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March 24, 2006
First they came for Abdul Rahman

By Ahmed Amr.


First they came for Abdul Rahman
By Ahmed Amr

This week we witnessed America and Europe at their very best - rallying in unison against the unjustifiable trial and possible execution of a man whose only crime was that he freely chose to become a Christian. What is especially heartening about this case is the West's concern over the plight of a single individual Afghan. This could be or should be the start of a very beautiful thing.

Every freedom lover in the world should be encouraged by this very new and very powerful phenomenon. The conscience of Europe has been stirred by the unfathomable tribulation facing one solitary convert - over there.

Rational human beings the world over are demanding an explanation from the Afghan government. What part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights don't they understand? Article 18 of this powerful document, which affirms the dignity of each and every individual on the planet, is very explicit. "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." Abdul Rahman freely chose to convert and had the courage to publicly proclaim his new faith. That he did so in Afghanistan shows the depth and sincerity of his belief. So, let the man be and change that medieval law while you're at it.

Imagine a world in which every man and every woman was accorded their full rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What a beautiful place this would be. Contemplate the vision of a planet where the Prime Minister of Australia and Canada regularly reacted with revulsion at the thought that an innocent abroad was facing the gallows for a simple act of faith or on account of his origins. Envision a New World Order where every major American and European paper wrote impassioned editorials condemning the violations of this affirmative charter.

Every government in the world should have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined in its constitution. It is an inspiring document that far too often is honored in the breach than the observance.

Perhaps the most important part of the Declaration is the preamble, which calls for the recognition of the "inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." These inalienable rights are clearly stated in thirty separate articles. For many reasons, the promise of this document, which was written in 1948, has yet to be realized. Those who have championed its universal implementation have every cause to be dismayed. Six decades later, it has yet to be codified as international law. For all practical matters, it remains an advisory document that governments honor when they consider it convenient.

Nothing illustrates the potential power of this document more than the case of Abdul Rahman. One man's struggle to claim his natural right under article 18 has generated a universal outbreak of anxiety over his fate. The pressure generated against the government in Kabul is unprecedented and very welcome. While there is no doubting the sincerity of those who are genuinely appalled by the predicament of this individual Afghan, one can't but wonder why many of these same people are never troubled by the daily systematic violations of other elements of this charter in other parts of the world. Incidentally, I include myself among the guilty.

Stalin is reputed to have said that "one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic." How many people can honestly dispute that? And what exactly is wrong with us? Consider article 3 of the declaration that states that "every one has the right to life, liberty and security of person." And then think about the obnoxious idea of "collateral damage." When General Tommy Franks casually declared that "we don't do body counts", where was the outrage? How about when Albright casually dismissed the million Iraqi victims who died as a result of American sanctions as being "worth it."

Statistics coming out of Iraq confirm that American forces have killed more innocent Iraqis than the insurgents - mostly due to very lax rules of engagement. And if you didn't notice, just this week US marines executed a family of thirteen - five of them children. It was apparently an act of vengeance after local insurgents killed one of their buddies. Did it even occur to the Italian government to threaten a withdrawal of their troops if the matter was not thoroughly investigated?

I don't want to pick on the Italians. So, how about those justice loving Canadians. Is their Prime Minister aware of Article 5 that unambiguously states that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment?" Why didn't the government of Canada make their participation in the Afghan mission contingent on a prompt closure of that dungeon of inequity we know as Guantanmo? And while we are on the subject of torture - does Senator Frist and his Republican majority stay up nights worrying about Abu Ghraib and the death squads in Iraq? Maybe they should take another look at article 10 that states "everyone is entitled to full equality and to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him."

For six decades, the Palestinians have invoked article 13 of the charter to buttress their case for their natural right to return to their homeland. It gives every man the right to leave and return to his country. Yet Bush has publicly declared that the "right of return" is "unrealistic." And of course, there is the Geneva Convention governing the military occupation of another people's land. Israel is not entitled to confiscate Palestinian land to establish exclusive Jewish settlements and collective punishment and economic sanctions are strictly prohibited. That's just for starters.

The case of Abdul Rahman and article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is especially pertinent to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The native people of the Holy Land were forced into exile based on a crude test of faith. A Jew born in Siberia or Brooklyn has a right to return under Israeli law, while a Palestinian Christian or Muslim can't even visit his family's home in Haifa.

Muslims around the world should be the first to rally to the cause of Abdul Rahman whose name translates into the "servant of a merciful God." From a purely practical standpoint, they have the most to gain by honoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the most to lose by breaching it. The fate and reputation of tens of millions of Muslims who live as minorities around the world is at stake. Demonstrate tolerance as a majority in predominantly Muslim countries and you can righteously demand tolerance as minorities. Accept the rare defector from the faith and expect sincere believers to willingly and voluntarily convert to Islam.

Whatever one might say about the breach of human rights by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan - within the boundaries of the United States, the laws of the land that apply to American citizens also apply to American Muslims. And they very closely conform to the particulars of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is also the case in Canada, Australia and Europe. In the case of Abdul Rahman, some very ordinary Europeans and Americans have come to see him as just another individual - entitled to the same rights that they enjoy under their domestic laws. That is an incredibly radical idea. Their very justifiable outrage should be harnessed and encouraged. If there ever comes a time when Europeans and Americans decide to extend these human right 'privileges' to every Afghani and every Iraqi and every Palestinian - the world will be an infinitely safer and kinder place for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is all about individual rights. Take the 'right of return.' It is a privilege accorded to every Palestinian - as a person not as a part of a group. That's precisely why it can't be negotiated away or abrogated by the United States or any other earthly power. Imagine if a whole bunch of ordinary Americans and Europeans got up one morning and got all worked up about the natural right of every Palestinian to move back to his or her native village. Or if they suddenly realized that the Geneva Convention applies to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza - not to mention Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya.

The authors and signatories to the Declaration of Human Rights didn't just dream up this document so we could all be nice to each other. Rather, they recognized that by promoting the rights of every individual they would help bring peace and justice to every nation. So, let's start by saving Abdul Rahman and follow it up by a pandemic of outrage to save the world.

To paraphrase Pastor Martin Niemoller "First they came for Abdul Rahman and I spoke out because I was a Muslim. Then they came for the Palestinians and I raised hell because I was a Jew. Then they came for the Iraqis and I protested because I was an American. Then they came for the Muslims and I spoke out because I was a Christian, Then they came for the poor and I spoke out because I was rich. By the time they came for me, I had all the support a man could ask for."

Ahmed Amr is the editor of NileMedia.com

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