Category Archives: Jessica P. Wright

Dispatches from Kabul: French Words and Fighter Jets

Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

There’s an art gallery just off Armenia street in the Mar Mikhail district of Beirut that sells a variety of novelty goods – soap from Aleppo, hand-stamped Iranian linens, black and white photographs from the Lebanese Civil War, books on art. As I was perusing the shelves I came across a notebook with text clippings and war motifs pasted to its cover, a dècoupage of French words and fighter jets. Along the bottom of the front cover there was a phrase: Parce que l’incohérence est preferable à l’ordre qui deforme. It’s a quote from the French philosopher, Roland Barthes, which translates directly to: incoherence is preferable to an order that deforms. I haven’t read Barthes, nor do I claim expertise in French post-structuralism or constructivism or semiotics, but taken on its face, and in light of the unstable political systems in which I live and work, it gave me pause. Dans quelle mesure cette déclaration est-elle correcte? To what extent is that statement true? Precariousness becomes a form of identity in places where nothing sticks – not ideologies, not empires, not armies – but surely chaos and disorder is the regrettable result of circumstance, not rational belief. The fight for successive orders is the history of war, and I imagined Barthes’ words in the mouths of radicals from Raqqa to Kandahar.

In the late afternoon, the church bells at St. George’s ring out loud and clear across the Martyr’s Square in Beirut, and it feels, for a moment, as if you’re standing in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the Marian church that inspired the cathedral’s neoclassical design. Soon after, the call to prayer begins, projected from the 72-meter- Continue reading

Dispatches from Kabul: An Interlude in the Holy Land

Church domes Old CIty
Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

Somewhere near Ramallah, we looked up from our newspapers and noticed the high walls topped with razor wire to our left and right, a telltale sign that we were driving through the West Bank section of Route 443, a 16-kilometer stretch of road linking Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Situated to the east of the security barrier and once ruled off-limits to Israeli government ministers because of a flare-up of violence – namely, Molotov cocktail attacks on vehicles – it appears as any stretch of highway does, grey and a little desolate. Perceiving our awareness, the driver looked at us anxiously through the rearview mirror. “We avoid traffic by taking this road today. To our left is Ramallah and to the right is Hebron,” he said in an official tone, hoping, I think, that we weren’t familiar with the villages of the Palestinian territories. “This one wants to go to Ramallah to see a brewery,” said my friend, Alec. The driver shot me an incredulous look. “Okay, yes, go,” he said. “That is, if you want to risk your life for a beer.” I laughed and Alec explained that my perspective is slightly different because I currently live and work in Kabul. “I just want to feel at home,” I said sarcastically. “This stretch of highway is really doing it for me right now.” He ignored me and started on a lengthy and rather partisan history of the First and Second Intifadas that lasted all the way to the Mamilla neighborhood of Jerusalem where we were staying.

Alec and I met on the first day of law school and spent the subsequent three years poring over legal texts and treatises together, a humbling experience that challenged us intellectually and emotionally. It was in the midst of this rational endeavor that we occasionally discussed politics and religion, our conversations about the former often ending with a fiery exchange of epithets and accusations; democratic progressives and classical liberals don’t often see eye-to-eye. But the one subject we could discuss without theatrics was religion, and perhaps more importantly, it was religious ritual that often brought us together with our friends in one place: a Shabbos table in Crown Heights. We spent innumerable evenings there sharing a meal, listening to the Hebrew prayers, and discussing ideas, the law, and our lives. And so it seemed quite natural that we should travel from opposite sides of the world – New York and Kabul – to meet again in the Holy Land, a place that is intensely foreign but intimately familiar to both of us as Americans raised in the Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions.

Holy Sepulchre
The streets of the Old City were nearly empty in the late afternoon on Easter Monday, and as we wandered inadvertently from the Christian Quarter, with its well-lit shops and gregarious shopkeepers, and into the less commercial Muslim Quarter, an eerie silence settled over us. Some idling inhabitants ventured a greeting – A-salaam alaikum – and beckoned us in for tea, but we declined politely and kept walking, feeling that perhaps we had wandered too far off the beaten path. I recalled a friend’s warning: “Don’t go near the Damascus Gate,” and thought about the “No knifing” stickers plastered on utility poles up and down Jaffa Road that we had seen earlier in the day. I wasn’t afraid – a kid with a kitchen knife is less intimidating than a Talib with a Kalashnikov – but the aura of the Old City had certainly changed from the open and vibrant place it had been a couple years before. As we circled back around to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and climbed the stairs to Golgotha, we heard the muezzin’s call to prayer in the distance. “This is what I love about the Old City,” I told Alec, “the diversity of belief in such close proximity.” We watched as a Christian pilgrim, tears streaming down her face, knelt beneath the altar to touch the place where Christ was crucified. Somewhere not far from this holy site, Muslims would be reciting the takbir, arms placed over the chest, head down, eyes closed. I considered the likelihood of a Third Intifada, and what a sustained wave of violence would mean for these sacred places. The ruins of Palmyra, the destroyed monastery in Mosul, and the bullet-ridden buildings and rubble-strewn streets of Kabul came to mind. I lit a candle and closed my eyes.

