Western, Muslim worlds clash again over religion

Rome, Italy - Western political leaders and the media have reacted with mounting indignation to the news that a Kabul court threatened to impose the death sentence on an Afghan man who abandoned Islam and coverted to Christianity.

Two months ago, political and religious leaders in the Muslim world were rounding on Western European media and governments for printing and defending caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad that they considered blasphemous.

The cases are clearly different. Western leaders from President George W. Bush down have spoken up to save the life of a man whose religious freedom is a universal human right which his judges say is secondary to Islamic law.

In the cartoons case, demonstrators sacked Western embassies in Damascus and Beirut, lives were lost in unrest and Muslim leaders demanded apologies and curbs on Western press freedom.

Amin Farhang, the Afghan economy minister who lived in exile in Germany for 22 years before returning in 2001, illustrated the gulf between Western and traditional Islamic views when he tried to make a link between the two controversies.

"Following the row about the cartoons, which has cost so many lives, we should look calmly at things and work for a fair solution," he told the German daily Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger.

He said Kabul was trying to build democracy after a United States-led coalition drove the fundamentalist Taliban from power in 2001, but Afghanistan was a traditional Islamic society.

"Afghanistan cannot switch suddenly from one extreme to the other," he said, presenting the right to convert as too much for a country that upholds the Islamic punishment for apostasy.

The uproar sparked off by the case of Abdur Rahman, now on trial in Kabul for renouncing Islam, showed that Westerners saw religious freedom as a universal norm and not an extreme.

"It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another," Bush said on Wednesday.

Some critics suggested NATO states withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. A few even suggested that Western troops kidnap Abdur Rahman and bring him along when they leave.

"The case is more than deeply troubling, it's barbaric," wrote the New York Times. "If Afghanistan wants to return to the Taliban days, it can do so without the help of the United States."

Among the strongest critics are evangelical Christians in the United States, a core constituency that has backed Bush so far on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"How can we congratulate ourselves for liberating Afghanistan from the rule of jihadists only to be ruled by Islamists who kill Christians?" Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council asked.

Another leading figure, Charles Colson, said: "If we can't guarantee fundamental religious freedoms in the countries where we establish democratic reforms, then the whole credibility of our foreign policy is thrown into serious question."

Canada's top Anglican prelate, Archbishop Andrew Hutchinson, said of the Islamic punishment for apostasy that Rahman faces: "I'm absolutely horrified to think that this kind of fanatical literalism would be applied in this day and age."

European newspapers ran bitter commentaries. Munich's Sueddeutsche Zeitung said Kabul was "tolerant like the Taliban." Die Welt in Berlin wrote that Afghanistan faced "the dark ages of barbarity" if it executed Rahman.

"We have a duty not to cooperate in bringing back the burning of heretics at the stake," the Dutch daily Trouw wrote. Milan's Corriere della Sera said Western states helping Afghanistan should launch a movement to reform Islam there.

In Denmark, Jyllands-Posten, the daily that first ran the Prophet Mohammad cartoons, quoted Syrian-born member of parliament Naser Khader as saying: "If necessary, Danish troops should liberate Abdur Rahman and Denmark should offer him asylum.

"This matter underlines that sharia (Islamic law) must be fought wherever it exists," he said.

France's Marianne magazine made clear Western critics might not be satisfied if the Kabul court arranges to avoid the death sentence by declaring Rahman insane and unfit for trial.

"If he is not tried, he will probably end up in a psychiatric hospital, which for a man of sound mind is sometimes worse than death," it commented.