Saturday, June 5, 2010

Religious Freedom, Afghanistan, and The Point of It All

This last week, a little news item flitted across the religion news pages, to be quickly forgotten. It had to do with two Christian relief agencies, both of which provide material support to the Afghan people. The Afghan government shut down the operations of both, alleging that they were involved in proselytizing, which is explicitly forbidden under Afghan law.

Neither Church World Service or Norwegian Church Aid could be described as evangelical. They're not out there trying to convert. They're trying to fulfill the Christian mandate to provide care for those in need. Both are progressive, ecumenical, and sensitive to the needs, culture, and religious sensibilities of local communities. Take a look at the Church World Service web site. Winning souls for Jesus ain't their schtick.

But after a local television station began making allegations based apparently on nothing more than innuendo and the word "Church" in their name, angry mobs took to the streets. Now both groups have been forced by the Afghan government to suspend operations, as it investigates whether these groups have violated provisions in the Constitution of Afghanistan that forbid conversion from Islam. I have two reactions to this.

First, the allegations are clearly false, but that doesn't seem to matter much in Afghanistan. Truth is hard to find, but it ain't like most folks bother tryin'. Rumors that feed existing hatreds are just so much easier. The cultural sensitivities within that community are as twitchy as a recently-set antipersonnel mine. Outrage comes as easily as flipping a rather well-worn switch. Reminds me of the Tea Party, for some reason.

Second, we recently entered into new territory in Afghanistan. It is now the single longest military commitment in American history. We've been there longer than we were in 'Nam. Thousands upon thousands of American servicemen and women have put their lives on the line in Afghanistan, and many have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. Without the support of the United States, the government in Afghanistan would not exist.

Yet the government that America has put into place there imposes restrictions on human freedom that are totally antithetical to our values as a nation. Yeah, I know, nobody likes proselytizing. But a nation-state that bans it is not worth the blood and sweat of our troops, nor is it worth all the money we've borrowed from China. I'm not saying that as some way of channeling Ann Coulter, asserting that if we just forced 'em all to follow Jesus, things would be copacetic. Not at all. I just can't see the point of creating a nation...and it is our which a citizen cannot choose not to follow the religion of the majority.

An Afghan should be free to be Muslim. But also Christian. Or Buddhist. Or Hindu. Or Jewish. They should be free to be an Atheist, if they so choose. Not only that, Afghan Christians and Buddhists and Hindus and Jews and Atheists should be free to talk about what they believe, and free to attempt to persuade others of the merits of their belief. Those are the blessings of liberty which were ordained and established in the American Constitution. Those are the values that make America a good thing, even with all her blemishes.

Yeah, I know, imposing this set of values on the Afghan people would have been an affront to their culture. What we don't seem to have realized as we've poured blood and treasure into that region is that the problem in Afghanistan wasn't governmental. What made Afghanistan the seedbed for attacks against our soil wasn't a regime. It was a set of values broadly held by the society.

We've mistakenly assumed that the processes of democracy are the same as the values of our republic. And though we've done some good there, I do find myself wondering, more deeply than I have before, about the point of it all.