The official line on Afghanistan, as British troops prepare to depart after a deployment that began (unbelievably) more than twelve years ago, is that everything is just fine. “Mission accomplished” said David Cameron last month as he spoke to soldiers still based at Camp Bastion in Helmand province. “We have more than played our part in helping to rebuild this country and making it safe,” he added.
It would indeed be nice to think that a country whose constitution was framed in the full glare of international scrutiny and whose government has been propped up and supported by key UN powers would be one in which basic human rights were respected.
So it must be at the very least embarrassing that our own Home Office, not an institution often accused these days of being a soft touch, has granted asylum to a man in fear of his life because he no longer believes in God and wishes to live his life without publicly practising Islam. According to the man’s legal team, he fears for his safety even in the UK (where he has lived for the past seven years) should his name become known; if he returned to Afghanistan he would face persecution, even possibly a death sentence for blasphemy or apostasy under Sharia law. Even living “discreetly” as an atheist might prove impossible, it was argued, given that “every aspect of daily life and culture in Afghanistan is permeated by Islam”.
This last point suggests that the Home Office may have applied a precedent created in a case decided by the European Court of Justice in September 2012. Two Amahdis – members of a community that suffers systematic discrimination in Pakistan – successfully argued that laws penalising Ahmadis engaging in proselytism or even describing themselves as Muslims (which they believe themselves to be) amounted to persecution.
The German government argued that such restrictions on the public practice of faith did not constitute persecution for the purposes of the right of asylum. The ECJ disagreed. It ruled that both public and private exercise of religious freedom was protected under the EU asylum directive: “where it is established that, upon his return to his country of origin, the person concerned will engage in a religious practice which will expose him to a real risk of persecution, he should be granted refugee status” . The court went on to state that “national authorities cannot reasonably expect the applicant to abstain from the manifestation or practice of certain religious acts” to escape persecution.
Such reasoning would apply equally, or even more, to people not publicly practising any religion in places where this would place them in personal danger or threaten them with severe legal sanctions.
Is Afghanistan such a country, even after twelve years of international intervention and the loss of many of our own soldiers’ lives?
Officially, at least, the Afghan constitution guarantees freedom of religion, if only for Afghans who have a religion. While declaring Islam to be the “sacred religion of Afghanistan”, the country’s constitution promises that “followers of other faiths shall be free within the bounds of law in the exercise and performance of their religious rights”. It says nothing about the rights of non-believers, however. A US State Department report in 2012, moreover, concluded that other provisions of Afghan law contradicted these fine words.
It noted that “in situations where the constitution and penal code are silent, including apostasy and blasphemy, courts relied on interpretations of Islamic law, some of which conflict with the country’s international commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”. In particular, “conversion from Islam is considered apostasy and is punishable by death under some interpretations of Islamic law in the country”. While there seemed to be no one currently facing death in the country for blasphemy or as an apostate, the report declared that “the right to change one’s religion was not respected either in law or in practice“. It also suggested that people accused of such “crimes” found it difficult to obtain legal representation “due to most Afghan lawyers’ personal objection to defending apostates”.
Even if the present Afghan government doesn’t actively persecute non-believers, it would seem to have very little control over those who might. As Patrick Cockburn recently commented, “the main problem in Afghanistan is not the strength of the Taliban but the weakness of the government”.
Today’s case is unusual in that it’s said to be the first in this country in which lack of religion, rather than adherence to a persecuted minority faith, has been used as a ground for a successful asylum application. Indeed, the news has moved the British Humanist Association’s Andrew Copson to make the questionable assertion that “Freedom of belief for humanists, atheists and other non-religious people is… too often neglected by Western governments who focus too narrowly on the rights of Christians abroad, as we have seen recently”.
This will come as a surprise to many disappointed by the British government’s slowness in responding to the plight of Christian communities in countries where they face systemic persecution, exile or death, especially in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring – a process that, as William Dalrymple recently wrote, has “rapidly turned into a Christian winter”. But Copson is undoubtedly right to point out that freedom of religion and freedom from religion are equally important. In fact, they are essentially the same thing. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the “right to freedom of thought, “conscience and religion”, a right that, importantly, “includes the freedom to change one’s religion or belief”.
This much, indeed, seems obvious. We tend to think of religious belief (or lack thereof) as being essentially a matter of personal conscience. The notion of forcing someone to adhere to a particular religious doctrine strikes most people in the developed world as fairly absurd, however natural it may once seemed to, say, Henry VIII. Indeed, the idea of the religious conscience wasn’t invented during the European Enlightenment: a much-quoted verse of the Quran proclaims that there should be “no compulsion in religion”. Yet in many parts of the world, including in some major Western allies such as Saudi Arabia, the right to criticise or publicly dissent from the prevailing religion scarcely exists. A report prepared last year by the International Humanist and Ethical Union declared that “the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers… In the worst cases, the state denies the rights of atheists to exist, or seeks total control over their beliefs and actions.”
This suggests that, potentially, there may be millions of people who could, like the unnamed Afghan man, justifiably claim a well-grounded fear of persecution because of their lack of religious faith.