It’s illegal for Abdul Rahman to be Christian in Afghanistan. The 41-year-old converted from Islam to Christianity 16 years ago and was arrested last month. He now could face death sentence. Ansarullah Mawlazezadah, the presiding judge in the case, told ABC News that “a medical team was checking the defendant, since the team suspects insanity caused Rahman to reject Islam.”

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“We will ask him if he has changed his mind about being a Christian,” Mawlazezadah also said. “If he has, we will forgive him, because Islam is a religion of tolerance.” And if he doesn’t? He dies.

CNN.com reported that: “Rahman’s case has illustrated a split in Afghanistan over interpretation of the constitution, which calls for religious freedom while also stating that any Muslim who rejects Islam should be punished by death.” This underlines a major problem with the way things are going in parts of the Muslim world; as the United States has struggled to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq, we have assumed that it’s possible to rebuild those states in roughly our image (that is, with our liberal ideas about freedom of conscience) while endorsing fundamentalist Islam.

Remember the interim Iraqi constitution that was approved in October? Like its Afghan counterpart, it has a schizophrenic quality to it, ensuring both gender equality (among other equalities) and that Islam will be a source of legislation. How these two guarantees are going to be reconciled remains to be seen, but, again, there is the pernicious assumption that equality can coexist with fundamentalist religion.

Because this isn’t about Islam as much as it’s about religion. Fundamentalist religion and liberty can’t coexist. Whenever a state draws its laws from a hard-line reading of its holy text (whether the Bible or Quran), liberty suffers. Plenty of people have been quick to decry the rise of political Islam in – among other places – Iran, the Palestinian territories and Iraq, and they are right to do so. But what’s lost – what a country as religious as ours is far too self-conscious to acknowledge – is that fundamentalism, not Islam, is the problem, and fundamentalism, not Islam, is the ultimate enemy of the free world.

If America drew all its laws from Old Testament Biblical doctrine, it would be as brutal a place as Afghanistan. All countries with legal systems we would find acceptable have managed to ignore most of their heritage’s dogma, because that’s what moderate religion is – not some abstract melding of ancient and modern principles, but pure and simple disregard of most of what a religion entails. Moderate Christians and Jews are moderate because they ignore most of the Bible; the same goes for moderate Muslims. Following the Quran or the Bible to the letter will always be deleterious to liberty and to acceptable standards of justice – if you doubt this, give Deuteronomy a close read.

When fundamentalism and law become too intertwined, cases like Rahman’s will always be the result. Unfortunately, some elements of cultural relativism have muted the outrage that should accompany much of what goes on in the name of Islam. We hear time and again that countries have the right to make their own laws and to practice their own cultures, but I’m not sure this can be taken without some questioning. After all, it’s incoherent to say both that Afghanistan has the right to make any laws it wishes and that Rahman has the right to be a Christian in Afghanistan. I’m much more sure about the second half of that sentence than the first.

That’s not to say, of course, that we have the right to invade any country we wish in the name of liberty or justice. But what it does mean is that it’s time to question the cozy relativism we’re accustomed to wrapping ourselves in; basic standards of human rights and decency deserve an exalted position, not to be brushed aside as relics of culture. The civilized world allows people freedom of conscience and religion because its members understand certain things about what it means to be human, what it means to question and ponder and exist as a free agent – it’s not a mere accident of culture, but rather a wonderful progression that has taken thousands of years to solidify. If you’re the religious type, pray for Abdul Rahman, an innocent man trapped in an utterly backward place.

Singal can be reached at jsingal@umich.edu.

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