The Case of Perwiz Kambakhsh and Afghanistan’s Ongoing Culture Wars

January 30, 2008

There has been another very disturbing development in the case of Parwiz Kambakhsh, the young Afghan student of journalism who has been sentenced to death by a primary court in Northern Afghanistan for the crime of propagating “blasphemous” literature: the upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament has just delcared its decision to uphold the death sentence. The case will continue on its way through the labyrinth of more courts and legislative bodies, until one of these days it finally finds itself on the president’s desk. Most likely, every court along the way will try their best not to be seen as the one that finally overturned the decision, and hence somehow supported Kambakhsh’s anti-Islamic stance.

By now the justice system here has become myopically focused on the vitriolic content of the distributed literature that was written years ago by an Iranian dissident writer and was put on the internet -it was not even written by Kambakhsh, who is himself a student and an aspiring journalist. Apparently other considerations, such as the very constitutionality of the decision to even try somebody for their opinion is out the window. Afghanistan’s constitution, which was really a craft of compromise when it was agreed upon, makes half-hearted nods both to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and at the same time to a vague and amorphouse category of Islamic principles and values. Now, one of these would have Perwiz Kambakhsh killed, and the other would respect his right to free thought and expression. And this is not even the first of it -soon after the constitution was ratified two journalists were dragged to the courts on similarly drummed up charges of blaspheming and insulting Islam -and it is bound to be not the last of them; unless of course journalists learn their lessons and define their own boundaries of what is allowed and what not, i.e. self-censorship. (Then it will be the turn for bloggers who have been rash enough to abandon anonymity in an environment like this. Maybe some people are already talking about learning them computer heads a good lesson as well -there is already the internet link in Kambakhsh’s case.)

But really, the equivocality of the constitution and the daily barrage on the media and the journalists is symptomatic of a more fundamental fact of the Afghan society: there is an ongoing culture war in Afghanistan. This is the same non-ending culture war that first reached tipping point in 1912 and became a warm war (the spark then was the lovely Queen Suraya’s bare arms in a western dress, and pictures of young Afghan girls in skirts and hats studying abroad in Turkey.) The same ongoing culture war has influenced the course of Afghan political history over the last century. Kambakhsh and other journalists are all victims of this war. In reality, everyone, including those who vye for his blood, know deep down that his transgressions are not grave enough to warrant the death penalty. But what these people also know is that there is more at stake than merely the neck of one or two young journalist (especially that they do not enjoy the same immunities that many other journalists in Afghanistan do, i.e. back-up of their embassies, etc.) So in effect these people are telling the likes of Perwiz Kambakhsh:
“Sorry pal, we know it is a bit extreme to put the hangman’s noose around your neck (figure of speech, in actuality we would prefer for you to be stoned to death) for this – distributing stuff that you did not write and may not even fully endorse, or even understand. You did not even publish it, and it is not proven that you held secret group meetings to proselytize and discuss it. And we are not particularly opposed to Will Durant -whose book is a key incriminating evidence in your case- either. But times are tough and we are in a war. Your death is a small price to be paid for what this will teach others. Next thing and we might even allow the elected MP Malalay Joya back into the parliament, and allow Tolo TV to air Shakira concerts. Now that would be a slippery slope we cannot allow this nation to go down, wouldn’t it? So we hope you will try to understand. And if you don’t, well, too bad.”

For some of these people, it is even a win-win situation whether Kambakhsh dies or lives. If he dies, well, lesson learnt, victory achieved, Islam saved, and journalists harnessed for good. If he lives, it will likely be the president who pardons him- the sentence will likely be upheld in a landslide vote in the lower house, and the supreme court’s only concern would be whether the sentence is harsh enough. Unless and until his legal advisors find a loophole (and one that is acceptible to the clergy too) on the grounds of which they can send the case back down, the president is facing a serious headache. He is damned if he signs off on the death sentence of a young journalist, and he is damned if he does not. In Afghanistan we call that being sandwiched between the two stones of a mill – or a rock and a hard place.

Advertisements

A Woman Among Warlords

September 8, 2007

It is not everyday that I get emails addressed “Dear Editor,” imploring me to use my large readership to spread the word about a new film. So when I got an email from WMM about Eva Mulvad’s film “The Enemies of Happiness,” and thought about the possible royalties that could flow from rendering similar services for studios and publishing houses, I decided to do this post.

Hear ye! Hear all ye left-leaning American voters with loose purse strings and heart strings:
The National Broadcast Premiere of “A Woman Among Warlords” based on “Enemies of Happiness: The True Story of A Young Woman Fighting for Changes in Afghanistan” will be aired on PBS at 9PM on September 11th.
For more information, visit WMM website.

On a housekeeping matter, this first ad will be done on a pro bono basis, because I recall having praised Ms. Joya as “a fearless voice” earlier on this blog. Potential advertisers may contact the sales and advertisement division of Safrang. Also, a review of the film is forthcoming on Afghanistanica.

*
While it has become fashionable among respectable and otherwise self-restrained bloggers -Farsi and English alike- who do not usually make it their business to approve or disapprove of other people’s behavior to write admonishingly of Malalai Joya, I am not hesitant to put myself down as one of her admirers. Mind you, I take this stance without necessarily approving of her methods, or those of her handlers. All the same, as I have said before, what she is doing now -regardless of her methods, and perhaps because of them- is “cathartic for our national soul.” I thought so before the French Elle Magazine got ahold of Ms. Joya, and before she was airbrushed and pampered and made presentable into the rather good-looking and chic freedom fighter that she is now, and I still think so.

joya farah


In the Balance: The Fate of the Fourth Estate in Afghanistan

April 25, 2007

After addressing just about every other issue of urgent national priority, Afghanistan’s fledging parliament has now turned its attention to the nation’s media. We are surprised the body has not picked on this topic sooner. In a country where the political culture is still void of such concepts as accountability and transparency, and where political intrigue and back-room deals are the preferred modus operandi for the most consequential of decisions and policies, the media has played a most important role to date.

From shedding light on official corruption, to turning the camera on the snoring parliamentarians, Afghanistan’s budding print and media outlets have proven surprisingly daring and resilient. Such daring has not come at no cost: under the Shinwari Supreme Court two newspaper editors were sacked, sentenced, and subsequently forced to flee or exiled. The tragic death of Ajmal Naqshbandi was the latest in a long string of abductions and executions of journalists by the Taliban. And more recently, others have taken it in their own hands to rectify the media’s behavior, even if through unconstitutional and extra-legal measures.

Now, the fate of the Fourth Estate in Afghanistan hangs in the balance. The parliament is close to passing a bill that will further erode what little freedom the media enjoys. News of this impending doom has worried all those who have worked to advance the cause of an open society in Afghanistan, as it should worry all those who desire to see an open society take root in Afghanistan.

Report: Media at risk under new Afghan law