- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

The Afghanistan minister of justice yesterday told a U.S. panel on religious liberty that the Islam incorporated into a new Afghan constitution will allow for international standards of human rights and freedom of conscience.
"It is very difficult in our society to say we are not going to reflect religion in our constitution," Abdul Rahim Karimi said during an all-day forum with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
While some Islamic principles "are rigid," other rules of religion "are changable," and so the drafters of new laws for Afghanistan hope to mirror "all the standards and norms of the international community," he said through an interpreter.
The all-day forum, held by the congressionally established commission a year after U.S. forces expelled the Taliban Muslims from power in Afghanistan, revealed the complexity of efforts to rebuild the war-torn state and allow Western-style rights in an Islamic culture.
"There are questions about whether the United States will forget Afghanistan if we move forward on Iraq," said Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's envoy to Afghanistan. "I can unequivocally tell you that will not be the case."
The sessions, held at George Washington University, included 12 members of the Afghan government and other experts and lawmakers concerned about remnants of Taliban-style coercion, U.S. funding for the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act, and progress in religious liberty and women's rights.
The 10-member commission has recommended that the United States provide peacekeeping forces outside the capital, Kabul, to protect human rights everywhere and asked that the U.S. Embassy there have a specialist in religious liberty to monitor progress.
Some of the commissioners, who are appointed on a bipartisan basis, have worried that Afghanistan's return to abusive Islamic law, which metes out severe punishments for defying religious rules, could prompt U.S. lawmakers to cut off funding.
"It is very difficult in a representative democracy like the United States to keep up long-term support if basic freedoms of conscience are not protected, including the right to change their religion," said the Rev. Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader on the commission.
While Mr. Karimi said "the time of the Taliban is gone," Mavis Leno of the Feminist Majority's Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls said their approach to women still holds sway in many places.
"The Taliban are not gone, and … they will try to reassert themselves into power, and some of them have already succeeded," she said. The Taliban had banned women from education, made them wear full coverings, and punished them for being in public alone.
Miss Leno, who noted that the 1964 Afghanistan constitution included equality for women even before women in Switzerland could vote, said new legal and political rules must allow women to go to court and to run for public office.
"It is their job from there," she said. "When a society is stable, it is much easier for women to apply their rights."
Under Afghanistan's 1964 constitution, once called the envy of Muslim nations, minorities such as Sikhs, Hindus and Shi'ite Muslims were left in peace, though local customs tended to dominate more than the national rules.
While the new Afghan constitution will enforce Islamic law, or Sharia, some Afghan leaders and human rights observers hope it takes a modern approach.

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