Ever since the post-9/11 American invasion, the Afghan government has taken great pains to distance itself from the oppressive rule of the Taliban. Its leaders have pointed to greater personal freedom and improvements in infrastructure, education and health care as successes of the country’s nascent democracy. But last week we learnt that Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh, a young journalism student, has been sentenced to death for distributing an article that, religious clerics in Afghanistan say, violates the tenets of Islam. The article reportedly addresses polygamy and asks why Muslim men are allowed multiple wives, but women are not allowed to marry more than one man.
Kaambakhsh—in custody since October 2007—was given his sentence on the basis that the article is blasphemous. Much of the investigation has focused on whether Kaambakhsh actually wrote “The Koranic Verses that Discriminate Against Women.” Kaambakhsh contends he did not author the article, but merely printed it off the Internet and distributed it to fellow students at Balkh University in north Afghanistan. Last week, an Iranian Internet journalist living in Europe claimed its authorship, and expressed dismay at Kaambakhsh’s troubles.
But the focus on whether or not Kaambakhsh penned the article misses the point entirely. It assumes that if he did write it, he deserves the sentence. The real questions are: Is post-Taliban Afghanistan a country that executes citizens for peacefully questioning some aspect of Islam? How can Afghanistan claim it is on the path to being a free, democratic state, and then put to death one of its own citizens for reasons that evoke, rather chillingly, the darkest days of the Taliban?
This case is about much more than the fate of Kaambakhsh. For the past seven years, Afghan leaders have sought the help of the international community in efforts to rebuild a country still reeling from nearly three decades of war, anarchy and extremism. President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called for a genuine, long-term commitment on the part of the world’s wealthy nations, a plea that I, among other Afghans, have echoed publicly. But Afghanistan must show the world it has broken from its recent past of zealotry and intolerance.
In 2006, the country had such an opportunity when Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old Afghan man, faced a death sentence for the crime of converting to Christianity. His case came to an end when, under tremendous international pressure that included a plea to Karzai from Pope Benedict XVI, Rahman was allowed to flee to Italy, where he was granted asylum. Moderate Afghan leaders wasted an opportunity to stand their ground and demonstrate their regime’s respect for freedom of thought, religion and expression.
Kaambakhsh’s case presents another opportunity to demonstrate that ruling by the strict word of Shariah—at the expense of tolerance, compassion and freedom—is a thing of the past. It is a chance for Afghanistan to show the world that it will abide by the principles of democracy, and to validate its repeated calls for financial support. Kaambakhsh’s case is under review by an appeals court, even as Afghanistan’s upper house of parliament this week lauded the death sentence and condemned international humanitarian efforts to have it annulled as “international interference.” But Karzai has the final say.
I join groups such as Reporters Without Borders in calling for the President to do whatever is within his powers. If this death sentence is carried out, it would not only badly damage the credibility of his government, but also again raise serious questions about the viability of democracy in Afghanistan, and vindicate the sceptics at a time when the nation critically needs believers.
Should Kaambakhsh be executed, it would be a tragedy not only for him and his family, but for all of us who hold out hope for a freer, more prosperous, more enlightened Afghanistan. (The Wall Street Journal)
(Edited excerpts. Khaled Hosseini, a goodwill envoy to UNHCR, is the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org)