Special Report

Freedom Lost

In Afghanistan, not much has changed since the rule of the Taliban.

By 12.6.05

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The editor was only doing what journalists in free societies take for granted: raising vital issues and encouraging debate. Because of that Ali Mohaqeq Nasab, editor of the Afghan monthly Women's Rights magazine, was arrested Oct. 1, and charged with blasphemy, apostasy, and intentionally publishing anti-Islamic articles. On Oct. 22, he was sentenced to two years in prison.

But even that punishment isn't enough for Afghanistan's new justice ministers. Prosecutors are demanding the death sentence. "There should be a bigger punishment for him," Abdul Jamil, the chief prosecutor in the case, told the Chicago Tribune. "If he intends to keep to what he said, then he should be executed."

Executed, ironically, for a story questioning the harsh punishments that continue to be dished out under Islamic law, such as stoning women found guilty of adultery. Another article argued that giving up Islam is not a crime, and that the Koran guarantees equal rights for both men and women. Ever wonder why so many Afghan women set themselves afire? Nasab's magazine tackled that "hot" topic too. Or used to.

Nasab, 47, is a liberal cleric turned magazine publisher. Two years ago he started Women's Rights in order to challenge conservative interpretations of the Koran, of sharia law, and of the Prophet Muhammad. The Tribune describes Nasab's magazine as a "curious mix of Western pop and women's stories, including cover photographs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of celebrity Alicia Silverstone and of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban."

NASAB HAS HIS defenders. Sadly President Hamid Karzai is not among them -- at least not publicly. Under pressure from the West to pardon Nasab and pressure from conservative clerics to keep Nasab in stir Karzai has chosen to remain silent. His spokesman said the president will not interfere with the court system. However remaining silent in the face of injustice is not the same as remaining neutral.

Calls for Nasab's release have come mostly from the international community and Afghan journalists. The Kabul Weekly ran a front page ad that said: "President Karzai, show us that you are in power and not the Taliban, again.... Free Mohaqeq Nasab!" Afghanistan's minister of culture and information has also objected to the prison sentence.

But no Afghan journalists have come out in support of Nasab's agenda. None support Nasab's contention that Afghans have a right to criticize Islamic law. While the Afghan Media Commission recently concluded that Nasab did not insult Islam, that he was not an apostate, and has called for Nasab's release, commission members also concluded that Nasab should be removed as editor to "placate any religious concerns."

Nasab knew what he was getting into. A similar fate befell Sayeed Mirhassan Mahdawi and Ali Reza Payam, editors of the Afghan weekly Aftab. In June 2003, the pair were arrested and accused of blasphemy for publishing an article titled "Holy Fascism" in which Mahdawi called for a moderate and modern interpretation of Islam. Another story called Islam "contrary to democracy and to citizens' social and political rights." Eventually both journalists received death sentences. For two-and-a-half years Mahdawi and Payam have been in hiding. Another Afghan newspaper has published fatwas sentencing the journalists to death.

Don't expect any help from the Afghan jurisprudence. Fazul Shinwari, chief justice of Afghanistan's Supreme Court, has threatened to kill those who criticize his version of sharia law and refuse to "obey the laws of Islam."

WITHOUT NASAB to spotlight their plight, Afghan women will continue to be treated as property or worse. Afghan women are still imprisoned for running away from home; most are forced to wear the burqa, and a third of women in Kabul are afraid to leave the house. It is still nearly impossible for women to get a divorce.

In Afghanistan only 35 percent of girls attend school, while only 2-3 percent of women have returned to the workforce. Most Afghan families simply don't want women mixing with the opposite sex. Sixty percent of Afghan girls are forced into marriage before they are 16, and few husbands allow their wives to attend school. In the villages a woman will be stoned to death if it is thought she is friendly with a man.

Of course it is not all the new government's fault. Many of the rights abuses are continued out of fear or because of centuries of tradition.

THE NEW AFGHAN CONSTITUTION drew praise from the Bush Administration with its supposed freedoms of speech, religion, movement, and equal rights for women and minorities, and in particular its requirement that 25 percent of the legislative seats in the Loya Jirga be set aside for women. What the Administration chose to ignore is the fact that Islamic law trumps all of the so-called freedom guarantees in the constitution. The constitution states that "no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam" (Article 3). As Freedom House's Paul Marshall pointed out in a National Review piece, "If the state declares that its laws and decisions are identical with Islam, then any opposition can be punished as violating Islam." That pretty much shuts down criticism of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Lack of freedom is just one of the areas where little has changed. The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom calls the present Karzai government and the new constitution "Taliban-lite." And for good reason. War lords and drug lords have strengthened their grip over large areas of the country, while opium production and exportation has boomed. There are frequent allegations that the government is involved in the drug trade, something the Afghan president does not deny. Many conservative clerics, jihadists, and war lords, even former Taliban, have gained a semblance of legitimacy as new members of parliament.

Indeed the Supreme Court's Chief Justice Shinwari sometimes sounds more Taliban-esque than the Taliban themselves. According to the organization Equality Now, Chief Justice Shinwari has made several attempts to ban women from singing and dancing in public. A year ago the Supreme Court issued a ban on cable television channels, particularly condemning Indian musicals. Afghanistan's top judge has stated that women should cover their bodies entirely, exposing only their faces and hands, and that adulterers should be stoned to death.

Meanwhile hatred of the West continues apace. Hazrat Wahriz, founder of the Union of Freedom of Expression in Afghanistan told the Chicago Tribune that, "in every mosque, [clerics] are agitating against anything having to do with democracy and anything to do with freedom of expression."

One wonders what society President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were referring to when they said "Afghanistan is now inspiring the world with its march toward democracy," and (referring to the defeat of the Taliban) that "the Afghan people have now been freed from that horror."

The fact is that the keystones of a free society -- freedom of speech, religion, the press, and equal rights for women -- all remain pretty much the same as under the Taliban. So what has changed for the average Afghani? You may want to ask Ali Mohaquq Nasab, while you still can.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.