The ordeal of these Good Samaritans points out a dilemma for
true believers: Their religion moves them to perform works of
astonishing bravery and sacrifice. Yet they cannot, as required,
completely quarantine their faith from their rescue efforts.
True, Shelter Now announces its mission in secular terms: to
provide humanitarian help "to relieve the miseries of refugees."
Active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan for nearly 20 years, it
plays a crucial role in international winter-relief programs. Up to
10,000 families a month get assistance -- including food, medical
care and temporary housing -- from Kabul to the northwestern border
towns in Pakistan. In some refugee camps, Shelter Now is the only
nongovernmental organization still operating.
Nevertheless, most Shelter Now staffers, such as Americans
Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, are committed Christians. A faith
that flings people into harm's way for the sake of strangers is not
easily contained. And that presents a problem for religious regimes
that treat nonconformists as enemies of the state.
Soon after seizing power in 1996, the Taliban set up a Ministry
for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice. It enforced
strict speech and dress codes, quizzed citizens about their
knowledge of the Koran and handed out beatings to those not praying
at appointed times. Television, movies, music, video cassettes --
just about anything that might carry a message of dissent -- was
Shelter Now says that its workers obeyed laws against
proselytizing -- a condition of its operation in Afghanistan. But
it acknowledges that its staffers will answer religious questions
when they come up. The problem for paranoid regimes is that those
questions will always come up.
You'd think that with more than three million Afghans living as
refugees, the Taliban would have welcomed any help they could get.
Instead they vowed to scrutinize all humanitarian organizations in
the country, including a United Nations program, to root out
illicit religion. That list of groups included World Relief, which
resettles Afghan refugees in the U.S.; Franklin Graham's Samaritan
Purse, which is trying to open a hospital in the country before
year's end; and Tear Fund, run by Britain's Evangelical Alliance,
which provides water and shelter to displaced Afghans.
This highlights a deep contradiction in Islam. Muslim
revolutionaries excoriate secularization as an evil force, blaming
it on the Jews, the U.S., the West. But they are unwilling to carve
out even a limited civic space for religious minorities, demanding
that all other faiths -- even other versions of Islam -- be
suppressed or "privatized" to the point of invisibility. Such
Islamists thereby encourage either dishonesty or disbelief,
becoming the handmaidens, ironically, of secular cynicism.
The Taliban used a coercive state to impose a religious ideology
on its people. That gives America's secular elites, alas, more
excuses to anathematize religious belief of any kind -- a policy
they seem to be perfecting. Recall the dire warnings leveled at
President Bush's faith-based agenda: that church-based assistance
dare not expose people in need to religion. Or consider the legal
attacks against the Boy Scouts, the Salvation Army and the Catholic
Church. All are targets of civil libertarians ultimately because of
their religious views.
The lesson of the Taliban is thus two-edged: They remind us, by negative example, that the separation of church and state is a great safeguard for political and religious liberty. At the same time their draconian exclusions make plain that the separation of faith from life is not possible. Just ask the Americans from Shelter Now, or the Afghans whose lives they helped reclaim.
Loconte is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in
Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal