Debating the role of Islam

Loya jirga: In considering a draft constitution, the grand council will decide whether Afghanistan should be called an Islamic republic.

December 11, 2003

Afghanistan convenes a loya jirga - grand council - of 500 delegates from around the country Saturday to consider a 50-page draft constitution. The document, written after a year of work and presented Nov. 3, envisions a powerful president and a bicameral legislature - similar to the U.S. system of government, with a separation of powers between the executive and the upper and lower houses of the legislature.

It has already generated lively debate.

Yesterday, President Hamid Karzai weighed in, saying he would not seek re-election if the loya jirga, which is expected to deliberate for about 10 days, decides instead on a parliamentary system of government.

Karzai says Afghanistan, torn apart by decades of conflict and still beset by provincial warlords jockeying for power, needs a strong central leader.

But critics say the draft gives the president far too much control by making him commander in chief of the military and allowing him to appoint one-third of the legislature's upper house along with judges, military officers, police and national security officials.

Critics argue that a parliamentary system - with the legislature selecting a prime minister who would run the government's day-to-day operations, and a president with limited powers - would better reflect Afghanistan's diverse population.

The constitution also has generated debate about the official role of Islam and whether Afghanistan should be called an Islamic republic. Following are excerpts of remarks about that role from Fazal Rahman Oreyi, chief editor of the Mashal-e-Democracy newspaper in Kabul and a representative of Afghanistan's Democratic Party; and Habiburahman Ahmad-zai, a lecturer at the Shariat Faculty of Kabul University.

Both were speakers at a seminar last month in Kabul sponsored by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, based in London.

Fazal Rahman Oreyi:

In the last few years, people using the name of Islam have come to this country, but what have they given us, what have they done? When they have got into power, in the name of Islam they have destroyed our country.

Islam is a sacred religion. It's a complete religion. It was brought to this world for peace and for the people to follow it. Truly, a people that follow Islam can live a happy and prosperous life. But in our society it is the opposite.

After the arrival of the Soviets, there was a self-made resistance - it was not being directed by the people who claim to be jihadis today. We gave over 2 million martyrs, millions of orphans, millions of widows - but the jihad of the Afghan people successfully came to an end. We broke communism.

But what did the Islamists do? During the entire jihad period, they fought against each other. In the name of Islam they fought each other. ...

Look at the other [Taliban] government. The blind mullah [Omar] came to power and brought a government to us; he changed the name to Emirate. In the name of shariat, he destroyed all the country.

Even in our current government we have the suffix Islam, but we can see how this sacred word is used. In the current government we see there is corruption and theft. There are Islamists and politicians who only want to use Islam's name for the restoration of their personal dominance. ...

If we say the government of Afghanistan, obviously it means an Islamic country, because all the people are Muslims.

Every Afghan hears the call to prayer from birth until the day they are laid in their graves, and after they are buried, people will still say prayers over their graves.

To our people, everything is Islam - there is no doubt about that.

But 80 percent of the American public are Christian, yet we don't call it the United States of Christian America. They don't say the government of Buddhist Japan. There are only a few religious governments in this world, and those countries are backward, they are in a state of feudalism. With the use of religion, dictatorship has come to power.

If we think in the future that we should have an Islamic government, we will put those people who have preyed on our people and misused our government back in power again.

If we include in the constitution that we have a religious government, it will be like putting power in the hands of those people that have played on and abused Islam. ...

We should not have a religious government. This does not mean we should have a secular government. We are all Muslims here, and the constitution should pay attention to this matter. ...

Words cannot bring us to success. The success and growth of a nation depends on the strength of the people. When - with the people in power - we remove the name of Islam, this country will succeed.

Without the power and the strength of the people, if you were to say the name of Islam 10,000 times, the country would not prosper. So the fact of the matter is the people - we should look at ways to strengthen the power of the people.

Habiburahman Ahmad-zai:

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