Politics & Policies: Kabul convert debate

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor

WASHINGTON, March 24 (UPI) -- Two months after the debacle over the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed pitted the Muslim world against the West, a new controversy has erupted threatening to further widen the chasm between the two cultures.

The latest spat is over the news that a court in the Afghan capital, Kabul, is threatening to impose the death penalty on an Afghani man who converted to Christianity from Islam.


The news has raised great concern around the world, with political leaders and the media reacting to try and save the man's life. In Washington, President George W. Bush said "It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another."

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel said she has received assurances from President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan that the accused would not be condemned to death. Her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stressed that Afghanistan had signed international agreements ensuring freedom of worship.

The case of Abdur Rahman, the man at the center of the controversy, depicts the difference between an accommodating Western culture, and a brand of Islam closed onto itself.


Muslims who have opted to live in the West were for the most part well-received -- though not always welcomed -- into Western society. Regrettably, the same cannot always be said of the reverse. Many observers note that while multiple mosques were erected across Western Europe and the United States, Saudi Arabia has still to allow a single church to be built in the kingdom.

One of the major differences between the two cultures is that the freedom to choose one's religion in the West is considered to be part of man's basic human rights. Freedom of religion is part of the American constitution.

The case of Abdur Rahman is particularly upsetting for Americans, who are finding it hard to comprehend how a country in which they fought to install democracy is falling back to the ways of the Taliban. Other Western countries that have troops serving in Afghanistan as part of NATO are equally enraged by the incident, with some voices calling for the withdrawal of NATO forces from the country, leaving it vulnerable to a possible resurgence of the Taliban.

This incident should serve as a reminder to the Bush administration that one cannot export democracy as one would export computers or blue jeans. The president and his administration like to look at Afghanistan as a success story, at least when compared with the mess in Iraq. The invasion of Afghanistan was relatively easy; the Taliban were ousted and replaced with a democratically elected government. However, what Bush and his team seem not to understand, is that with adequate military force, one can change regimes. Traditions, on the other hand, are harder to change.


While some newspapers in the West called for abandoning Afghanistan and are clamoring for the removal of Western forces from the country, Milan's Corriere della Sera offered a more rational -- if somewhat unrealistic -- approach. The Italian daily suggested that Western nations help Afghanistan launch a movement to reform Islam.

Indeed, the solution lies in reform, yet this reform must emanate from within Islam. In no case can it be imported or imposed from the outside. Any such attempt will guarantee failure.

Many Muslim scholars agree that reform in Islam is needed and that it can be achieved through reintroducing ijtihad, or re-opening the gates of ijtihad.

Ijtihad -- or hermeneutics -- refers to the institutionalized practice of interpreting Islamic law (sharia) to take into account changing historical circumstances and, therefore, different points of view.

Ijtihad is the independent or original interpretation of problems not covered by the Koran (Islam's holy book), the Hadith (traditions concerning the Prophet's life and utterances), and ijma' (scholarly consensus). In the early days of the Muslim community, every adequately qualified jurist had the right to exercise such original thinking.

Muslims have adapted to modern trends, such as, for example, permitting its faithful to burrow loans for mortgages; so too can it introduce other changes to better cope with the realities of the 21st century.


"The practice of ijtihad," states a comprehensive August 2004 special report produced by the United States Institute of Peace, "must be revived."

The report, compiled with the participation of several respected Muslim scholars, attests that ijtihad will allow Muslims "to reinterpret Islam for the 21st century."

Re-introducing ijtihad enjoys the support of a growing number of scholars, intellectuals and Islamic institutions, both in the West and in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia's Minister of the Wakf, or Religious Affairs, Sheikh Saleh Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, and Ali Bardakoglu, president of the Diyanet, or the highest religious authority in Turkey, support introducing reforms.

But the barriers toward reform are numerous. The Muslim world remains divided over who should have the authority to implement ijtihad and how much should be allowed to change. Until reforms are introduced, chances of more clashes between Islam and the West remain unavoidable.


(Comments may be sent to

Latest Headlines


Follow Us