Afghan Envoy Defends New Constitution on Rights

The central role of Islam in the new Afghan constitution does not mean it is undemocratic or lacking in guarantees of human rights and religious freedom, Kabul's ambassador to France said Thursday.

Zalmai Haquani, who taught law in France before taking up his diplomatic post, said the text agreed Sunday contained multiple guarantees of democracy and equality after decades of excesses by communists and the radical Islamic Taliban.

He rejected suggestions from a senior U.S. official that a key reference in the text to sharia law meant the country might drift toward a "Taliban-lite" regime that violated rights Western countries want Kabul to protect.

"There are always ways to abuse Islam," he told journalists, arguing Afghanistan's turbulent history showed no laws or rules could completely exclude violence or excesses.

"If, by some great misfortune, Afghanistan were again under the Taliban, they wouldn't look at the constitution," he said.

The new constitution confirms Islam as the state religion, says no laws can violate Islamic principles and stipulates that one of the main versions of sharia law will prevail in cases where there are no provisions in the constitution or civil laws.

John Hanford, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, expressed concern at a State Department briefing last month about how these laws would be interpreted.

"We want to be sure that we don't wind up with Taliban-lite or something that could ever resort back to what we were dealing with in Afghanistan before," he said on Dec. 18. The United States led Western forces that overthrew the Taliban in 2001.


Haquani said the constitution, whose text was not yet available in Western languages, clearly stated that men and women were equal under Afghan law and that Kabul would respect all the international rights conventions it has signed.

He said non-Muslims were free to practice their religion within the law, without saying which legal provisions would apply. Islamic law usually bans conversion, a point that U.S. evangelical churches have regularly criticized.

Haquani rejected Hanford's questioning of the use of Hanafi sharia law whenever no civil law existed. The text does not use the word "sharia" but its reference to the Hanafi school of sharia legal scholarship makes clear it will be used.

"Hanafi is the most liberal jurisprudence in Islam," he said. "It allows a very wide range of interpretation according to where the law is applied."

Haquani suggested critics placed too much emphasis on legal guarantees, which could be flouted by a strongman in a country as underdeveloped as Afghanistan, and placed too much blame on Islam for shortcomings in Afghan society.

"In Afghan history, many of the setbacks for human rights did not come from the application of Islam," he said. "They came from traditions, from cultural problems, from tribal problems.

That's where we have to evolve."