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The Touchy Topic of Religion: Afghanistan's Future

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Georgetown University hosted two star-studded events last week: one the award of the 10th Opus Prize, a million dollars plus two $75,000 awards to other finalists, the other a meeting on Afghan women and U.S. responsibilities and opportunities. Sakena Yacoobi won the Opus prize, in recognition of her stunningly courageous work in Afghanistan to support women and girls. The separate event on Friday celebrated Afghan women's progress. Secretary of State John Kerry, his predecessor Hillary Rodham Clinton, and former First Lady Laura Bush shared the stage with a group of courageous Afghan women, including Sakena.

At one event the role of faith as an inspiration was the centerpiece. At the other it was totally ignored. What's afoot?

The juxtaposition and the latter silence remind us that religious factors, that in this case color the fate of a nation and the female half of its population, are devilishly complex. It is not easy to talk about them without falling into traps of oversimplification. Complex struggles within religious communities are involved, among theologians and among those who influence the way the religion is lived: fathers, grandmothers, and politicians among them. There is justifiable hesitation to make simplistic statements about religion's roles, especially when the tendency is to blame religion for the evils that are happening on the ground.

But these religious struggles keep coming back to women and their place in the society and the family and they simply cannot be ignored. One view holds that women must, following lines of argument that are profoundly galling in our culture, be controlled and held in subordinate positions. The other view is that human rights and human dignity and the core teachings of Islam provide no basis whatsoever for this discrimination and indeed honor women and their equal rights and roles.

How can we all work for solutions if we do not talk about issues and tensions that are deeply religious in nature?

The Opus prize is in important ways about the power of faith - the premise is that belief and the personal and social strength that comes from it inspire the highest levels of nobility, selflessness, and an unwavering focus on the poor and outcast. But in many hours of conversation with Sakena Yacoobi she was initially reticent to talk much about exactly how her faith affects her work. She is unambiguous that faith and core values are inseparable. She is proud to be Muslim, imbibing inspiration from its history and its guide to living a life of service. She returns again and again to the deep links between Muslim teachings and history and education. She takes from her understanding of Islam a sense of what equality among people and the value of dignity and rights truly mean.

Sakena is an outstandingly courageous woman and speaks her mind, albeit with caution and wisdom. Her earliest partners were mullahs, religious teachers. She pays tribute to those religious leaders who, to her mind, represent the essence of her faith. But she is forthright in her anger at those who distort the values of faith and especially take the faith as a tool to keep women down.

A blend of anger and fear at what extremists are doing to core Muslim values in Afghanistan today is a fairly obvious explanation both of Sakena's reticence and the way discussions about Afghan women veer away from any mention of religion. Religion is seen above all as fraught with danger. Security and safety are issue number one in Afghanistan today. Education and health care, business development, enjoyment of life cannot happen until there is security. And the violent face of religion, as seen in the Taliban's core premises and in unspeakable aggression against women and girls - rape, acid attacks, and intimidation - stand in the way of dreams of peace.

The main reason religion is not mentioned, I argue, is that Afghan Islam is understood as the implicit enemy of women's rights. That is a dangerous oversimplification, as Sakena's experience and that of many other courageous women makes clear. What they want, instead, is a voice in all matters, including the future way that Islam and faith are understood. Distorted religious interpretations that deny the most basic premises of human rights - equality and equal dignity for women - must be confronted. Positive dimensions of religious teachings like Islam's powerful messages about education for all need to come to the fore.

So what to do? First, the struggles over values and religious beliefs need to be part of the analysis about the way forward. This is as true for Afghanistan as it is for anywhere else where religion is an element in conflict (that is, pretty much everywhere). Second, those who represent different religious perspectives need to be at the tables where issues are thrashed out. And third, women are part of the religious discourse, even where they do not hold formal positions. They need to be central to any discussion about the future (as they were last Friday). But their values and faith need to be respected and cannot be left aside.