The sad silence over Abdul Rahman

If the RSS proposed that any Hindu who converted to Islam or Christianity should be hanged, there would be a hue and cry. Political parties ranging from the Congress to the Samajwadi Party to the Left Front would condemn the shameful bigotry of the RSS, and rightly so.

I would be at the forefront of the chorus of condemnation. Although I am an atheist, I believe that to kill a man for changing his religious beliefs is appalling. It is a throwback to the ghastly ancient Catholic custom of burning heretics at the stake.

So, I am aghast at the virtual silence in India over the proposed execution of Abdul Rahman of Afghanistan for what his country’s legal system regards as the capital offence of having converted to Christianity. But I hear no outcry from moderate Muslims, or Hindu intellectuals who normally wave the secular flag. None of the major secular parties seems interested in deploring the horror. They would rather bury their heads in the sand and emerge only when Hindu communalism is the issue.

I always knew that Afghanistan’s new Constitution made it an Islamic state. But I had no idea that its laws called for the execution of any Muslim who converts to another religion. Needless to say, the law happily permits Christians or Hindus to convert to Islam.

This is not a case of some Islamic extremist saying crazy things. This is not a law in some state ruled by mad mullahs. It is the law in a country supposedly rescued by liberals from the religious extremism of the Taliban. It is the law in a country that India hails as secular, and as an old friend.

For that reason, intellectuals and political parties that never hesitated to condemn the excesses of the Taliban are silent today. To me, this reeks of hypocrisy.

Abdul Rahman’s troubles began with a divorce suit. He attempted to gain custody of his children, but his wife told the court that Rahman was unfit to get custody since he had converted to Christianity 16 years earlier. An alert prosecutor promptly charged Rahman with apostasy, punishable by death.

The prosecution had widespread public support. Rahman had to be kept in a high-security cell for fear that other prison inmates would kill him. Apparently his “crime” was enough to enrage even hardened criminals.

Most people would have quickly repudiated their conversion to escape death. But Rahman refused to budge. Go ahead and kill me, he said, but I will remain true to my faith.

This was politically inconvenient for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had come to power with US assistance. Instead of amending the obnoxious law, he has (with the connivance of courts) resorted to the stratagem of pretending that Rahman is insane and unfit to stand trial. Probably Rahman will be given asylum in some foreign country.

Some would say that a man who prefers death to religious opportunism is indeed insane.

I say that a person willing to die for his religious beliefs, without threatening violence or retribution, is a hero.

My fellow secularists will argue: why raise a fuss about Abdul Rahman? He is going to be sent out of Afghanistan, and will not die. Indeed, sundry Christian associations will hail and support him wherever he goes.

To me, this is moral cowardice parading as pragmatism. Religious bigotry, whether of the Hindu or Islamic variety, is a curse, an evil. If it is not attacked wherever it exists, it will spread.

I have fought most of my life against Hindu religious bigotry, and castigated the RSS as a threat to the social fabric of multi-cultural India. I have viewed Indian Muslim communalism as a minor threat, and sometimes no more than a reaction to Hindu bigotry. But international Muslim communalism today is a rising threat to all of us, as evidenced by foreign religious soldiers in Kashmir, and bomb blasts in Indian cities. A milder but still disturbing form of international communalism is the lack of protests in Muslim countries over Abdul Rahman’s prosecution. It bodes ill for the future.

We need to fight all religious bigotry—Muslim, Hindu or Christian. We must not gloss over the shocking Afghan law placing religious converts on par with murderers, worthy of execution. I use the word we, yet I do not how many people are with me on this issue. I hear mainly silence from Islamic countries. I hear mainly silence from supposed secularists in India. Hardly anybody wants to rock the boat for something as minor as principle.

All my life, I have sought a brotherhood of man. But if some fellow humans say I can be killed for my beliefs, will they ever be my brothers? Is there any future for this vision of brotherhood

What do you think?