Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The case of Abdul Rahman, who faces execution in Afghanistan for having become a Christian 15 years ago, is about as clear-cut as it could be. A democracy founded on the principles of freedom and tolerance does not kill religious dissenters. This was why Afghanistan under the Taliban was considered one of the most oppressive countries in the world. What have American soldiers achieved if they have not eliminated this barbaric medieval legacy?

The case would be clear-cut even if constitutional questions were not in play. In theory the Afghan constitution protects religious freedom, but the document sets out that Shariah is the law of the land. Drafters intentionally drew this discrepancy because they wanted unity, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai has spent a great deal of his time in office avoiding a constitutional crisis. But it was only a matter of time before these ambiguities came to a head or, in this case, were forced to a head by radical judges. The goal now is to minimize the damage these divisions have created, while trying to save Mr. Rahman’s life.

This is why the Bush administration has been careful not to strike a harsh tone in demanding Mr. Rahman’s release. Doing so could shake a carefully constructed nation and give propaganda opportunities to the ousted Taliban leftovers. Standing next to the Afghan foreign minister on Tuesday, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns asked for the trial to be conducted with “transparency” and reminded this critical U.S. ally that “people should be free to choose their religion.”

This kind of talk is for the cameras. Behind the scenes, we expect the administration to use all the leverage it can, which is considerable, to set Mr. Rahman free — and not only for Mr. Rahman’s sake. American soldiers and their families, not to mention taxpayers, have sacrificed much to free Afghanistan. The execution of Christians simply because they are Christians is not what they had in mind.

An Afghan prosecutor now says there are questions concerning Mr. Rahman’s mental health. “If he is mentally unfit,” says the prosecutor, “Islam has no claim to punish him. He must be forgiven.” This is no doubt a manufactured loophole to enable the government to back down to avoid a disastrous internal and diplomatic crisis. This solution, such as it is, won’t resolve the underlying discrepancy in Afghanistan’s constitution. Americans, who define faith very differently from those who must employ executioners to keep believers artificially devout, are naturally contemptuous of such a culture of fear and death. But if this manipulation of the law can save the life of a man who is only following his conscience, we must be grateful for that much.

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