How the New York Times accidentally covers up the contradictions of Aghanistan with the euphemisms of “freedom.”

By Sabine Heinlein

When speaking of the war in Afghanistan, the New York Times juggles abstract and complex expressions as if they were apples. “Freedom of religion,” “universal values,” “democracy” and “liberation.” As readers, we’re so accustomed to these terms that we no longer question their meanings. In the still-reverberating story of Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old Afghan Christian convert who was arrested, accused of apostasy and threatened with execution by the Afghan judiciary, American media nonchalantly invoked sharia, Islamic law, and its alleged hostility to the concepts mentioned above. By repeating these ambiguous concepts (and by introducing new ones) without defining or questioning them, the American media replicates the government’s mistakes in the war: Instead of pulling us out of the muddle, it pushes us farther in.

Abdul Rahman’s troubles began as a domestic dispute. When Rahman sought custody of his children after a divorce, opposing family members reported his conversion to the authorities. What caused the furor around the world wasn’t that some unknown divorced man was threatened with execution. America was appalled because some unknown Christian man was threatened with execution in some mysterious Muslim country we thought we had “liberated” years ago.

The first editorial in the New York Times begins: “What’s the point of the United States propping up the government of Afghanistan if it’s not even going to pretend to respect basic human rights?” The paper calls the Rahman case “barbaric” and goes on to declare, “we are glad that President Bush promised religious freedom in Afghanistan.” The editorial does not mention sharia and its conflicting relationship with the constitution of Afghanistan, which was enacted with the help of the US in 2003-2004.

In another Times article, also on March 23rd, Laurie Goodstein writes that “there are still judges who hold radical interpretations of sharia,” and that “the Afghan Constitution does not adequately protect religious freedom.” She fails, however, to connect the two. In an attempt to simplify a highly complex topic Goodstein neither explains sharia nor does she elaborate on the constitution’s conflicting stance toward freedom of religion.

One of the sayings, or hadiths, within sharia argues that a Muslim who “reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims” may be executed. It seems to be this idea, together with Article 3 of the Afghan constitution , that the Afghan judiciary appealed to in the Rahman case. (Article 3 of the constitution of “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” — the country’s official name still reflects its religious underpinnings — states that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”)

Yet, Article 2 of the Constitution of Afghanistan declares the right to religious freedom: “The religion of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of the Islam. Followers of other religions are free to perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law.” But in the view of the Afghan judiciary, sharia clearly overrides the freedom of religion and Article 7 of the constitution: “The state shall abide by the UN charter… and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

In later coverage, Abdul Waheed Wafa and David Rohde of the Times point out the central contradiction inherent in the constitution of Afghanistan, but neglect to elaborate on the fact that this contradiction is the core of a much bigger problem. Afghans and Americans might have a different understanding of certain terms, and we have to first understand and explain our own before we demand that someone else to act according to them. It would have been useful if the Times had confronted the meaning of “religious freedom.” The term “freedom,” to begin with, is in itself very ambiguous. Accordingly, “freedom of religion” could be interpreted as the freedom to practice religion the way Afghanistan wants to practice it. Who are we to tell them how to practice their religion? Where’s the freedom in that?

“I’m troubled,” President Bush said with regard to Rahman’s case, “deeply troubled when I hear that a person who has converted away from Islam may be held to account. That’s not the universal application of the values that I talked about.” Here the Times doesn’t ask: What exactly does Bush mean when he says “the universal application of the values”? Does he mean that our American values should be universal? Does he mean the contradictory Afghan constitution should be universal?

On March 26th, J. Alexander Thier argues on the Times‘ op-ed page how important it is “to help Afghanistan develop such [competent and independent] judges if we want its democracy to succeed.” Who determines competence? And independence from whom? “Succeed” by whose standards? The basic implication of the comment “if we want democracy to succeed” boils down to the American motto: my way or the highway.

This case could have served as an opportunity to begin untangling the web of contradictions in Afghanistan’s constitution and the US’s stance. It could have also been used to define the expressions “freedom of religion,” “universal values” and “democracy,” however complicated and ambiguous they may be. It is the responsibility of the media to assist in defining, explaining and, perhaps most importantly, doubting these terms.

So why the muddle? Perhaps because freedom of religion, universal values and democracy are not the real issues. With the support for his war efforts fading, the Rahman case became a political liability for President Bush. “The case,” noted Wafa and Rohde, “could further alienate his political base among those in the Christian right, who have already accused the administration of putting too little pressure on Afghan officials.”

It took some back and forth for Afghanistan to decide on how to solve the Rahman case without angering Western authorities or capitulating ungracefully. The Afghan courts briefly considered declaring Rahman insane. (“A cheap trick to avoid the mess,” the Times’editorial desk charged without further development.) It didn’t have to come to this defense, however, because the case was allowed to collapse due to a technicality: Under Afghan law someone cannot be held without charges for longer than one month. Rahman was released and granted political asylum in Italy.

Sabine Heinlein is the author of Among Murderers: Life After Prison (University of California Press, 2013).