An open letter to the political leaders of the newly emerging Afghanistan: Try religious tolerance to defeat the Taliban

To Hamid Karzai and all the other political leaders in the newly emerging modern Afghanistan:

You are in the process of setting up your government.  You are in the process of winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people to win their allegiance to the government you are setting up.  You are in the process of framing your constitution and laws by which the Afghan nation will be governed.

I wish to offer a suggestion that at least a small measure of religious tolerance be incorporated into the legal framework of the new Afghan nation that you are working to establish.  I wish to explain how it could benefit your government.

The United States of America, while not perfectly exercising religious tolerance, has pioneered incorporating religious freedom into a nation’s constitution.  Since the founding of our nation, other nations have seen wisdom in some of the provisions of our Constitution, and have used some of them in writing their own body of laws.

I am not aware of any nation, however, that has granted to their people the same or greater magnitude of religious freedom that our Constitution affords us, the people of the United States.  Even many of the nations of the supposedly “more enlightened” Europe still, nominally, have state religions.  As a result, no non-Muslim nation is more accommodating to the Muslim faith than the United States of America.

Sure, a national debate in the U.S. has arisen surrounding plans to erect a mosque in New York City near Ground Zero, where terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center by flying airplanes into them.  Public opinion polls show that the decision to build a mosque there is an unpopular one.  Certainly much public pressure will be exerted in an effort to dissuade from proceeding with those plans.  President Obama has said that he has made no pronouncements on whether or not there is wisdom in the decision to build a mosque there.  But, at the end of the day, there is the Constitution of the United States, and if anything were to stave off the abandonment of the plans to build a mosque there, it is the Constitution that will do so.  President Obama has affirmed this.

Meanwhile, there are other non-Muslim nations, such as Australia, which has no Bill of Rights, that have experienced violent strife between non-Muslims and Muslims.  The Australian government seems to have little effect in eliminating the occurrence of such vigilante mob riots.  Also, there are non-Muslim nations, such as many in Europe, that seek to regulate how Muslims within their borders dress themselves, and even regulate against the erection of minarets on mosque properties.  Despite the public opinion polls showing the unpopularity of the plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero, I am of the firm opinion that no non-Muslim nation is a greater friend to the Muslim faith than the United States of America.  Muslims within our borders thus derive benefits from a Constitution that guarantees freedom of religion.

I do not expect the new Afghan nation to mirror the United States in this regard.  I know that the people of Afghanistan are not prepared nor predisposed to allow such a degree of religious freedom.  But I would like to suggest some “baby steps” that can be written into Afghan law that would be of benefit to the new Afghan government.

The more a government wishes to enforce adherence to the tenets of religion, the more it will resemble the Taliban.  In a world where global communication takes place ever more frequently, populations are more exposed to philosophies outside that religion, and the temptations that accompany such exposure.  It can’t be helped.  A government can’t stop communications from beyond the borders from reaching its citizens to the extent that it once was, when travel occurred at a much slower pace, and communications from outsiders much less frequent.  To ensure adherence to religious tenets, such as Sharia law, governments must resort to more and more oppressive measures if they wish to counteract the influence of outside philosophies.

Behold the nations that do, in fact, desire to counteract outside influences.  The measures they take become increasingly more invasive into the daily lives of private citizens.  In the West, we might call it Big Brother.  The origins of that term “Big Brother” are contained within writings that are not permitted by Islam, but I don’t know what corresponding term is that’s used among Muslims to convey the same meaning.  Perhaps it suffices to say that governments wishing to counteract such influences will seek to spy on every citizen’s life to guard against any departure from the tenets of Islam, such as banning Blackberry devices until the means of decoding the encryption is disclosed to the government.

Another more oppressive way to counteract outside influences is through fear, with harshly severe penalties meted out against citizens and their families for increasingly smaller infractions of Islamic tenets.  Fear is the means adopted by the Taliban to counteract outside influences.

The grip of government over citizens must grow ever more tightly over time in order to maintain compliance.  Citizens are chafed by such measures, and voluntary allegiance to such a government may be compromised.  Will dealing with citizens much more harshly counteract the waning voluntary allegiance of citizens?  I suggest that there are more underpinnings of the Muslim exodus to the West, particularly to America, than just economic opportunities or the desire to spread the Muslim faith among infidel nations.  I suggest that many Muslims that have migrated to America do so, in part, because they do not choose to live in fear.

If you want to win allegiance away from the Taliban, you must not only provide greater economic opportunities, you must also grant citizens a relief from fear.  To do so, the new Afghan government must relax the grip upon the citizens to regulate every aspect of life.  They must trust the conscience of the citizens.  The government must trust that citizens will make decisions compliant with Islam of their own volition.  On the occasions where citizens deviate from the tenets of Islam, the penalty must not be so severe that citizens feel a lesser allegiance to the government.  If the government is to mete out much milder penalties, then the ultimate aim and desire of the government must not be to strictly enforce adherence to the tenets of Islam.

Instead, peace that mitigates against the rivalries that always exist among diverse populations should be paramount.

That peace, through the laws that you design and through the order that you exercise in your administration, yields a more stable government and a more stable society.  As volatility decreases, outside investments in Afghanistan will increase.  As investment increases, economic opportunities and prosperity will increase.  As prosperity increases, loyalty to the government will increase.  This has been the experience of the United States.

Allegiance to the Taliban will dissipate, and the new Afghan government will have no tendency to evolve into a regime that resembles the one under Taliban rule.

