Reconstructing Afghanistan: Forum Closes with Disputed Comments

Feb 01, 2003 07:17 PM EST

WASHINGTON - During the convention on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom liberty specialist Richard Land warned Afghanistan public officials against anti proselytizing laws in the nation's upcoming constitution.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom sponsored the day-long forum in parnership with the George Washington University Law School on January 29. Prominent Afghan and U.S. government officials, along with experts on religious freedom, human rights, Islamic law, judicial reform and rule of law, discussed ways to incorporate protection of relgious freedom and other human rights into Afghanistan's new constitution, judicial systems and laws.

Musa M. Maroofi, member of the Afghan Constitutional Drafting Committee stated, "freedom of religion is relative in countries like Afghanistan. There are no liberal Islamic regimes. You are either a Muslim state or you are not," causing much displeasure among many of the USCIRF members.

Among them, USCIRF chairwoman Felice Gaer, said she was "shocked by the discussion."

Richard Land went so far as to say that U.S. aid to Afghanistan could be threatened if freedom of consicience is not protected.

"We are not out to make little cookie-cutter Americas," Land said but added there could be consequences if Afghanistan does not permit the "freedom of conscience to change [a person's] religion."

"If that is not recognized in the Afghan constitution, then the amount of support you heard promised from the United States government will be hard to maintain, because the American people will not have it," he said. Americans "will not subsidize" religious suppression, he said.

Upon questioning, Land clarified, "I can assure you I am not speaking for the administration," he said. "That was more of a prediction than a suggestion."

It will be difficult to sustain a long-term commitment to Afghanistan without protections for freedom of conscience, "because members of Congress will be under such duress from their constituents," Land said.

Peter Tomsen, a former special envoy to the Afghan resistance called Land's remarks "kind of inflammatory," and was glad Land clarified his remarks.

" The U.S. should reevaluate its aid to non-Islamic states such as Armenia and Nepal, which have non-proselytizing laws, if it does so with Afghanistan, Tomsen said.

A more moderate group could not be found than the one now in control of the Afghan government, Tomsen said.

Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, had assured the Afghans earlier in the day the U.S. "commitment to the future of Afghanistan is unshakeable."

Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, cited the aid provided by the American government in food, agriculture, medicine, rebuilt roads and a reconstructed teacher's college. He said the U.S. has "no right or intent to impose America on Afghanistan."

Abdul Rahim Karimi, Afghanistan's minister of Justice told the forum, "there will be a democratic society" in his country.

Maroofi agreed, saying that the Afghan constitution "will be 100 times more democratic" than any previous version. However, he acknowledged there are no absolute rights in a Muslim state that are not fundamentals of Islam. Turkey is the only Muslim state with separation of church and state, he said.

The USCIRF commissioners told Afghan officials that Afghanistan, a 99 percent muslim country, should not be restricted from having an Islamic government, nonetheless, there should be religious freedom for members of other religious groups.

The commissioners voiced concerns over the status of religious liberty and human rights in the country, even after the overthrow of the repressive Taliban regime. The institution of two religious police organizations, comments from Afghanistan's chief justice supporting execution of non-Muslims, appointment to the judicial commission of a majority in support of a strict interpretation of Islamic law and an increase in the power of warlords have gathered particular attention from the commision. The harsh imposition of Islamic law keeps Afghanistan on the U.S. State Department's list of countries of worst abusers of religious freedom in the wold.

The USCIRF has recommended Bush name a special envoy to promote human rights protection from the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The USCIRF has called for the promotion of a commitment to the "rule of law," as well as religious liberty and other human rights, in Afghanistan's constitution, laws and judicial system.

It also urged the U.S. to lead other countries in supporting the expansion of the international security forces beyond Kabul in order to protect reconstruction of the Afghan government and the human rights of its citizens.

Americans and Afghans who spoke at the forum pointed to security, especially against the interference of outside forces, as critical to achieving a successful reconstruction of the government.

Distinguished speakers included Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan and Ambassador-at-Large to Free Iraqis; Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Sponsor of the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act and Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and Andrew Natsios, Administrator, US Agency for International Development.

Leading the forums were Lorne Craner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Wendy Chamberlin, USAID Assistant Administrator for Asia and Near East; Amb. Karl F. Inderfurth, Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, the Elliott School, The George Washington University, and former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs (1997-2001); Mavis Leno, Chair, Feminist Majority's Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls; and Sima Wali, President of Refugee Women in Development will also participate. Abdul Rahim Karimi, Minister of Justice.

The USCIRF consists of nine members appointed by the president and congressional leaders. The panel, which was established by a 1998 law, is responsible for researching religious liberty issues in foreign countries and making policy recommendations to the White House and Congress. Bush named Land to the panel in 2001.

By Pauline C.