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Afghans should guarantee liberty for minority religions, Land says

WASHINGTON (BP)–While the United States may not impose freedom of religion on the government to be established in Afghanistan, that state should not have the right to interfere with the practice of minority faiths or with the conversion of people to those faiths, Southern Baptist church-state leader Richard Land said at a panel discussion sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, was one of four speakers who discussed the role of religion in rebuilding a civil society in Afghanistan during a Dec. 14 session. The near eastern Asian country is in the process of establishing a new government after the American-led response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks removed the Islamic-militant Taliban regime from power.

Panelists representing not only Christianity, which Land did, but also Judaism, Islam and Hinduism provided perspectives on religious reconciliation and tolerance in Afghanistan.

It would be appropriate for the United States and other Western governments to recommend humbly a First Amendment-type of religious freedom to Afghanistan, which is predominantly Islamic, but “I don’t think we should try to impose it,” Land said. “If Afghans feel as a group of peoples that they want to have an Islamic society, then they have the right to do that, as long as they don’t deny the basic human rights of people who choose not to be a part of that society.”

He cited the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which calls for freedom of religion, including the liberty to change one’s belief or religion and to practice that belief publicly.

“It seems to me that has to be the threshold below which we cannot go,” said Land, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “In other words, to say, ‘Look, if you want to build an Islamic society, you can recommend it, but you can’t coerce it. And you have to grant freedom of conscience.’ . . . It’s one thing to say that you have the right to share your faith . . . but it’s also important that people have the right to respond to that, if they choose to do so, without state sanctions against them.”

He would say the same thing to a Jewish, Hindu or Christian society, Land said.

Howard University professor Sulayman Nyang, representing Islam, said he agreed with Land. The United States can tell the Afghans it has the benefit of history and the inclusion of many Muslims in its society, Nyang said, “But in the final analysis, organize yourselves in a manner [in which] you will not be victimized and you will not victimize religious minorities.”

Land said, “As a Baptist, as an American, I think the whole world would benefit from adopting our model embodied in the First Amendment of having a free church or a free religious community in a free state, where the government is not on the side of one religion or another. But I also understand that as an American I don’t have the right to seek to impose that on any other society. I recommend it. I think it’s better for religion. I think it’s better for society. But I don’t have the right and wouldn’t seek to impose it on other societies.

“If there are societies that want to give preference to a particular religious communion, then they have the right to do so,” he said. “What they don’t have the right to do is to then persecute or to seek to interfere with the practice of the faith of those of other religions who choose not to follow the dominant religious perspective in that society.”

For Christians, practicing their faith includes “the right and the obligation to share their faith in a non-coercive way with everyone,” Land told participants. He read Matthew 28:19-20, in which Jesus gives his command to make disciples of “all nations.”

“If we are going to be followers and disciples of Jesus, as Christians we have a mandate and an obligation to share our personal faith in a non-coercive way,” Land said. “And so religious freedom and religious toleration that [exclude] that understanding of practice of faith is unacceptable to hundreds of millions of people from a Christian perspective.”

While Islamic states traditionally guarantee religious freedom, they normally do not allow attempts to convert Muslims to other faiths.

Nyang said the greatest fear of the Afghans is the “U.S. will abandon them.”

There is another “legitimate fear” he thinks Afghans have, Land said. It is the fear “the West will attempt to impose a secularism on them that seeks to make their religion and the religious aspect of their lives irrelevant, and that’s also a form of fundamentalism . . . the fundamentalism of secularism,” Land said. “We don’t have the right to try to say to them that their religion is irrelevant to their society.”

Secularism seeks “to reduce religious faith to a hobby,” he said. “I think many societies outside the West have been very correct in saying, ‘If you are saying the alternative to what we have is this kind of secularism, we don’t want it.'”

When Muslims begin to encounter the West, Nyang said, they “begin to find themselves at a disadvantage . . . and you can see the retrenching of some Muslims to some of these old concepts that existed in early Islam. Some of them would either be triumphantists [sic] or some of them would become very defensive and they would hide behind . . . religious exclusivism.”

Historically, “there has been an intolerant strain in Islam and occasionally [it] emerge[s] and become[s] dominant from one society to the other, but hopefully, and historically, [it has] never been dominant all across the Muslim world,” Nyang said.

Arnold Resnicoff, national director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, offered eight ideas from Judaism to help in rebuilding the Afghanistan society.

They were: Focusing on responsibilities instead of rights; promoting diversity; practicing empathy; fearing the “unchecked power” of the state and of religion; being humble; remembering the past; breaking the cycle of revenge, and seeking peace.

“It’s not toleration that we should be aiming for but a celebration of diversity,” Resnicoff said. The only time in the Hebrew Bible when everyone agreed “was when they built the Tower of Babel, and they were all wrong,” he said.

The other panelist was Uma Saini, a professor at American University who provided the Hindu perspective.

In opening remarks to the audience of about 40, Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of State for global affairs, said “religion, and faith, plays a very important role” in rebuilding a civil society.

President Bush appointed Land to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in September. The nine-member panel, which is named by the president and congressional leaders, does research on religious liberty worldwide and makes recommendations to the White House and Congress.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: RICHARD LAND.