War for words: freedom of speech after America leaves

%22Bordering"Afghan writers and reporters face a worsening situation. Some fear that the gains made for freedom of speech will disappear with the drawdown of foreign forces. فارسی

Prominent Afghan writer Taqi Bakhtiari has been condemned to death over his latest book Gumnani (Anonymity) by fundamentalist Afghan Shiite clerics. The clerics, who are tied to the Qom School in Iran, refer to Bakhtiari as “the little Salman Rushdie.” The news was first published on Deutsche Welle Farsi website and went viral on social networking websites, especially Facebook. Later BBC Persian also published a report detailing the issue.

Gumnani is about Mirjan, a young Afghan Shiite from the Hazara minority, who travels to Iran to study in a Madrasa. After being accepted into a religious Madrasa in Isfahan, Mirjan is raped by his Iranian teacher, an Ayatollah.

Facing abuse and mistreatment from his Iranian Ayatollah, the young Afghan boy’s dream for religious studies is shattered and he ends his studies. Mirjan starts reading unreligious books and later returns back to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan the young boy experience constant upheavals disillusioned and depressed. Though Mirjan grew up as a religious boy with tribal traditions guiding him, the rape by his Ayatollah changes Mirjan and he becomes an atheist, criticizing religious beliefs.

Bakhtiari, the writer of the story has said to the BBC that the story is based on true events. Criticism of religious figures, especially Ayatollahs who are high authorities in Islamic Shiite jurisprudence, is unusual among the Afghan Shiite minority.

According to the BBC and Deutche Welle, the writer of the book is now in hiding after receiving death threats from several followers of a local cleric, Sayyid Mohsen Hujjat, who has spent several years in Qom. Hujjat called the book blasphemous and called for the writer’s punishment.

Since the book was published four months ago, Bakhtiari has been receiving numerous death threats through phone calls and text messages. In one incident, unknown people attacked his car on the streets of Kabul and later he found his books burned in front of his house.  The attackers also left leaflets in front of his house saying that if he does not show repentance his house will be burned. Bakhtiari has said that his book is not against religious values but is a reflection of the realities in his society that he has observed.

The presence of US forces and international troops in Afghanistan has helped freedom of speech to flourish. Free press and relative freedom of speech is often considered one of the important achievements of the Afghan government in the past decade. Freedom of speech and free media is guaranteed under the current Afghan constitution, but religious law and traditional conservative voices have always trumped theses achievements.

Afghanistan is considered one of the deadliest countries for journalists in the world.  Since the collapse of the Taliban regime, nearly 25 journalists have been killed and dozens injured. Reports say that in 2012 alone, there were 77 cases of violence against journalists: 48 cases were committed by Afghan government officials, 8 cases were committed by the Taliban and 4 cases by foreign troops.

The US forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014; religious fundamentalist groups have already started influencing public opinion. An Afghan media watchdog “Nai” has recently raised concerns about the complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan affecting the Afghan media financially and otherwise.

About the author

Nasim Fekrat is a freelance journalist and blogger in receipt of awards from Reporters Sans Frontieres and Information Safety and Freedom. He edits the blog Afghan Lord and studies political science at Dickinson College. He is also the director of the Association of Afghan Blog Writers.