Trapped by Religion in Afghanistan

I am an existentialist and an atheist – so much so that I suspect that people I have known for years are afraid to tell me that they attend the church of their choice. So as one whose approach to organized religion is often sarcasm, the capture and metered executions in Afghanistan of a bunch of naïve Korean Christian aid workers ought to leave me pretty much unmoved. It does not.

These Korean evangelicals are the collateral damage of a bizarre war not between civilizations but between the fringes of civilizations. The Taliban, as ignorant of the Koran as the Koreans apparently are lacking in common sense, have chosen to shoot two of their hostages so far in some misguided effort to drive from the country people who are seeking to rescue their women from the 10th century or give inoculations to children. It is difficult to believe that there are sacred words in either the Koran or the Bible that would require the murder of people whose only goal is to help others.

The 23 hostages were taken off a bus on July 19. Meetings between the elders of Qarabagh district in Ghazni province, where the hostages were kidnapped, and a delegation of senior Kabul officials, have yielded no results beyond further threats of slaughter. In surrealistic exchanges, Taliban spokesmen speaking on satellite phones announce progress, such as it is, which amounts to who has been shot, who will be shot next and whether anybody else should be shot. These cold-blooded Taliban spokesmen should be found and jailed for complicity in murder.

How can you announce approvingly the murder of innocent people by your allies and associates and not be complicit? Who calls this spokesman and says, “We’ve just decided to shoot another one?” And how does the spokesman feel when he picks up his high-tech phone to speed-dial his favorite reporter to announce the results?”

You can total up the differences between cultures, and you can make allowances for the uncompromising mullahs. You can make sarcastic comments about the formidable naiveté of Korean Christians whose churches seem to think it makes sense to send young, untrained volunteers into the wilds of a war zone for summer vacation. You can say a fearsome god stands somewhere behind Islam. You can say that “cultural differences” mean that these Koreans shouldn’t have been where they were, proselytizing Muslims by their very presence. But does putting themselves in harm’s way, merit a calculated death sentence? Throw them out of your benighted wilderness if you like, I would tell the Taliban, but remember your humanity.

There are descending gradients. These Korean young people, 18 of them women, so much under threat, are at the very top of the list tonight. But fundamentalist Islam seems to be demanding an ever higher price across the planet. Malaysia, for instance, one of the world’s most tolerant countries with a majority Muslim population ‑ although minorities make up nearly half its peoples ‑ is considering renaming itself an Islamic nation. If tourists – as they have – pop into a kedai for a kopi oh in Kedah and foolishly pull out a Bible, they can find themselves on an airplane back to their home countries the next day after spending time in jail. In also-tolerant Indonesia, squads of self-appointed moral guardians pursue the same goal, sometimes rounding up women and throwing them in religious jails for the “crime” of being out alone after dark – the government does nothing to stop this outrage for fear of “offending” the radical mullahs.

Reverse the situation now in Afghanistan. Land the mullahs in Iowa or Devon, or Tokyo or Bangkok and let them step out to say their piece. Let them knock on my door in Hong Kong and set out to deliver their pitch for a mediaeval version of Islam. It is my right to listen or shut the door. It is not my right to pull out an AK47 and fill them full of holes.

Despite the fact that Constitution of the United States has largely been defiled by the administration of George W. Bush, the principles that were enshrined 200 years ago in the first 10 amendments to the constitution, and particularly the first, need to be applied across a greater swathe of the earth:

“The Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This 44-word sentence may be the most important ever produced in the pursuit of human rights. It nullifies the grandiose language of control and command produced by governments and the kind of administrations dreamed of by George Orwell in the novel 1984. It means that you have the right to tell your neighbor that the religion you practice is as valid as his. It means that the government cannot tell you what religion you need to belong to. Tell that to Lina Joy, the Malaysian woman formerly known as Aslinah Jailani who is barred by law from changing her name to suit her conversion to Christianity. Tell it to the Taliban whose guns are trained at the heads of those Koreans.

In the baked brown hills of Afghanistan, the 21 surviving Koreans must be asking what put them into their current predicament, and whose blood seems likely to be spattered across the unforgiving soil of an uncompromising country next. This seems to be the collision of two versions of the same god.

Neither one of them is mine, thankfully enough.