Nearly a year has passed since the Bush administration began bombing Afghanistan, claiming to be motivated not only by vengeance but by a sincere desire to free the Afghan people from the barbarity of the fundamentalist Taliban regime. The Taliban fled Kabul, but for all the joyous early accounts of discarded burkas, crowded barbershops, and the blare of pop music in the bazaars, the threat of fundamentalist repression never went away. There is perhaps no better illustration of that continuing threat, and of the institutional instability, factional infighting, lawlessness and generalized confusion that characterize Afghanistan today than the case of Sayeed Mir Hussein Mahdavi and Ali Payam Sistany, the editor and deputy editor of the now-banned newspaper once called Aftab, or the Sun.

Arrested in June for blasphemy on the orders of the Karzai government, Mahdavi and Sistany are now in hiding. Depending on whom you ask, they are either heroes or fools, and have been either condemned to death or not yet charged. Even officials close to them with access to high levels of the Afghan government seem unsure of the true status of their case. The haze surrounding the Aftab matter extends well beyond the closed doors of the newspaper office and encompasses an entire country caught in limbo, awaiting a decisive confrontation between fundamentalists and Western-oriented reformers at the constitutional assembly scheduled for this fall, and the national elections planned for next June.

Little doubt surrounds the events leading up to Mahdavi’s and Sistany’s arrests on June 17. Earlier this year, Aftab began publishing articles severely critical of men in very high places: fundamentalist former mujahedeen and Northern Alliance leaders who retain a great deal of power — and, in some cases, private armies — men like Vice President and Minister of Defense Mohammed Qasim Fahim, Minister of Education Younis Qanooni, Vice President Karim Khalili, former Afghan President Burnahuddin Rabbani, and the Pashtun Islamist Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf. The articles called the fundamentalists to account for current alleged abuses and for atrocities committed during the factional fighting of the early 1990s. Perhaps just as dangerously, they called explicitly for a secular Afghanistan. Even some of their supporters thought the Aftab editors’ outspokenness foolhardy. “It is too soon. You cannot write these things in Afghanistan,” one Afghan journalist told me.

In April, the death threats began. Following an article attacking Sayyaf, Mahdavi told a Human Rights Watch investigator that an anonymous caller told him, “You have got to pay for this act. We will see you in Paghman. [Sayyaf is based in Paghman, about an hour’s drive from Kabul.] It is easy for us to kidnap you.” A commander from the Afghan intelligence service dropped by the newspaper office and pointedly advised Mahdavi that he would not be able to protect him. A week later, Mahdavi told Human Rights Watch, another call came in the middle of the night. “We follow you like a shadow. We can kill you without any problems,” the caller told him.

More calls and further visits occurred. Although frightened, Mahdavi did not back down. “I am ready to be killed for this,” he told Rahimullah Samander, an Afghan journalist for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting shortly before his arrest. In the June 11 issue of Aftab, Mahdavi published an article titled “Sacred Fascism.” In its third paragraph, the article asked, “If Islam is really the last religion sent by God to guide its followers in the right path, then why are its followers wicked and immoral?”

This alone was enough to get him in trouble. Even relative moderates were angered. Mohammed Fahim Dashty, the editor of Kabul Weekly, one of Kabul’s largest papers, told me, “He attacked all Muslims. There is no if in Islam.” About 200 madrasah students held a rally in front of the Aftab office, calling for Mahdavi’s and Sistany’s deaths.

But Mahdavi’s point was not so much religious as political. “The real issue is that we get our religious lessons from unworthy sources, not from Islam itself,” he went on. “For instance, the Afghan nation will not find the heavens with Sayyaf’s interpretation of Islam . . . I don’t know with what courage Rabbani, Sayyaf . . . and other noblemen announce they are the commentators of the religion and the prominent faces in Islam while they are the ones who betrayed our homeland and disgraced our nation while washing their sacred hands with the nation’s blood.”

In another article, titled “Religion + Government = Oppression,” Aftab laid out the case for a secular constitution while attacking the fundamentalist chief justice of the Supreme Court, Fazel Hadi Shinwari, an ally of Sayyaf.

Before a week had gone by, Aftab’s offices were closed. Mahdavi and Sistani were arrested — depending on whom you ask, on the orders of either the attorney general, who is close to Shinwari, or of the minister of information and culture, with President Hamid Karzai’s knowledge and consent. Intelligence officers confiscated copies of the offending issue from shops. (Aftab originally sold for 5 afghanis, about 10 cents; the few remaining copies of the final issue now go for about 150 afghanis.) The arrests were reported in the foreign press, and, responding to international pressure, less than a week later Karzai ordered the editors released pending trial.


What happened after that is less clear. Mahdavi and Sistany, fearing for their lives, went into hiding. The Supreme Court, headed by the same Shinwari whom Aftab had repeatedly attacked, announced that Mahdavi and Sistany would be tried for insulting Islam. The journalists then apparently got caught up in an internal power struggle, which some sources regarded as a sort of practice round for the confrontation between fundamentalists and reformers that will inevitably emerge at the constitutional assembly later this year. Karzai removed the case from the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction and handed it over to a lower court. Shinwari responded by asking the Supreme Court’s “fatwa department” — a council of 13 Islamic scholars with no legal basis in either Afghanistan’s 1964 constitution or the 2002 Bonn Agreement that established the interim government — to issue a decision on the case.

In early August, the mullahs issued a 10-page document composed mainly of Koranic citations, ending with the demand: “The Islamic Transitional Government of Afghanistan is obliged to give the death penalty to the people who have abused or made fun of Islam, and also to the ones who cause public disruption.” Beside the mullahs’ signatures was Shinwari’s, along with a sentence in his hand approving the decision. The fatwa department refused to release the document, but the department’s head, Mawlawi Abdul Qadir Waris, allowed Samander of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting to copy sections by hand. He told Samander that the department’s shaky constitutional standing does not matter, because its decisions “are made through the Islamic Shariat, which overrules all the laws.”

Soon after the fatwa department’s ruling, a number of international journalists’-rights organizations, including Reporters Without Borders, PEN International and the International Federation of Journalists, condemned the Aftab editors’ “death sentence.” Most sources I interviewed in Kabul, though, insisted that Mahdavi and Sistany had not been sentenced at all, and that the lower court, pending an investigation, had not even issued any charges. Some, including Said Tayeb Jawad, President Karzai’s chief of staff, denied not only that the fatwa department had made a decision, but that the fatwa department exists at all.

This is likely political wishful thinking, but for the time being, it is as unclear what the effect of the fatwa will be on the Aftab case as it is what legal role Islam will ultimately have in Afghan society. The document itself has been filed with the lower court, and it will likely be difficult for that court to ignore it altogether. In the meantime, the lower court has announced that if Mahdavi and Sistany fail to respond to three successive summonses, the case will be investigated and decided without them.

Kabul Weekly editor Dashty speculated that no decision will be forthcoming until the messier constitutional issues are sorted out. “If they decide on the basis of Islamic law, they should announce that those people will die. On the other hand, there are human-rights issues and freedom of speech. They are not able to decide.”

Eman Parmach translated the Aftab articles for this story.

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