When the foreign troops withdraw, more than military and policing measures must be put in place to prevent the overthrow of your new government by the Taliban.  A population that will not tolerate nor cooperate with the Taliban is also essential to such resistance against the Taliban.

Relaxing the grip on the citizenry can only coincide with a small measure of tolerance toward deviation from Islam.  If you do not permit any deviation, then your government must become like the harsh regime under the Taliban, or the harassing and increasingly invasive regime governing neighboring Iran.  Those are the choices.  Make your decision about what kind of a government you want to be.

I spoke of “baby steps” incorporated into the legal framework of the newly emerging Afghanistan, and now that I’ve explained some of the reasons why and some of the benefits that will accrue, let me suggest what those “baby steps” might be.

There must be freedom of conscience.  This means freedom to believe the philosophy that one wishes to believe.  Acting on those beliefs, or practicing the tenets of those beliefs, however, would be subject to law.  In essence, one would not be penalized for beliefs, only for actions proscribed by law.  Therefore, an infidel, such as a Christian, would be permitted Afghan citizenship, with all that is entailed by citizenship, such as the right to vote and the ability to apply for and receive a passport, without being punished for merely believing what the infidel believes.   In the past, Afghan citizens discovered to be Christians might face execution.  For those who are discovered, by whatever means, to be infidels, such as Christians, no legal penalty would apply so long as their actions were within the parameters allowed by law.

Beyond beliefs, infidels ought to have a right to act upon those beliefs in a small measure.  Such actions permitted under the law, and the prohibitions subject to penalty under the law, might be as follows:

Infidels may assemble and worship together under the following circumstances:  They must not worship outdoors or in any place that is designed to make their worship conspicuous to passers-by.  The infidels cannot purchase property on which to build an edifice for worship, as such an edifice would be construed as advertising a religion other than Islam.  The infidels cannot assemble for worship in public buildings or businesses.  The infidels must assemble in tents and private homes unadorned by any images incompatible with Islam.  The infidels must not advertise.  The infidels must not solicit more followers, such as carrying out missionary, evangelizing, or any other ministries designed for recruitment.  The infidels shall not operate schools.  Any instruction must only be given clandestinely in private homes or during the course of the worship assemblies.

Infidels shall not speak ill of Islam, even in private conversation, even when assembled privately for worship, nor by writing or drawing.

Infidels may possess books of scripture so long as they are only viewed or used in private homes or at worship assemblies.  They must be stored in an enclosed space that conceals them from view to visitors to the home (in a closed box or trunk or wrapped in an opaque material would be okay, but not on a bookshelf, nor resting, uncovered, upon the floor).  They must be concealed when carrying them outdoors, such as to another private home or to a worship assembly.  The book cover can only label its title in words.  It cannot be adorned with religious symbols.  No sales of such scriptures can be transacted entirely within Afghanistan.  They must be purchased from beyond the nation’s borders, whether purchased in person and conveyed back to Afghanistan concealed in the buyer’s luggage, or purchased by orders placed inconspicuously by mail, phone, internet, or some other third party, to be shipped to the buyer by mail or other parcel courier.  If shipped to Afghanistan, the book should be wrapped to conceal the book completely, and the packaging can only display the name and address of the buyer, and the return address, with no name, of the distributor or seller, along with any postage stamps, bar codes, or other markings that couriers need for routing the packages to their destinations.  If foreign sellers balk at complying with such shipping requirements, do they want to do business with Afghan citizens, or not?  If they do, they’ll meet the requirements.

Only when assembled, or alone in private, so as not to have the intent of being heard by passers-by, may infidels utter prayers or speeches that are not in keeping with the Muslim faith.

In any week, the holy day used for religious observances by the infidels shall be the same as the holy day used by Muslims.  Saturday or Sunday assembly for worship, such as is customary in non-Muslim nations, will, instead, take place on Friday.

Apparel worn by infidels must be apparel that is also acceptable for Muslims to wear.  The same applies to hairstyles, makeup, jewelry, purses, wallets, and body markings.

There must also be some kind of legal penalty against Muslims who harass infidels on the basis of religion when the infidels are compliant with all Afghan laws, with the penalties meted out on a sliding scale commensurate with however egregious the harassment was proven to be.

With these minimal “baby steps,” Afghan exiles who left the Muslim faith might consider being repatriated, further strengthening the population’s resolve not to tolerate nor cooperate with the Taliban.  Those who are repatriated might also benefit the nation by bringing back whatever skills or wealth they may have acquired abroad.  Foreigners may feel less endangered by guarantees of these minimal religious protections, whether conducting business or performing volunteer service.

I believe when Afghan citizens sense the difference between the new Afghan government and the old Taliban regime, they’ll prefer rule under the new government over rule under the Taliban.  I believe the citizens will favor more freedom over more fear.

Perhaps Afghans will be able to tolerate more than these “baby steps,” and maybe religious freedom can be expanded a little bit more.  Yes, there is a risk of more exposure to Western ways, and all the perceived negatives entailed with it, but Western ways will be increasingly exposed, anyway, by virtue of the shrinking global village we all live in.  Helping Muslims to withstand the temptations of Western ways little bit by little bit by peacefully living with infidels in their midst is more useful than not building up the strength of one’s convictions, and becoming easy prey to temptations when the Western world, inevitably, bursts upon them with full force.  When that day comes, isolation from infidels will not have prepared them.

The American experience with religious freedom has been a good one.  Even “baby steps” in that direction will reap some benefits.  If you step in that direction, don’t fear the future.  It will be better than the past.

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