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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Fighting words in Afghanistan

October 31, 2013 At long last, it appears that the Bilateral Security Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan may be nearing the finish line. However, there are equally consequential negotiations reportedly underway between the Taliban and Afghan government.  While it is still unclear what the results of these negotiations will be, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar made the group's position clear earlier this year when he said that they will not attempt to monopolize power in Afghanistan, but that the Taliban seeks "an inclusive government based on Islamic principles."

With the U.S. troop drawdown underway, this statement needs to be fully considered by both the United States and the international community, as it will directly impact Afghan women's rights and human rights more broadly.  Afghanistan's future is on the line. 

Currently, things are far from stable in Afghanistan. The recent assassination of Arsala Jamal, the governor of Logar province, through a bomb hidden inside a Koran, is a new low in the militants' race to the bottom.  Meanwhile, the intimidation and targeted killings of female Afghan government officials and societal leaders continues.  Statements by U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay after her September trip to Afghanistan highlighted these ongoing abuses against Afghan women. 

Gains have certainly been made -- women's rights are respected in ways that were unthinkable 15 years ago, there is an independent media, and political parties are active -- yet all of these are tenuous and reversible.  Why?  The climate of impunity, and the fact that the current Afghan constitution has effectively established a restrictive interpretation of shari'a as the law of the land.  Consequently, Afghans lack both personal security and freedom of thought.  Protections do not exist to safely dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy, to debate the role and content of religion in law and society, to advocate for the human rights of women and religious minorities, or to question narrow interpretations of Islamic precepts. 

Despite this reality, Mullah Omar said it was not enough and his government would be based on Islamic law.  His desire for more would be fatal to Afghanistan's effort to emerge from decades of war and instability.

I saw a glimpse of possible things to come first-hand during a trip to Kabul in May, when I visited the Afghan parliament during the debate on the proposed Elimination of Violence Against Women Law.  The bill was introduced by the irrepressible parliamentarian Fawsia Koofi, who wanted to replace the imperfect but important presidential decree on protecting women.  Koofi thought it better to have a law enjoying popular support through parliamentary passage. When I arrived at the Parliament, Koofi was being thronged by female MPs vigorously arguing that introducing legislation was foolish, as it risked giving conservative elements an opportunity to roll back protections. 

Despite these protests, Koofi forged ahead.  The outcome?  Conservative legislators pressed for amendments based on their narrow interpretation of Islamic law, such as reducing the marriage age from 17 to 14, but the bill did not pass. 

If this is happening under the umbrella of protection afforded by the United States, it should give policymakers pause as they look to engage Afghanistan after U.S. forces drawdown.  From this low starting point, any consideration of Mullah Omar's offer for a government based on his retrograde interpretation of religious law would be deeply problematic.  Right now, those who think and speak freely in Afghanistan do so at their own risk.  My conversations in Kabul made it clear that Afghanistan is a generation or more away from experiencing anything close to freedom of thought due to decades of war, the theological echoes of Taliban rule, poor rule of law, and weak human rights protections.  Furthermore, the current environment promotes a vicious cycle: diverse thinking is snuffed out, either by state action or violent religious extremists, which amplifies extreme voices while marginalizing differing Islamic interpretations or debate about religion/state questions.  Allowing Mullah Omar to constrict that discussion further would be disastrous.

Afghanistan has not only struggled to respect women's rights, it has also failed to value and protect its religious diversity.  I repeatedly heard that Afghanistan is 99% Muslim, a factoid that obscures its existing religious diversity, of which many Afghans are unaware.  In the Sunni majority, there are different schools of thought, including "moderate" Muslims who hold a progressive view of religion/state relations.  The Shi'a community is theologically and ethnically diverse between Hazara Jafaris and Tajik Ismailis.  The historic Hindu and Sikh communities continue to exist, with their distinctive dress and burial traditions providing a visible reminder of Afghanistan's historic pluralism.  The hidden Christian and Baha'i communities, not acknowledged by Afghan religious leaders or government officials, live a vulnerable existence in the shadows.

Despite this challenging environment, the U.S. government needs to continue to press all the players seeking peace to protect members of the majority faith whose views contradict the religious establishment or Taliban sympathizers, as well as religious minorities.  The Taliban and other militants have long used religion to advance their religio-political agenda.  The United States, however, can undercut their message by offering counter narratives of tolerance and understanding, while supporting women's groups and other human rights groups. 

The U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement, on which I informally advised, offers guidance on a way forward.  It addresses the issue of advancing pluralism and human rights, including the protection of religious freedom, stating: Building on current initiatives, the Administration will increase efforts to engage a diverse spectrum of religious leaders on the advancement of universal human rights, promoting core U.S. values like respect for the human rights of members of minority and marginalized groups, pluralism, tolerance, and sensitivity to and respect for the beliefs and traditions of others.

As endgame negotiations speed up, this strategy needs to be brought to bear in Afghanistan immediately.  Religion provides a narrative and context for much of what happens in the country, and Mullah Omar wants to re-enshrine his religio-political worldview as international forces withdraw.  Instead of ceding the religious space to him, the United States should take steps to protect diverse religious and political views.  Doing so can support other U.S. priorities, such as women's rights and free speech, while undercutting the Taliban and other militants seeking sway over the Afghan population. 

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. 

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