JOHN WITTE, JR. AND M. CHRISTIAN GREEN
In January 2008, news headlines and human rights websites around the world broadcast the story of a death sentence handed down by a local Afghan court to a 23-year-old Journalism student, Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, for committing the crime of blasphemy. The student had downloaded and distributed an article from the Internet after annotating it with words deemed to be an insult to the prophet Mohammed. The article in question was critical of certain Islamic beliefs and practices that were seen as oppressive to women. Kambakhsh had allegedly added to the text some of his own criticisms of Mohammed’s teachings on women. The death sentence drew criticism from Journalists, human rights activists, and political leaders around the world, inspiring European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering to protest to Afghan President Hamid Karzai: “The alleged ‘crime’ of this person would appear to be that he has distributed publications aimed at improving the situation of Afghan women.”1
At the appeal court, Judge Abdul Salam Qazizada, a holdover from the Taliban era, was reportedly antagonistic toward Kambakhsh. In support of the blasphemy charge against Kambakhsh, the court considered as evidence anecdotal reports that that the young man was a socialist, was impolite, asked too many questions in class, and swapped off-color jokes and messages with friends. In October 2008, an Afghan appeals court overturned Kambakhsh’s death sentence and sentenced him instead to twenty years in prison, presumably due to the considerable international attention to his case and international pressure on the Afghan government.2 Kambakhsh began his prison term in March 2009, the same month in which Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a law specifying circumstances in which Afghan women of the Shia Muslim tradition must have sex with their husbands under Muslim family law.3 Interpretations of Islamic law as sanctioning marital rape were just the kinds of abuse of women’s rights that the young journalist Kambakhsh was seeking to expose.
Such has been the state of religion and human rights in the fragile new democracy of Afghanistan purportedly liberated from the Taliban and other extremists. This kind of story recurs in endless variations in the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, and various former Soviet nations and provinces in Eastern Europe, as well as in Central and Southeast Asia. Browse the daily news reports,4 study the many briefings of human rights NGOs, pore over the annual reports from the United State’s Commission on International Religious Freedom5 or the