But we shouldn't let joyful
homecomings obscure the reason they were seized in the first place:
They found it difficult to separate their Christian faith from
their sacrificial help to Afghan refugees. This underscores an
ironic point -- that the Muslims who denounce secularization as a
Western evil have no patience for religious minorities who cannot,
in effect, secularize themselves.
Mercer and Curry are volunteers with
Shelter Now, a German-based group that provides food, clothing and
temporary housing to Afghan refugees arriving from Pakistan. It
helps up to 10,000 people a month, and in some refugee camps it's
the only charitable organization still active.
The Taliban allowed Shelter Now to
operate because its mission is not evangelical. The organization
says it provides aid "without discriminating against race or
political and religious persuasion." Yet most of the group's staff
and volunteers are Christians who take their faith seriously.
Sometimes they encounter people whose needs go deeper than food and
safety, who are eager for spiritual nourishment they haven't found
in their own faith tradition.
The Shelter Now team met such a family
in their relief work. What did they do? They explained that their
love for the Afghan people proceeds from their love for Jesus. They
gave the family a Bible and a movie about the life of Christ.
That was enough for the Taliban to
arrest the aid workers. The war in Afghanistan interrupted what
surely would have been a kangaroo court: Since the Taliban seized
power in 1996, law has been dictated by a ruling council of radical
clerics and local leaders acting under its authority.
Dictatorial authority, of course, is
what these rulers are all about. According to State Department
reports, the Taliban set up a police force to monitor obedience to
religious dress and speech codes. They made prayer mandatory, for
one thing; those not praying at appointed times could be beaten on
the spot. People have been stopped on the street and quizzed about
their knowledge of the Quran.
Afghan girls and women have been
special targets. They've been denied access to education, work and
medical care. The Taliban "stripped a society in desperate need of
trained professionals of half its assets," the State Department
said. In a recent national radio address, First Lady Laura Bush did
not exaggerate when she called "the brutal oppression of women" a
central goal of the regime.
There's a lesson in all of this for
Americans who shrug off threats, either at home or abroad, to the
free exercise of religion. The Taliban leadership reminds us that
any attack on religious liberty -- whether in the name of religion
or secularism -- is an assault on civil liberty. Afghanistan lacks
more than just religious freedom. There is no freedom of speech,
press, assembly or association, either.
America's Founders wouldn't have been
surprised. Madison, the most important influence behind the First
Amendment, reckoned the free exercise of religion as non-negotiable
for a just society. "The equal right of every citizen to the free
exercise of his religion according to the dictates of conscience is
held by the same tenure with all our other rights," he wrote.
Curtail this protection, Madison
warned, and government "may sweep away all our fundamental rights."
That partly explains why the First Amendment begins with a
guarantee of religious freedom, while including protections for
free speech, press, assembly and the right to petition the
government. Remove the cornerstone of religious liberty, the
Framers reasoned, and the structure of political rights
Liberty collapsed long ago in
Afghanistan, and many blame fundamentalist religion. But the real
problem isn't religious belief. It's the coercive use of the state
to enforce an ideology -- religious or otherwise -- that denies
basic human rights. Secularists are as skilled in this political
sin as any of the faithful.
This season they might want to join their believing citizens in giving thanks that America, the most religious country in the West, has rejected the way of the Taliban -- not by exalting secularism, but by making room for people of all faiths in its public life.
Joe Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at The Heritage Foundation and a commentator for National Public Radio.
Distributed Nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune News Wire