Wednesday, March 29, 2006

This depresses me.

I've been thinking a lot about the case of Abdul Rahman, being tried in an Afghan court for the alleged crime of converting from Islam to Christianity. The penalty for this crime, under Islamic religious law (called sharia) is death. Today it was announced that Rahman has been granted asylum in Italy, but the Afghan parliament voted against allowing him to leave the country. [Update: since my original post, Rahman has arrived in Italy.] Rahman's case, in addition to presenting a grave issue of religious freedom, spotlights some of the difficulties presented by current U.S. policy in countries like Aghanistan and Iraq.

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?


Anonymous said...

Whew. I'm with you on the believe (or not) and let believe (or not) thing. It just boggles the mind what people can justify in the name of religion. As for W., if I could even begin to wrap my mind around what he might be thinking, I'd have to have myself committed.

Thanks once again for an eye-opener.

Sonya said...

I share your feelings. I'm currently reading Reza Aslan's No god but God after seeing him on Bill Maher's show last week. Aslan suggests that what is happening in Islam now is akin to the Reformation in that it was a battle between forces of reform and fundamentalism. He also points out that the Reformation was a century long, bloody struggle. Aslan was disappointed in the possibility of the courts declaring Rahman incompetent because he feels that these types of struggles are needed in Islam to help determine which Islam will prevail.

The president should be worried about it, but I'm not sure he can hold all those complexities in his mind at once.

Jen said...

I agree about religious freedoms - that should be absolute. The scary thing for me as a christian is the idea that someone could be put to death for believing what I believe. Anywhere. I don't care if it's thousands of miles away in a culture I don't understand.

I am glad you're so willing to pour your heart out, and I'm not arguing with you by saying anything...but...about Bush (because of the counter I am guessing you have been unhappy with him for a while and are finding a new reason to dislike him) - I think with a situation like Afghanistan or Iraq, we have to do what we can, but what we imagine as the solution (everybody converts to democracy in four years) is usually not a realistic expectation. No matter who invaded those countries to make this change, we'd be seeing the same slowness in results - because cultural changes do not happen in four years. Does it mean it isn't a worthy goal because it won't be wrapped up anytime soon?

Well, I think it's important that women be able to vote. I think it's important that tyrannical thugs not be allowed to take money earmarked for food and spend it on gold-plated toilets. I think there is a general code of decency in the world that ought to be followed - don't destroy precious works of art, don't fly airliners full of travelers into buildings, don't use nerve gas on people, don't whack off people's hands for stealing bread. I also think it's important that accountability be an incentive for people to follow that code.

I think Bush is messing up and ignoring and doing a bad job of things at least as much as his father did and Clinton did. (It's such an easy thing to pretend he's too stupid to understand complexity - this is done by people who equate verbal ability with intelligence, which is wrong). I think his manner scrapes a lot of people. But I also think that what we did in those countries was an important and noble thing.

So I'm willing to stick with it a little longer. Sorry for going on so long.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that American politicians don't seem to understand or communicate to the public the difference between our collective political/economic/social system and the actual meanings of each of those things individually. Democracy does not equal free market does not equal freedom of speech. Just because our Constitution ties these things together doesn't make them universally so.

Remember the 80s, when communism was a threat to democracy? Never mind the fact that communism is an economic system and democracy is a political one. We tend to confuse particular implementations of ideas (communism, democracy) with the ideas themselves. Will we ever elect people smart enough to realize this, or is the populace too content with/set on having an "regular guy" president?

Also, would politicians think better if they knit? :)

Carol said...

I think what I find so troubling is that these are such complex issues but aren't respected as such by the Bush administration. The whole notion of how do you co-exist with a culture or religion that has as its stated goal the elimination of all other cultures or religions, say? Or how can you introduce a democracy where there isn't the economic groundwork or the social institutions to support it? I'm bothered that we are invading countries based on dubious intelligence but also based on not-very-well-thought-out philosophies. It's all so half-ass but the stakes are incredibly high. And now, three or four years later, what have we accomplished? I'm not sure. Yes, it's a good thing Saddam Hussein is out of power, but did it have to be done at this time, in this way? If we had more of a multnational effort, would we have been able to stabilize the country faster? If we had more troops, whether US or from other countries, would we have been further along on the road to stability by now, maybe not have given the insurgency as much of a chance to get rooted in?

I don't get any sense that the people in & around the White House have a handle on the complexities of this stuff. It seems like it's all a big game of Risk to them.

Jen said...

Yeah, that makes sense. If there is one overarching failure in this administration, it's public relations. They should have anticipated thoughtful questions like yours and treated them seriously.

Sigh. Our world is so admirable...

MsAmpuTeeHee said...

