By MARSHA MERCER
Media General News Service
March 25, 2006
The president went on the campaign trail last week, trying to convince people that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are worth the cost in American lives and dollars. The United States is fostering the "universal thought" of liberty, Bush insisted, and people everywhere are desperate for freedom.
But the headlines indicated that freedom is a surprisingly hard sell.
Four years into the war, Bush said that some future president will decide when to bring all the troops home from Iraq. American troops will be there at least until 2009.
The news from Kabul showed how little has changed in Afghanistan in the post-Taliban era. Afghanistan has a constitution, but Islamic law, known as Sharia, governs. And it prohibits converting from Islam on pain of death.
People may debate about whether the "good news" from Iraq is getting out, but everybody gets the Christian convert story.
Rahman, 41, converted to Christianity some 16 years ago while working in Germany and Pakistan. He returned to Afghanistan, where he got embroiled in a child custody battle with his ex-wife. His family, shamed by his conversion, turned him in. He openly declares he's a Christian. Now, he faces a trial and execution.
The prosecutor in the case called the convert "a microbe (who) should be cut off and removed from the rest of Muslim society and should be killed," according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal panel that monitors religious issues worldwide.
The commission, in a letter to President Bush, also noted that the judge overseeing the trial said that if Rahman refuses to revert to Islam, "the punishment will be enforced on him, and the punishment is death."
With the Western world in an uproar, a way out seems to have been found. Rahman may be deemed insane - so under Islamic law he would not be put to death. That raises questions about what "treatment" he would receive for his mental condition, and it does not solve the underlying problem about the appalling lack of religious freedom.
The contrast between what we Americans think the Afghanis should want and what they seem to want is sharp. For once, the editorial writers at the Washington Times and The New York Times agree. This is not what we were fighting for.
"What have American soldiers achieved," wrote the Washington Times, "if they have not eliminated this barbaric medieval legacy?"
And, "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."
The New York Times wrote, "What's the point of the United States' propping up the government of Afghanistan if it's not even going to pretend to respect basic human rights?"
President Bush declared the situation troubling but the official U.S. response is that it's a matter for Afghanistan's courts.
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council wrote the president, with copies to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others, saying, "This trial belies any idea that Afghanistan, under its constitution, is committed to fundamental human rights."
The international religious freedom commission said the United States has a "special responsibility" to protect religious rights because our foreign policy involves us directly in nation building.
Bush, in the 2000 campaign, disparaged nation building. He says 9/11 changed things.
As the values clash unfolded, Bush said, "There is an Almighty God. One of the greatest gifts of that Almighty God is the desire for people to be free."
He's "deeply troubled when I hear the fact that a person who has converted away from Islam may be held to account. That's not the universal application of the values that I talked about."
The saga of Abdul Rahman may be more than a blip. It's possible Afghanistan, or Iraq, never will embrace the "universal thought" of freedom the way President Bush thinks they will. What happens then? That, too, likely will be left to a future president.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.