Writing and expressing oneself is not an easy job in Afghanistan. It is true that the media in Afghanistan is free compared to its neighbours, but it still has its own unique challenges.
The media landscape in Afghanistan is typical of a country with such a meagre literacy rate. Radio and TV are the main sources of information for people both in urban and rural areas, whereas few have access to or are interested in the print media. But interestingly, for the last few years, the internet, particularly social media, has gained widespread popularity thanks to the availability of internet services on mobile phones. In fact, social media is becoming the only major and constructive medium for breaking stories, sharing opinion pieces, and conducting debates and discussions.
The opinion sets and rationales in Afghanistan are as diverse as the ethnic groups in the country. These could conveniently be divided on the basis of either faith or ethnicity, with major ones being the extremists, the ultra-conservative Islamists, the conservatives, the secular Muslims, the liberals, the non-religious extremists (or the liberal fascists) amongst others. So, every opinion piece published on the media could be evaluated through different perspectives and barometers, and could spawn various responses. Some of these responses could even provoke and cause anger in the public.
The public discourse in the country is still dominated by the ultra conservatives who are still far from accepting any sort of criticism or debate related to Islam. An article recently published by The Afghanistan Express Daily under the title “The Islam of the Taliban and ISIS” caused a public furore and uproar. Not surprisingly the writer was accused of blasphemy and many called for his public prosecution.
Even though, I did not find the article a scientific piece backed by facts or rationality, it did, somehow, make some sense. The writer tried to rebuke ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham) and the Taliban and expressed his frustration towards divinity. It was perceived as if the writer was rebuking Islam itself. What people need to understand is the fact that even if the someone tries to rebuke or debate some conservative or outdated notions in a religion it shouldn’t be considered as a crime. For me, the reaction against the writer was completely agonizing.
Abdo Rabb-er-Rasul Sayyaf, a former warlord and now parliamentarian, was one of the first people to denounce and condemn the article and call on the government to punish the writer. In his Facebook post, he labelled the writer as an apostate, calling for punishment and a legal action against the newspaper. He also added that Islam should not be criticised for the action of a few Muslims.
I believe that it could have been very reasonable of him had he put some effort on reflecting on the actions of ISIS and Taliban against the fundamentals of Islam rather than scapegoating a mere writer. His actions clearly proved that for him, ISIS and the Taliban stand for Islam and thus it was his “duty” to unintentionally (or intentionally but hypocritically) defend them.
Another warlord, politician and prominent member of the Islamic Party of Afghanistan Qutbuddin Hilal even took the effort to write a whole article on the issue. His article was nothing more than a mere translation/interpretation of the article under question. In his last paragraph, he condemned the writer, the newspaper and called the writer an apostate. Furthermore, he cursed the writer and asked the government to punish him for his “blasphemous insult” of Islam. He failed to put forward any counterargument or defy the writer with reason. In fact, he could have written about human rights in Islam and proven that slavery, tax on non-believers and murder of non-Muslims are not permissible in Islam – contrary to what ISIS and the Taliban do.
In both the aforementioned cases, the warlords are merely trying to limit the freedom of speech, so as to avoid any sort of criticism on Islam, or its extreme interpretations by ISIS, the Taliban and their associates.
As long as the Clergy (Mullahs) and Religion enjoy unaccountable authority to decide on people’s fate, freedom of speech and thought cannot prevail.
Issues such as blasphemy and insult of belief should not be treated with anger and condemnation, rather debated and discussed in a civilised manner. The public should be encouraged to be able to deal with such issues with patience and debate the issues with open minds and free thoughts. Until then, one cannot hope and wish for a progressive Afghan society.
Musa Aziz, is a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) fellow and holds a Master from University of Erfurt – Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Germany. Before starting his MPP degree at the Willy Brandt School, Musa completed an accredited certification in Good Governance Afghanistan from the same institution.
He has worked with different governmental and non-governmental organizations for over three years. Throughout his academic and professional career, Musa particularly focused on poverty reduction, economic development, human rights, education, peace-building and conflict resolution. His research interests are contemporary political issues and political discourses in South Asia and Middle East.
You can find him on his Website
*Cover image ‘Freedom of Speech‘ by AlbertBurgers