two Taliban responses to this agreement, one violent, but the other focused on religion.  The violent response received much greater attention, since this was the attack on Bagram Airbase after President Obama left the country.  However, the Taliban also issued a statement in April, immediately after the announcement of a deal, outlining five ways the Karzai government was caving.  Four of the five focused on issues relating to Islam - preventing a true Islamic government; bringing in secularism and liberalism; creating an army hostile to Islam; and being a continuous threat to Muslim countries in the region.  The Taliban believes this issue to be relevant to the Afghan populace.

Qur'an burnings - The accidental destruction of Qur'ans and other Islamic materials triggered a nationwide backlash, attacks on U.S. and ISAF personnel, and an apology from President Obama. Dozens were killed and scores more wounded.  Sensing a public relations bonanza, the Taliban pressed to exploit the situation to their advantage, issuing statements urging violence and offering this as further evidence of America's supposed war against Islam

Ulema Council statement and Karzai response - The Ulema Council, an influential body of clerics sponsored by the Afghan government, issued a "code of conduct" for women that permits husbands to beat their wives and promotes gender segregation.  If that wasn't alarming enough for human rights and women's rights advocates, President Karzai endorsed the statement.  He had other options, such as refuting the findings or at least ignoring them, but Karzai felt the need to endorse them, saying they were in line with Islamic principles.  Why?  Because the role of religion in politics and governance has a great influence in Afghanistan. 

Despite these developments, a response is not to be found in the Strategic Partnership or the recent NATO summit declaration.  No mention was made of promoting religious freedom and religious tolerance, key elements of any attempt to see human rights and women's rights protected and respected. 

While these high-level documents are silent, there is increasing recognition of this challenge in U.S. government policy.  The State Department has initiated a program to counter extremist voices, which looks to bring other Islamic perspectives into Afghanistan to help expose Afghanis to the broader Islamic world.  After 30 years of civil war and the impact of a narrow Taliban-imposed view, there is little understanding of how their religion can work successfully with democracy and human rights.  USAID is also doing interesting work with Afghanistan's informal justice system, introducing human rights into the centuries-old traditional system, and doing so through the lens of Islamic law.  However, these efforts, while positive, are not enough to have a lasting impact. 

In other words, the current level of programming won't move a needle that is pointing dangerously in the wrong direction.

It's getting late in the game, but it's not too late to move the needle.  There is still time for concerted action.  The U.S. government can ramp up its efforts to increase public diplomacy relating to religious freedom and religious tolerance, and bring more delegations of Afghan religious and NGO leaders to the United States and take American religious and NGO leaders to Afghanistan.  The United States can jump-start training about the balance between religion and state and the compatibility of Islam with human rights and religious freedom.  Continuing to press for greater freedoms in public and private is critical, as well as starting new initiatives, such as creating a special working group on religious freedom/tolerance in U.S.-Afghan strategic dialogues.  U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces should be trained to understand international standards when engaging with Afghan religious leaders, local government officials, or Afghan local police forces.  U.S. government personnel also need to increase their "religious IQ" on the role of Islam in Afghan society, as well as understand how religious freedom can promote stability and security.

As Afghanistan goes about building institutions as the international community departs, getting the religion question right will be a part of every answer.  The Taliban and the Afghan government talk about religion, apply religious law, and use it to their advantage.  Considering religion is the lens through which everything passes, significantly increasing engagement on religious freedom and tolerance will advance U.S. human rights and national security interests. 

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed here are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission.

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