The Truth, Mainly - 09/03/2001

On Taliban theocracy and the Religious Right
by Leon Satterfield

I suppose most of you have read about the Taliban militia's latest outrage in Afghanistan. Let me remind you anyway. It goes like this:

In early August, the Taliban religious police, the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, arrested eight foreigners and sixteen Afghans-all aid workers for a German philanthropy called Shelter Now International. They were jailed and charged with trying to convert Afghans from Islam to Christianity by offering them theology along with food and housing.

And get this: after the arrests, Taliban officials said that all 24 might be subject to the death penalty.

The trials, closed to the public, are pending. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has the final say on what punishment may result.

The illegal Christian theology came in the form of Bibles translated into Pashto and Dari (the languages of most Afghans), and video and audio tapes about the life of Jesus. Officials also confiscated a book called "Sharing Your Faith With a Muslim."

Under Taliban rules, see, it's illegal to mess with the Islamic beliefs of anyone in Afghanistan.

And here's the kicker: among the eight foreign aid workers arrested and jailed were two American women, Heather Mercer, 24, and Dayna Curry, 29.

Abdul Ghafoor Afghani, the Taliban chief of protocol, said this about that: "The American women were caught, as you say, red-handed, in an Afghan's house, where they knew they were not to go. They were trying to show a video about Jesus, from his birth to his—what is the word?—I think it is crucifixion."

Make your blood boil? Well I should say.

Put it on the list with other Taliban blood-boilers: blowing up giant Buddha statues, banning foreign literature, and outlawing all of the following: the playing of musical instruments, education for girls older than eight, women in public who are unveiled or whose ankles show or who wear fingernail polish, men with (in the NY Times' words) "hair too long or beards too short." And that's just a partial list.

Now I'm a dirty rotten secular humanist who doesn't much admire the presumption of missionaries who go off to win converts from other religions. I agree with the Afghan businessman who told the Times that aid workers shouldn't "come with a Bible in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other. This is taking unfair advantage of the poor."

But still, this latest adventure in Taliban tyranny makes my blood boil. And if it upsets a dirty rotten secular humanist like me, the ban on Christian proselytizing must really upset the Christian Right in America.

Which I find deliciously ironic.

Consider this: Taliban outlawing of Christianity is possible because the Taliban regime is unapologetically theocratic. That means it doesn't get its mandate from the people nor even from a royal family. It gets its mandate from Divine Authority, as Taliban understands Divine Authority.

Taliban is the last word in faith-based organizations.

But our founding fathers, in whose minds Divinely Authorized activities like the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials were still fresh, tried to inoculate the United States against theocracy in the very first clause of the very first amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…."

And the Christian Right in this country, probably indignant as all get out over the tyranny of the Afghan theocracy, nevertheless often finds itself leaning toward an American theocracy.

That's how they lean when they insist that we are "a Christian nation." They don't simply mean that more of us profess Christianity than profess other religions. They mean that Christianity goes with America in ways that Judaism or Islam or the religion of Native Americans do not. They mean that you're a flawed American if you're not Christian.

They lean toward a Christian theocracy when they post Bible passages on the walls of courtrooms dedicated to justice for all Americans, or on schoolroom walls dedicated to education for all Americans, or in city parks dedicated to recreation for all Americans.

And they lean toward a Christian theocracy when, on the basis of their reading of Divine Authority in the Bible, they go to the polls to exclude gays and lesbians from some of the legal rights that the rest of us enjoy.

So, yeah, let's all join in a big Bronx cheer for the theocracy the Taliban suppresses its countrymen with.

But let's recognize what it is we're giving the razzberry to. And let's respect the founders' effort to keep us from going down the path we find so wicked when others choose it.

There. That's off my chest. For a while.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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