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Last Updated: Monday, 3 November, 2003, 10:26 GMT
Afghanistan's constitutional tightrope

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News Online correspondent in Kabul

Afghanistan's new constitution is a milestone in the country's recent history.

An Afghan prays amid the rubble: Faith is strong in the ruined country

It is the first since 1964, and since the Taleban was ousted nearly two years ago.

The draft document, unveiled on Monday, will face intense scrutiny, before being debated and ratified by a constitutional loya jirga, or grand council, in December.

For the past several months, thousands of ordinary Afghans, lawyers and experts have been discussing the constitution's likely provisions.

The key question that the drafting committee faced was how to reconcile Afghanistan's deep-rooted Islamic tradition with its aspirations for democracy.

Hardliners have sought assurance that the constitution will not turn Afghanistan into a secular state.

"The constitution has to be in keeping with the Koran," the country's conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice, Fazal Hadi Shinwari, said recently.

Taleban regrets

It is a sentiment that is echoed by ordinary Afghans on the streets of the capital, Kabul.

Kabul street scene
The constitution must protect Afghanistan's next generation

"Since Afghanistan is an Islamic country, Islamic rules and regulations should be implemented all around Afghanistan," says one man, an English-language teacher.

Others see no conflict between the adoption of strict Islamic or Sharia law, and democracy.

"In the new constitution, Islamic and Sharia law should be adopted," says Hanif, who sells watches.

"In Islam, each and every thing, human rights and respect for everyone is followed - so Islam is truly democratic. But unfortunately some Islamic countries haven't studied Islam deeply and so they commit mistakes," he says.

But others are less convinced.

Fatima is a college student who takes extra lessons in private coaching institutions, to make up for the years lost under the Taleban, who prevented women like her from going to school.

"The Taleban said it implemented Islamic law - but all it ended up doing was punishing the women. Islam has never said one should punish women," she says.

Sharia pressure

Many feel the best way forward is to adopt civil laws but in conformity with Islamic principles.

We have been very careful to keep in mind all sensibilities
Musa Maroofi
constitutional lawyer

For its part, the international community, which is backing the reconstruction effort, has pressed for basic human rights to be guaranteed.

Most important of all, they want to ensure that the rights of women are protected, especially in the light of their experience under the hardline rule of the Taleban.

The constitution will be publicly debated ahead of December's loya jirga - the grand council of ethnic, provincial and tribal leaders.

The loya jirga will ratify the constitution after what is expected to be several weeks of stormy discussion.

Some observers fear that hardline delegates may press for the inclusion of Islamic Sharia law.

Elections expected

But the experts who drafted the constitution are confident that they have kept everyone's interests at heart.

"We have been very careful to keep in mind all sensibilities," constitutional lawyer Musa Maroofi told the BBC.

The constitution will fail unless the militiamen submit to Kabul

Mr Maroofi, one of the eight co-authors of the first draft, said ultimately the rule of law has to be implemented in Afghanistan.

That may seem a fair distance away, especially given the sharp rise in violence across the country in the past few months.

While the north sees almost daily clashes between militias loyal to ethnic warlords, the south has witnessed a resurgence of the Taleban and its supporters.

Nevertheless, if it passes the constitution, Afghanistan would have stood up to a major test.

It will pave the way for national elections - due for June next year under the provisions of the Bonn Agreement of December 2001.

That will be a major step towards bringing the country some kind of stability after more than two decades of war.

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