Tuesday, March 21, 2006



No freedom of religion in Afghanistan

Four years ago, the US invaded Afghanistan and toppled its theocratic Taleban government. While primarily done as a means to an end (the end being getting Osama bin Laden - something they have spectacularly failed to do), the invasion was sold to the world partly on the promise that the new Afghanistan would be better than the old - free, democratic, and not run by theocrats.

Unfortunately, there's a contradiction between the last two - which is why there's currently a man on trial in Kabul for the "crime" of converting to Christianity. If convicted, he faces execution.

This is simply wrong. It's not wrong because he's a Christian and his oppressors are Muslims, or because he is facing execution (though that adds another layer of wrongness to it), but because religious belief is a fundamental expression of individual autonomy, a core part of who we are, and therefore something which no-one has any right to interfere in.

There's a strong argument that freedom comes from freedom of religion. Unless you're willing to accept that what people believe is their own business (or alternatively, between themselves and whatever gods you happen to believe in), then nothing else really follows. Freedom of thought and conscience is just freedom of religion writ large. Freedom of speech depends on an acceptance that being wrong is at worst stupid rather than sinful, and that therefore it is not a crime to disseminate "untruths". And once you accept that people have the right to think what they want and say what they want, it becomes progressively more difficult to deny them the right to do what they want as well. Unfortunately, by denying the freedom of religion, Afghanistan won't be able to tread this path. They may be able to find another way to freedom, but I'm not sure its one we can help them with.

16 comments:

Make that the major distinction between a religion and a cult: in a cult, apostate members will be hounded and killed for leaving the faith. If those rules merit the name religion then we should review the freedom of religion as it clashes with more fundamental rights

Posted by Uroskin : 3/21/2006 05:29:00 PM

I'm reading Fisk's book "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest for the Middle East" at the moment. From what I've read, I really think that the West is unable to impose Western-style democracy in the Middle East.For a start, most of the populace there don't seem to desire a Western-style government, especially with the historical connotation of puppet leaders.

I think that we should leave well enough alone as to how they chose to govern, and if they want a theocracy, then so be it. I believe that we should state that we disagree with apostacy being a criminal offence (and I agree that freedom of religion is a God given right), but Western agitation is probably just going to make them dig their heels in deeper in reality, in order to demonstate their "Islam-ness".

I also think that you fail to understand that individual autonomy isn't high on the priority list for Afgani or Islamic culture. It's more about duty to God, family and tribe, maybe nation. In Muslim eyes, they have a duty to interfere in apostacy. It's not about the Western enlightenment idea of individual freedom, it's about the offence of leaving Islam. For example, if a Hindu became Jewish I doubt they would care a jot.

I just don't think you personally accept that the enlightenment was not a global phenomena, but a European one. You can't force people to believe in the right of individual autonomy, that's cultural ethnocentrism.

Posted by muerk : 3/21/2006 05:53:00 PM

Muerk: freedom has to grow from the ground up. And if people are unwilling to accept its most basic premises - if for example because they think that what goes on inside other people's heads is their business - then there's really not much we can do about it beyond agitate from the sidelines.

I'm quite aware that Islam didn't share in the Enlightenment, and I'm quite aware that no amount of guns and bombs can force them to. They have to want it, or it doesn't work. At the same time, I spit on your allegation of "cultural ethnocentrism". This is just making excuses for a gross abuse of human rights. While its explicable in terms of Islamic culture (in the same way that the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition are explicable in terms of the Christianity of that era), that doesn't make it excusable.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/21/2006 07:34:00 PM

Yes. I think it is wrong, but I also think that it is the right of the Afghani people to govern themselves as they see fit.

To deny them that right is merely to institute another Taliban, only one that is far more insidious, in that it pretends to respect freedom.

The most basic freedom is not that of free thought, or of free belief, or of free speech. It is the right of peoples to self-determination. One may argue that self-determination is not possible without a set of other freedoms, but in that case they are important only in and of their relation to self-determination.

