Here at On Faith, we’re engaged in a spirited and compelling debate over whether President-elect Barack Obama should say “so help me God” when he finishes taking the Oath of Office, and whether the ceremony should include clergy prayers. Some say yes, others say no. No one has been arrested for expressing an opinion.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, where the presidential oath of office begins “In the name Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate,” an editor at a small newspaper in Afghanistan was arrested “for publishing an article in which he has rejected revelation. This is an insult to Islam and the rest of the religions,” Afghanistan’s deputy attorney general, Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar, told AFP.
What we’ve got here is failure to communicate freely.
Afghanistan’s 2004 Constitution, a product of the Bush Administration’s regime change there, states that “Every Afghan shall have the right, according to provisions of law, to print and publish on subjects without prior submission to state authorities.” Unfortunately for the Afghan editor and others there, it also says “In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”
Is it possible to have a constitutional theocracy? Under Islamic law, as stipulated in Afghanistan’s Constitution, blasphemy — merely a form of free thought and speech — is punishable by death. When he took the oath of office, Afghan’s democratically-elected president, Hamid Karzai, swore “to obey and safeguard the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” That he has done.
One year ago, a young Afghan journalist was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death for distributing an internet article that said the Prophet Mohammad had ignored the rights of women. Last October, an Afghan appeals court reduced Sayad Parwez Kambaksh’s sentence to 20 years in prison. Twenty years in prison for exercising the sort of freedom that President Bush has said “is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to all humanity.”
Neither God nor America and its armed forces have been able to deliver that gift to Afghanistan.
Regardless of whether Obama concludes the Oath of Office with the words “so help me God,” what he’s promising “to preserve, protect and defend” is — among other freedoms — our freedom to accept or reject revelation. That’s not just a gift. It’s a human right.