It depresses me, too.
But even more so, it makes me extremely grateful. ~bonnie

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to keep in mind that the Bush Administration itself and its fanatical suporters on the Religious Right don't understand (or respect) the importance of the separation of church and state here in the USA, let alone how to export to non-Western societies that crucial underpinning of all real democratic governments. This recent letter to Eric Alterman's Altercation blog expresses this concept better than I can-

"[N]o matter how religious conservatives feel, and more importantly, no matter how great a majority they might become, they are not entitled to impose their religion's morality on the rest of us. The founders explicitly intended a secular government in which the 'secular morality', if you will, of Reason is to prevail. In other words, the government must in each instance make a reasoned case that its actions will do more good for the citizenry than harm. Personal feeling or religious faith are supposed to be irrelevant to consideration of policy, and calls for either of them to supersede rational consideration in politics are tantamount to treason (at the risk of using a word so cheapened by the likes of Coulter Even with rational majority rule, there are certain rights that NO MAJORITY, however large or insistent or belligerent or bullying or obnoxious or ignorant or militant or self-righteous or well-funded (or even well-intended), can take away. The religious conservatives simply cannot answer the charge that they are seeking to illegally impose their morality on all of us, so they do not. ... They refuse to acknowledge the bedrock of what the founders and framers sought - a secular, humanist government that would leave behind the tedious slaughter and oppression which is the legacy of government by Faith. The current Afghan case of the man who converted from Islam to Christianity perfectly illustrates all of this. By no means can Afghanistan, or any other nation, hold itself to be 'democratic' when it claims a role in what is a matter of private conscience, as Madison put it. No matter how great the Muslim majority, the State cannot by definition both impose Muslim morality and be legitimate republican government. America seems at times frighteningly confused about all of this, when it is in fact both simple and readily shown in the historical record. Witness the distress of our citizenry at the thought that Iraq, after all our sacrifice of blood and treasure, might turn into a nation governed by the Sharia and by Shia clergy. This, BY DEFINITION would not be a democracy or republican government, no matter how many purple fingers there are. Does anyone know what it would take to get people to understand this? I do not know about 'No Child Left Behind', but the simple and direct ideas underlying this nation's founding have apparently been left behind by our education system."

Anonymous said...

If Bush and co. so believe in democracy why are they unwilling to accept election results that don't go their way? e.g. Palestine, South America. Even as Bush invaded Iraq touting democracy the people of Nicaragua were being told who they must vote for "or else". How many democratically elected governments have been overthrown by the US (openly or covertly)? Funny thing that the US is all but a theocracy, with rules being written along biblical lines. The religious types in the US are using democracy to their advantage, why should other countries be any different? The US christians don't need to force their views by violence (bar certain anti-choice and anti-gay folk), they do it at the ballot box.

Sherry W said...

The problem is, where do we stop? I'm all for basic human rights, but we also have to resist trying to make other cultures give up all their cultural and religious values and identity to 'be like us'. Could we even tolerate a reformed Islam? I doubt we'd really be happy unless they all started watching Iraqi Idol and the women wore designer muffin pants.

Tamra said...

Wonderful food for thought from both the original blog and many comments, such as Tom's. As a member of an alternative faith, I do understand the automatic, unconscious prejudice that is involved when someone is not part of the "majority" religion, whether it is Muslim, Christian or other. And I agree; it depresses me on occasion as well. I pray that all people and nations will find a way to accept all who work for good in the world, no matter whether they are of a major religion, alternative religion, or no religion at all.

Robyn said...

IN response to Sally's comment "If Bush and co. so believe in democracy why are they unwilling to accept election results that don't go their way?"
That would be because elections that go his way are Democracies; elections that go the wrong way are Ochlocracies. "Majority/Mob rule". Just learned that word. I love it.

Unknown said...

Excellent post, albeit painful to read about. The arrogance and self-centered viewpoint of the White House administration that all countries should be like us is repellent to me. Maybe acting as an example for other countries rather than coersion and extortion might be a better route.

When folks like Jen start comments with " a christian is the idea that someone could be put to death for believing what I believe.", she perpetuates the arrogance of "ours is the only way", and that converting the pagans in all countries to proper christians is a worthy goal.

No wonder the world hates us so.

Anonymous said...

The whole situation makes me sad, and overwhelms me with a feeling of helplessness.
And the reality is that, to paraphrase, the fanatics will always be with us. Once you beleive that the only right is what you beleive to be right, and evertyhing else is wrong, you become a dangerous person.
And for me, the reality is that someone from the garrison in my town will buried shortly because of fanatics on both sides.
Barb B.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, the very fact that Fareed Zakaria exists makes my worldview a little better. That man - whoo, if intelligence is sexy, he's on fire. Heaven knows how many languages he speaks. The editor of Newsweek International, and he looks 25!

Sandy said...

pssst. over here... Liza sent me, and now I see why- you are our missing triplet! Love your yarns, and I my most perfect pet ever was a (get this) black bunny named Br'er. Keep up your smart-mouthed posts and I will be a loyal fan! Sandy