I have an uneasy relationship with religion. I want to believe in something, but I have a hard time knowing what. I also have a hard time reconciling faith with what I see in my everyday life: so much pain and suffering visited on the innocent. As the child of a lapsed Roman Catholic and a born-again Christian, moreover, my first-hand experiences with religion were, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory and perhaps a little bizarre.
Nevertheless, conflicted as I am about what -- and whether -- to believe, it seems crystal clear to me that in any decently enlightened society, each individual has the absolute right to believe, or not believe, whatever they want, without government repercussion or criminal penalty. (Let's leave out religions that require practices like human sacrifice or cannibalism; there aren't many, and I hope we can all agree that society has a right to restrict practices as extreme and harmful as cannibalism and human sacrifice.) Seeing a man tried for the crime of "apostasy", the abandonment of one's original faith, is therefore deeply repellent to me.
The U.S. government is working closely with the Afghani government (read: applying major pressure, since we basically prop up the tottering new government that we installed) to try to get Rahman released. International pressure is also being applied, pleas by the Pope (yeah, that'll carry a lot of weight in a Muslim country) and that sort of thing. Italy's offer of asylum is one possible way out; there's been talk about declaring Rahman mentally incompetent, absolving him on a sort of insanity defense, as another alternative to a trial and possible execution.
But there is much resistance to these alternatives. Certain religious and political blocs in the U.S. strongly oppose any "solution" to this dilemma that involves a person being declared insane for choosing to believe in Christianity. Some members of the Afghan parliament, as well as some religious leaders, have declared that offers of asylum amount to interference with the practice of their religion and should be rejected, or are affronts to the sovereignty of the Afghan government.
The individual plight of Rahman is profoundly disturbing; yet I find the bigger picture to be even more frightening and discouraging. It's been over four years since 9/11 and our troops have been fighting in Aghanistan for that long. American casualties in the Middle East (including Iraq) are over the 2000 mark and the cost to our government of the military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and associated places is what, a gazillion bazillion dollars and mounting? We hear our president say things like "The Afghan people are building a vibrant young democracy that is an ally in the war on terror" (speech dated March 13, 2006) and I shake my head in wonder and confusion.
After all this time, after all these lives, a man is still on trial for his life for believing in a religion other than Islam?
I think about the countless intractable problems that military interference in countries like Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Cuba, and Iran, and [fill in others of your choice here] has created.
I think about the belief underpinning the Bush administration's foreign policy, that if we can only bring freedom and democracy to other folks, everything will be peachy, and I just don't see how Bush and company can adopt such a rosy view. As Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek has written:
'Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists,' said the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke about Yugoslavia in the 1990s. "That is the dilemma." Indeed it is, and not merely in Yugoslavia's past but in the world's present. Consider, for example, the challenge we face across the Islamic world. We recognize the need for democracy in those often-repressive countries. But what if democracy produces an Islamic theocracy or something like it? It is not an idle concern. Across the globe, democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been re-elected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights.
Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom (2003) p. 17.
Here we are, meddling in Afghanistan and Iraq, attempting to create so-called democracies in countries that adhere to strict codes of religious law that are anathema to us. Here we are, touting the freedom we are bringing to these countries, when women still must wear veils in public and are murdered in so-called "honor killings" after they have been raped. Here we are, patting ourselves on the back for bringing liberty to the poor huddled Middle Eastern masses, when you can get your head chopped off for changing your mind about what you believe in.
What's wrong with this picture?
And why isn't George W. Bush worried about it?