Afghanistan’s Constitutional Confusions Over Blasphemy

Sayed Parwez Kambaksh

In October, 2007, Afghanistan security officials arrested Parwez Kambaksh, a 24-year-old Afghan journalism student, for electronically distributing to his classmates an Internet article criticizing the treatment of women under Islamic law. He was detained without a hearing for three months, during which he claims torture was used to elicit a signed confession. His trial was held behind closed doors, and he was denied representation. Fellow students and teachers testified that Kambaksh had routinely asked “difficult questions” in class. The tribunal deliberated for only four minutes before sentencing Kambaksh to death on a charge of “blasphemy and distribution of texts defamatory of Islam.”

Thanks to the international attention brought to bear on this case, Kambaksh was allowed to appeal his sentence. In October, 2008—a year after his arrest—a Kabul appeals court commuted his death sentence in favor of a 20-year prison term.

Not satisfied, international human rights groups continued working through diplomatic channels to obtain Kambaksh’s release. Finally, in August, 2009, President Hamid Karzai granted him “amnesty.” But judicial amnesty could not guarantee Kambaksh’s safety from radical Islamists. Fearing reprisals, he fled the country, and his whereabouts are now unknown.

Afghanistan’s constitution, ratified in 2004 under pressure from occupying military forces, appears to guarantee citizens a broad array of human rights. It is ostensibly more in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) than with Shariah, the religious law of Islam. It specifically guarantees the right to life and liberty, to privacy, to peaceful assembly, to freedom of expression, and—in cases of judicial proceedings—the appeal to formally codified statutes or binding precedents (stare decisis), the right to legal representation, and the right to a jury. Shariah guarantees none of these rights.

The constitutional principle most relevant to Kambaksh’s case is found in Article 34, which states that “freedom of expression is inviolable … Every Afghan has the right to print or publish topics without prior submission to the state authorities in accordance with the law.”

All well and good. The only thing missing from the constitutional inventory is freedom of conscience—the freedom to profess whatever beliefs one finds compelling. This is not a trivial omission, for under Shariah law, the penalty for apostasy, considered a treasonous defection from Islam, is death. Even where the death sentence is not imposed by the court, the accused may still be threatened with assassination by thugs who insist on strict application of Shariah. In 2006, Afghan-born Abdul Rahman, a convert from Islam to Christianity outside Afghanistan, was threatened with the death penalty for apostasy. Like Parwez Kambaksh, he was released as a result of international pressure and fled the country to avoid vigilante-style justice. Such cases are not uncommon, and Muslims worldwide are well aware of the severity of Shariah law where blasphemy and apostasy are concerned.

Though Shariah is not specifically mentioned in the constitution, Article Two states, “The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam.” Article Three draws out the implications of this: “In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”

Could Article Three amount to a claim that the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution are not in fact contrary to the beliefs and provisions of Islam? No one who is knowledgeable about the two traditions could seriously support such an interpretation. Clearly, Article Three means that any of the enumerated freedoms that is not supported by Islamic law may be nullified.

But if these “beliefs and provisions of Islam” are important enough to be referred to—and so prominently—in the first three articles of the constitution, then why are they never enumerated, as are the specific guarantees of rights? At the very least, we might expect the authors to reference them. The “avoidance” of any such reference—which would certainly point us to Shariah—is conspicuous in a document that so plainly affirms Islamic law.

Unlike Western secular law, Shari’ah law includes a category of crimes that involve, among other things, privacy and free expression. The “Hadd”—one of three categories—are “claims against God” and include adultery, sodomy, lesbianism, and—signficiantly—blasphemy and defamation, the two charges brought against Parwez Kambaksh. The punishment prescribed by Shariah for these crimes is death.

The European Court of Human Rights has characterized such punishments as barbaric and cruel, and it has argued that Shariah is incompatible with a democratic state.

Afghanistan’s constitution is a political document reflecting the balance of power that existed when it was written. Whether it merely gives a nod to Shariah or creates an opening for it is unclear. What is clear is that the framers of this document made no attempt to reconcile Shariah with the principles of Western liberal democracies as expressed in the UDHR. Nor could such an effort have succeeded. But by ignoring the intrinsic incompatibility of the two traditions, the framers may have set their country up for an eventual constitutional crisis. Even if that does not happen, incidents like the arrest and detention of Parwez Kambaksh are likely to continue as long as adherents of Shariah law interpret the first three articles of the constitution as a license to suppress free expression. Because the constitution offers no unequivocal protection for dissenters, they are at the mercy of whatever faction happens to be in power. Fortunately for Kambaksh, international human rights organizations had some leverage with President Karzai, but Karzai himself has a poor record of human rights and cannot be depended on.

Perhaps the only hope for Afghan freethinkers like Kambaksh is continued international pressure on Afghanistan’s government to honor their constitution’s guarantees of basic human rights and to protect all citizens from fundamentalist thuggery.

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One Response to “Afghanistan’s Constitutional Confusions Over Blasphemy”

  1. Dean Says:

    Excellent article, Dough. The fact that international pressure can be applied to unjust decisions like the one you site is a hopeful sign that the hermetically sealed world of Islamic law is being moved, at least in a tentative way, to acknowledge a wider and more just perspective. I think the Arab spring must be in direct response to the effects of technology as the internet and cell phone growth make their impact felt in areas of the world previously immune to civil forms of justice present in the West. There is no closing that door once it opens so much as a crack. One of the rallying cries of the 1960’s was “the whole world is watching”. If that claim could be made with the less robust communications available at the time, the concept has matured to the point of encouraging something akin to a full blown reformation in thought. Let us hope so, anyway.

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