Of course, people who are self-determining may then chose to institute those rights, and others, as Basic Law, etc.

However, they attain their legitimacy as an expression of the will of a self-determining people. They do not attain their legitimacy from the beliefs of one NZ blogger.

But the important thing to do is to make a distinction between the right to self-determination, which is the only solid foundation of on which to build a just society, and other things, which, while we may feel are highly important, and so-on, are not as fundamental as the right to self-determination.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/21/2006 09:26:00 PM

Self determination in this context is a un justified premise.

self determination either matters at the individual level (in which case it means rights such as freedom of speech) or it matters at an international level (in which case determinations by the global community, for example that humans have rights, can and should be enforced).
At the moral level you can't just draw an arbitrary set (for example a nation) and declare that to be the home of legitimate self determination. Even if it is the "status quo".

Posted by Genius : 3/21/2006 10:05:00 PM

"This is just making excuses for a gross abuse of human rights."

No, I disagree. I think you are ethnocentric. That isn't excusing the horror or evil of killing a man because he apostacised, it's just describing the way you deal with other cultural practices and beliefs.

It's a comment on you Idiot, not them...

Oh and if you weren't so patronising (and ethnocentric) about religion you might be aware that the Spanish Inquisition had much more to do with internal Spanish politics than Christianity.

Posted by muerk : 3/22/2006 12:41:00 AM

Anon: I think you're looking at freedom at the wrong level of analysis. What matters is the freedom of individuals, not societies. It's individuals who have real preferences, goals, and aspirations, and who suffer when these are denied. While societies can be said to have them, they're just an abstract composed of those of their members.

While societies are free to govern themselves, the very idea of government is subject to limits. There are things no government can morally do. Killing or torturing people, for example. Or denying the freedom of conscience or religion.

At the same time, I agree with a lot of what you're saying. You can't force a society to be free, any more than you can an individual. The Rousseauean idea that you can is a poison in Enlightenment thinking, and the first step on the road to tyranny. Morally, it is a gross violation of freedom of conscience. And in practical terms, it just doesn't work. You can't engender respect for human rights at gunpoint (well, you can, but not in the way people think); it has to come from within.

As for what this means in practical terms, it means a policy of encouragement rather than force. Timothy Garton Ash laid out the key idea in an article Beyond the West:

both in principle and in practice, it's better that people find their own path to freedom, in their own countries, in their own time and, wherever possible, peacefully. But should we help these people as they fight freedom's battle? Most emphatically we should, by every non-violent means at our disposal.

We cannot and should not force people to be free. But we can and should try to encourage them to choose freedom for themselves.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/22/2006 01:08:00 AM

Muerk: Hardly. I understand their viewpoint and where it is coming from; I just think it is morally wrong. Call it "cultural ethnocentrism" if you will, but I make no apologies for having strong moral beliefs on these issues.

As for the Spanish Inquisition, sure, politics played a role (politics and religion being inseperable in that era), but the fundamental aim of the Inquisition was religious: the preservation of the (Christian) faith, seen as a moral requirement by the Christians of that era just as the prevention of apostasy is seen as a moral requirement of Islam. Likewise, the justification for their methods was religious: that it was better for people to suffer now and repent than suffer eternally in the hereafter. These are important explanations in understanding the Inquisition's actions - but I also understand why modern Christians, who generally rejecte that sort of reasoning, would want to deny it.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/22/2006 01:54:00 AM

I/S - whilst sympathising with the point that people must find their own route to self determination, how does that benefit them when a greater force is using violence to suppress their path. arbitrary lines drawn on a map mean nothing. why is saddams use of violence to suppress kurds and marsh arabs or Kim Jong Il to suppress dissent more moral than the use of force to remove these tyrants?

Individuals must want it. Iraqis are actually demonstrating that in fighting against the American occupation. That is not the issue.

To allow Islam to dictate how people think or feel about islam is not to impose your own cultural values, it is simply supporting the cultural conclusion of an individual apostate.

