Shortly after 9/11, U.S. forces descended on Afghanistan and helped overthrow the oppressive Taliban regime whose primary governmental policy was a strict adherence to the most draconian elements of Muslim religious law. In the wake of the Taliban’s overthrow, and with GIs standing guard, the people of Afghanistan wrote a new Constitution and elected a new government.
Now, seemingly in the shadow of those apparent steps forward, the new government of Afghanistan is prosecuting one of its citizens for being a Christian. And if he’s found guilty, Abdul Rahman could face the death penalty.
It seems that the drive towards democracy in Afghanistan isn’t quite as complete as it may have seemed. Because regardless of one’s views on religion, it’s clear that tolerance of other views – whether religious, political, or otherwise – is a cornerstone of freedom.
If we look at our own history, we can see the principle at work. At the time the United States declared its independence, the idea of religious freedom wasn’t just unusual – it was shocking. Every European nation had a state-backed religion, and countries routinely went to war as a result of religious differences. Indeed, Elizabeth I of England – a protestant who was responsible for British colonization of America and for whom Virginia is named – only took the throne after her Catholic sister, Mary, was deposed.
More than any other figure during the period of the founding, Thomas Jefferson – who would likely profess himself an agnostic in today’s terms – was committed to tolerance. He began his quest in his home state by authoring the Virginia statute of religious freedom. And the statute ultimately became the model for the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In some ways, tolerance is a proxy for another critical element of a stable democracy that promotes freedom – equal protection under the law. It’s a lesson hard learned in our own history, but a critical one. Regardless, no system of law can be called fair or equitable if it singles out one citizen or another simply for having different religious beliefs.
To be sure, Afghanistan is a new democracy. In many ways, it is still finding its footing, and its citizens are learning what it means to be free and how that freedom must impact their society. It’s worth remembering that it took our society two hundred years and a bloody civil war to learn the lessons of equality and tolerance.
Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s leaders need not reinvent the wheel. They can learn from our mistakes and benefit from the lessons learned by thriving free societies all around the world. And they simply cannot and must not allow this prosecution to go forward – in any form. To do so would send a clear signal that freedom is not growing in Afghanistan; it’s dying on the vine.March 23, 2006