Afghanistan: Harsh Forms Of Criticism
Sayed Pervez Kambaksh
A young man has been sentenced to death in Afghanistan for downloading a report from the Internet and distributing it.
The Independent reports:
A young man, a student of journalism, is sentenced to death by an Islamic court for downloading a report from the internet. The sentence is then upheld by the country's rulers. This is Afghanistan – not in Taliban times but six years after "liberation" and under the democratic rule of the West's ally Hamid Karzai.
The fate of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh has led to domestic and international protests, and deepening concern about erosion of civil liberties in Afghanistan. He was accused of blasphemy after he downloaded a report from a Farsi website which stated that Muslim fundamentalists who claimed the Koran justified the oppression of women had misrepresented the views of the prophet Mohamed.
Mr Kambaksh, 23, distributed the tract to fellow students and teachers at Balkh University with the aim, he said, of provoking a debate on the matter. But a complaint was made against him and he was arrested, tried by religious judges without – say his friends and family – being allowed legal representation and sentenced to death.
So much for debate and freedom of speech.
The UN, human rights groups, journalists' organizations and Western diplomats have urged the Karzai government to intervene and free Kambaksh. But the Afghan Senate passed a motion on January 30 confirming the death sentence. Welcome to the US puppet government and its barbarianism.
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Sayed Pervez Kambaksh's imminent execution is an affront to civilised values. It is not, however, a foregone conclusion. If enough international pressure is brought to bear on President Karzai's government, his sentence may yet be overturned. Add your weight to the campaign by urging the Foreign Office to demand that his life be spared. Sign the Independent's e-petition here
Maybe we shouldn't be surprised at the severity of the verdict. You'll recall that after Salman Rushdie published his novel, Satanic Verses, Ayatollah Khomeni issued a fatwa condemning him to death. It seems that Satanic Verses appropriated the prophet Muhammad as a character and attributed what some thought were insulting things to him. Later, the writer VS Naipaul, one of my heroes, described the fatwah as "an extreme form of literary criticism."
It may be difficult to tell what will insult readers and even make them throw rocks. As Rushdie himself wrote in The Ground Beneath Her Feet,
"Insults are mysteries. What seems to the bystander to be the cruelest, most destructive sledgehammer of an assault, whore! slut! tart!, can leave its target undamaged, while an apparently lesser gibe, thank god you're not my child, can fatally penetrate the finest suits of armour, you're nothing to me, you're less than the dirt on the soles of my shoes, and strike directly at the heart."
Which brings me to two years ago, and this rock throwing and literary criticism news:
Demonstrations against the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by newspapers in Europe spread across Asia and the Middle East today, turning violent in Afghanistan, where at least four protesters were killed and over a dozen police officers and protesters injured.
The protests gained momentum all over the Muslim world, a day after attacks on the Danish consulate in Lebanon and the Danish and Norwegian Embassies in Damascus, Syria, on Saturday. Muslim clerics led demonstrations in half a dozen cities in Afghanistan, and protesters turned out in Indonesia, India, Thailand, Iran, and even in New Zealand, where local newspapers recently reprinted the offending cartoons.
A teenager died in Somalia in East Africa today when police fired in the air to disperse stone-throwing protesters and set off a stampede. A crowd of about 200 people stoned and broke the windows of the Austrian Embassy in the Iranian capital, Teheran, and tried to hurl gasoline bombs inside, Reuters reported. Police with riot shields prevented further damage and the crowd dissipated after an hour, the agency reported.
I have worried that not enough people would buy and read my 2005 novel, The Dream Antilles. But that seeming problem, a mix of ego, marketing and personal finance, pales compared with the idea that a few people would read my book and then thousands and thousands around the world would run into the streets trying to maim and kill people because of the affronts they perceived in it. Or that they would react in this way to some cartoons. Or to the downloading and distribution of an internet report. Or the conferral of a knighthood on an Salman Rushdie whose best work in my view was Midnight's Children, a remarkable magical realism novel paralleling the birth of India as a nation which won the 1981 Booker Prize and was later awarded the 'Booker of Bookers' Prize in 1993 as the best novel to be awarded the Booker Prize in its first 25 years. People here who know or have heard of only Satanic Verses should treat themselves to Midnight's Children. I just don't get it.
I will admit that I did smile when Mario Vargas Llosa had crowds attack the radio station in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter because of insults to Argentinians. I thought that was a riot, and I laughed aloud. But I am not laughing at today's news from Afghanistan.
I guess I didn't realize that writing could be so dangerous. Or that criticism could be so extreme.