Another Tiny Step Toward Civilizational War?

Posted in Broader Middle East | 07-Apr-06 | Author: Ehsan Ahrari

A TV frame grab, aired on March 22, 2006, shows Abdur Rahman holding a translated version of the Bible at a Kabul court.

The civilizational war that Huntington conjured up in the early 1990s is fast becoming a reality in 2006. Just look at the international hoopla about an Afghan man, Abdur Rahman, who became a Christian sixteen years ago. When he returned to his homeland, his family denounced him as apostate and turned him in to the authorities, which were all set to try and punish him. The law about deserting Islam is quite strict in Afghanistan. Rahman would have been hanged or beheaded for committing apostasy, if not for the intervention from at least two high American public officials, President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His life is spared, but the controversy related to that issue is far from over.

Let me state for the record that every person should be at liberty to accept whatever faith he or she wants. For me that is not at all an issue. What is the source of concern is the fact that this particular controversy, popped up so soon after the world-scale brouhaha related to the cartoons involving the Prophet of Islam, appears to be intensifying religious prejudice in the West and in the world of Islam.

A whole lot of Muslims were upset over the cartoon issue, and showed their anger through numerous demonstrations in a number of countries. Some of those demonstrations got out of hand and resulted in a number of deaths. The issue related to that controversy was never resolved. A number of European newspapers wrapped themselves in the sanctimonious slogan of freedom of expression, when everyone knew that they did not apply the same slogan when similar cartoons depicting Jesus were submitted three years ago to the same Danish newspaper that ran the cartoons involving the Prophet of Islam. At that time, the Danish newspaper claimed that it did not want to offend the religious sensitivities of Christians. Needless to say, that it made the right decision. However, a very different standard was applied against Muslims and their religion when it published those offensive cartoons about the Prophet of Islam.

Only President Bush attempted to calm both camps in the cartoon-related controversy, by stating that care should be taken about not insulting Muslim’s religious feelings and then also defending the freedom of expression. What is remained unsaid in that controversy was that why it is only in relation to Islam that freedom of speech or expression became an issue and not when the issue was about publishing offensive cartoons about Jesus? Aren’t Muslims justified in speaking out loud about double standards in the West when it comes to their religion?

When Abdur Rahman was being tried in the Afghan court, President Bush, a born again Christian, declared that the case of Afghan convert was deeply troubling him, since his country help "liberate" Afghanistan. The EU protested about this case a violation of religious freedom. Australian Prime Minister John Howard added his voice by labeling the case of Rahman as "appalling." The conservative religious leaders in Afghanistan, on their part, were telling the West to mind its own business. However, that advice was not heard. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, herself a Christian fundamentalist, called President Hamid Karzai and asked him to intervene.

Considering the fact that Karzai owes his power to the United States, he succumbed to both public and private pressure. Abdur Rahman’s case was dismissed, he was secretly flown out of the country, and was repatriated in Italy. The world was spared from the high drama of a potential death sentence or even hanging.

But there are deep and troubling undercurrents that are still in operation. It appears that the world of Islam and Christianity are edging toward increased friction, if not an outright clash of civilizations. Consider some of the developments.

First, that Muslims are getting increasingly sensitive about who remains within their fold and who leaves it. While there are laws about apostasy, there is also a powerful verse in the Quran that states there is no compulsion in religion (al-Baqarah, 256). Applying this verse on Abdur Rahman, he well within his right to choose whatever faith he wishes to practice.

However, there are also those who quote a Hadith (statements) of the Prophet of Islam in which he stated, "He who changes his religion should be killed." There is little doubt that Muslims have to resolve this conflicting position. Considering the finality of the word of God in the Quran, it is reasonably easy to resolve this conflict in according to the aforementioned Quranic verse that underscores an absence of compulsion in faith.

Second, even though Abdur Rahman now lives in Italy, the highly emotional aspect of this episode in Afghanistan is far from over. Coming on the heel of the controversy stemming from the publication of the cartoons of the Prophet of Islam, this episode has provided one more argument for those who question the very claim of Muslims that their religion essentially promotes peace.

Third, considering the fact that the United States is an occupying power of both Afghanistan and Iraq, Christian missionaries are also busy promoting their religion while they are giving out blankets and other amenities of life that the Karzai government is either not able to distribute in time or through required efficiency. It is not unreasonable to believe that there are a number of converts in Afghanistan and Iraq. But are afraid to go public about their faith. So, the issue of their security and ability to practice their faith remains a highly charged one, and is likely to surface in the future.

Fourth, by making public comments about how troubled they were about the absence of freedom of religion in a fledgling democracy like Afghanistan, the Western politicians of high visibility have played a role in adding further fuel to an already charged issue. It is the peak of naiveté on the part of the American President to state that, since his country helped "liberate" Afghanistan, it should overnight behave like a highly tolerant democracy, while his own country has a long and embarrassing history of religious as well as racial intolerance and bigotry even almost 130 years after the end of the Civil War, which was, inter alia, fought to free the Black Americans.

The preceding are a number of unresolved issues that—even if they are not escalate the civilizational conflict—are likely to make the case that the chasm between the world of Islam and the West is only widening. That is also a bad news for the United States in the sense that the Bush administration has reaffirmed its resolve to promote democracy in Muslim countries. It is worth reminding that this aspect of U.S. involvement is regularly labeled by the Islamist groups to make their own argument that the United States has become a force that wishes to westernize their world at the expense of lowering the significance of Islam.

Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He has written extensively on strategic affairs of the Middle East, South and Central Asia, Islamic radicalism, nuclear proliferation, and information warfare. His website:

Dr. Ehsan Ahrari is WSN Editor U.S.A. and member of the WSN International Advisory Board.