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.