JUST LAW AND RELIGION
By Michael Kessler
President Obama heralded an encouraging new tone when he told Turkey’s Parliament on Monday that the United States “is not and will never be at war with Islam…America’s relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot and will not just be based upon opposition to terrorism…We seek broader engagement based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”
At the same time, a clandestine video surfaced of the brutal, public flogging of a young girl in the Swat Valley of Pakistan at the hands of the Taliban. The video is chilling. Dozens of adult males stand around a woman shrouded in a burka, which is pulled up exposing her youthful pink pants. The group watches silently while two men hold the woman down on the ground. Another man repeatedly hits her across the back and buttocks with a whip for many minutes. Her muffled screams betray the pain she endures.
The Taliban are in substantial control of the Swat Valley and, in order to maintain some measure of stability, the Pakistani government had recently brokered a deal with the Taliban to set up a new judicial system in the nearby Malakand region of the North West Frontier Province and allow the application of Sharia law in the region.
A spokesman for the Swat Taliban, Muslim Khan, reported that the Taliban had recently punished a woman for carrying on an improper relationship with her father-in-law but was unclear if that was the flogging depicted in the video. Whether or not the video captures this particular flogging is irrelevant–it’s a horrible practice and was a regular method of social control under the Afghani Taliban. It will likely surge again in the Swat Valley, now with Pakistan’s de facto approval.
Human rights groups have voiced outrage and the newly-reinstalled Pakistani Chief Justice Chaudhry has ordered an immediate hearing to investigate the matter. A wide variety of Pakistanis have condemned the whipping and the de facto rule of the Taliban.
The United States should voice strong outrage over this reprehensible practice and encourage Pakistan to exert pressure on the Taliban to stop such behavior. This is tricky, since Pakistan is trying to maintain stability in the region, but allowing the Taliban to exert such control over individuals should alarm and concern Pakistan’s global partners.
Besides issuing strong public condemnations, President Obama should also utilize the United Nations to address problems of this sort. Not that the international body has been very successful at stopping bad behavior, but our participation and leadership could redirect those efforts. It is encouraging that the State Department last week signaled its intent to run for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, in spite of the significant quagmires that Council has created for itself.
One such quagmire also reemerged last week. The Council has once again proffered a resolution about “Combating Defamation of Religions” that many have critiqued as overly broad. States are encouraged to provide “adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general, and to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs.” The problem with the statement arises in an overly broad definition about what constitutes “defamation.” Is any criticism of religiously-inspired violence–like the Taliban flogging–now considered defamation?
People of good will should answer with a resounding “No!” Some practices inspired by religions have no place in civilization, and we would do well to vigorously critique such practices without concern that we “defame” another religion.
At the same time, those who wage criticisms of religion have a heightened responsibility to differentiate the immense contributions and values of religious groups from the destructive ideologies and practices of a few. Not every Pakistani tolerates or inflicts barbarism–the vast majority of Pakistanis do not. Likewise, the greatest number of Muslims around the globe act on the best of intentions to secure peace and prosperity for themselves, their families, and their communities. We must treat them differently that we do those like the Taliban leaders who are religious tyrants.
President Obama demonstrated in Turkey that he understands how to draw the line properly between criticism of reprehensible violence and terror while engaging in sustained and substantive dialogue with reasonable partners from other regions and religions. The President can lead all of us in recognizing the difference between the Muslim woman beaten by the Taliban, her fellow citizens held captive, and the extremists holding political power through guns and fear.
As President Obama opens new avenues of collaboration and trust with the Islamic world, the United States must become a diligent champion of the forces in the world that enhance individual freedom and the dignity of communities. At the same time, people of good will must vigorously criticize those who seek to thwart human dignity and freedom in their own communities, or in ours.
Dr. Michael Kessler is Assistant Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University.
Courtesy: The Washington Post