Posted by sagenz : 3/22/2006 01:56:00 AM

Sage: I think I've also been quite clear in the past that force may sometimes be justified for humanitarian reasons, but the bar for this is very high indeed - you need "ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life", as well as a host of other conditions. The reason we set the bar so high is because wars are risky, dangerous, and unpredictable, end up killing far more innocent people than we expect, and having nasty consequences which come back to bite us (and the people we are trying to help) in ten or twenty year's time (or three months, in the case of Iraq). They only rarely stand a high chance of actually making things better, and are generally not concordent with the ends we are trying to be achieved. This rules out that sort of action in all but the most extreme cases.

I don't think such action was justified in Iraq in early 2003. I think it may be justified in Darfur, but am dubious about the practicalities. In weaker cases, the best we can do is impose sanctions, educate, propagandise, and wait for the tyrant to either die of old age or be dumb enough to step outside their country and visit somewhere where they can be arrested and put on trial.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/22/2006 02:24:00 AM

idiot, I'm not sure why you characterise this as a "contradiction". The fact that conservative religious elements still have influence in Afghanistan does not contradict the intended goal of a better society, it's just evidence that there is still someway to go. And on the whole there is progress.

There's a lot here that I agree with you with about so i won't get into debating Iraq but there is here an important lesson about democracy promotion and the role that force can play.

For me, the use of (external, to a degree) force to overthrow the Taliban was completely justifed - one of the "extreme cases". But now that that dictatorship is gone there really is very little that military intervention can do to solve issues such as the one highlighted in this post. The change from a conservative, tribal society to a liberal democarcy cannot be imposed by force. It's a process of incremental change.

However, there is stil a role in preventing the Taliban from returning. They have set up shop in the tribal regions of northern Pakistan and if left to there own devices would be spreading there evil further afield.

Posted by neil morrison : 3/22/2006 09:05:00 AM

"We cannot and should not force people to be free. But we can and should try to encourage them to choose freedom for themselves."

I agree with this wholeheartedly. However I think it's important that your average Afgani is going to look at our society and judge it very harshly. The legality of homosexuality, the lack of modesty of our women, the lack of respect that children have for their parents, the premarital sex, women working outside the home, adult daughters living alone - total cultural opposites.

In a Islamist mind, if that's freedom, you can keep it. The freedom of the individual has brought evil in the viewpoint of most Muslims.

Islam does not want cultural modernity. That's the point.

Posted by muerk : 3/22/2006 11:51:00 AM

"Why is saddams use of violence to suppress kurds and marsh arabs or Kim Jong Il to suppress dissent more moral than the use of force to remove these tyrants?" It's not. Both are immoral, and condemning use of force to remove them is not giving approval to the tyrants.

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 3/22/2006 02:02:00 PM

I/S: There are things which no government should do, and things that no legitimate government can do.

While societies are free to govern themselves, the very idea of government is subject to limits. There are things no government can morally do. Killing or torturing people, for example. Or denying the freedom of conscience or religion.

Or taxing people in order to pay for health care?

Or passing Socialist laws?

Who decides what is moral?

However, self-determination is a right which all peoples have, and any government that denies is no longer legitimate.

self determination either matters at the individual level (in which case it means rights such as freedom of speech) or it matters at an international level (in which case determinations by the global community, for example that humans have rights, can and should be enforced).
At the moral level you can't just draw an arbitrary set (for example a nation) and declare that to be the home of legitimate self determination. Even if it is the "status quo".


Which is why I used the word `people', not nations. Peoples, which are generally not considered to be arbitrary sets.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/22/2006 06:53:00 PM

I guess the question is who are "the people" and why can't this fellow "opt out"?

Posted by Genius : 3/22/2006 08:49:00 PM

As predicted, Western agitation is making Afgani Muslims dig their heels in.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4841334.stm

Posted by muerk : 3/25/2006 10:46:00 AM