No knives
Our official tour of the Old City began the next day in the Armenian Quarter, where our guide paused along a narrow corridor to reflect on the Armenian Genocide. “Do you know what happened to the Armenian people under the Ottoman Empire?” he asked. We both nodded. “1.5 million people were murdered. 1.5 million. And now ISIS is doing the same thing to Christians in the Middle East. Just read about the steps they are taking to establish a Caliphate and you will see the parallels.” Armenian Genocide remembrance posters plastered to a wooden door declared in bold letters across the top: RECOGNITION, CONDEMNATION, PREVENTION. He didn’t have to convince me that we in the West have failed to recognize, condemn, and prevent atrocities time and time again.

Armenian genocide
In the Upper Room, along the Via Dolorosa, in the prison of Christ, and standing atop a building with a view over the magnificent Old City, I began to recount the biblical stories of my childhood: Jesus predicting Judas’ betrayal at the Last Supper, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate declaring Jesus the King of the Jews and then washing his hands of the matter, Veronica wiping his face as he carried the cross, Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the promised land. Throughout the city, walls rest on older walls, Romanesque, Byzantine, and Gothic architectural elements exist side by side, and the faiths and customs of civilizations are celebrated together, often within the same structures. In these places, the past emerges as part of the present, and the stories I once knew by heart seem so immediate.

City of david
When finally the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall came into view, I paused briefly to take it in, as I had the first time I visited the Old City. In such moments I feel separated from the passion of a true believer, but overwhelmed nonetheless by the significance of the place. Ironically, I don’t think Alec felt the same. His first reaction was simply: “I imagined that it would be much bigger.” We each tucked our written prayers into the ancient Wall, and emerged later on the plaza for further observation. Even with the cameras and groups of tourists, and the general lack of reverent behavior, I wondered how such a place could fail to inspire wonder. We were in Jerusalem, after all, a city where even the mundane, like a section of a limestone wall, becomes extraordinary.

At dinner on our last night in Jerusalem, over Moroccan food and Israeli wine, we discussed what we had seen and thought about during our trip. I told Alec about an interesting novel I had just read – Houellebecq’s Submission – and how one of its driving fascinations is the need for religion. “Setting aside the author’s satirical intent as it relates to French intellectuals, isn’t it honorable and good to humble oneself before something greater?” I asked. I was thinking back to the times I had seen the Afghan attorneys in my office pause during their workdays to pray. Whether it was unthinking habit or not, I have been repeatedly touched by their devotion. “We’re both doubters, in a sense,” I continued, “ and I’m not suggesting that, as in the novel, an anti-liberal religious regime is desirable, but when I’m in Jerusalem, the usually fleeting longing to be part of a tradition and a community, and to seek understanding through faith, is intensified.” He took another sip of wine and looked thoughtful. “Do you see the world through words, Jess?” he asked. I looked at him, slightly puzzled, and explained that yes, naturally, as a lawyer and an aspiring writer, I can best express myself with words. He said, “It’s not like that for me. I understand things – particularly the things we’re discussing – by feeling, or through a sense I have that I can’t really put into words.” Was this avoidance, laziness, or disinterest? The idea that my friend, a Manhattan litigator, had thoughts and feelings he could not describe in words struck me as one of the most disingenuous things I’d heard in quite some time.

On further reflection, I concluded that you can spend years parsing the law with a person, arguing about the minutest details in structure, meaning, and intent, only to realize much later that the most important parts of our lives and our friendships may be beyond the limits of our rationality, and cannot be reached with the tools and mechanisms we have so painstakingly learned to use.

Jerusalem is a city we learn about through words, in the stories and teachings of the Abrahamic religions, but, as I realized during this interlude in the Holy Land, it is a place we come to know through feeling and experience. And perhaps, even for those of us who think and express ourselves best through the words we speak and write, the depths of those feelings are knowable, but truly inexpressible.

Old City Walls
Photos: 1. Church domes of the Old City; 2. Entrance to the Old City at Jaffa Gate; 3. Church of the Holy Sepulchre; 4. “No knifing” sticker on Jaffa Road; 5. Armenian Genocide Remembrance posters; 6. View of the Old City from the Jewish Quarter; 7. Western Wall and Dome of the Rock; 8. At the Western Wall; 9. Walls of the Old City — all by Jessica Wright

Dispatches From Kabul: Walls of Separation and the Call to Prayer

Green Zone

Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

In New York it was the sirens that nettled, piercing through triple-paned glass seventeen stories above the avenue at all hours of the day and night. In Kabul it’s the call to prayer that distracts, albeit less frequently, and which I wake to most mornings. There’s the initial crackle of the loudspeaker, a clearing of the throat, and then a momentary struggle to find the right pitch. The opening words of the azan ring out clearly and confidently – Allahu Akbar – but sometimes, part of the way through, the voice wavers and there is an awkward adjustment of the register, an interruption that could be obviated with the initial use of a pitch pipe or the playing of a middle C, I’ve thought. Then again, I’ve never seen a pitch pipe in Afghanistan, and I suppose it would be difficult to put a piano in a minaret.

Since September, we’ve had a string of mediocre muezzins, criers who never fail to rouse us from our sleep just before dawn, but whose recitations of the takbir and shahada – the Muslim Statement of Faith – leave much to be desired. It’s a bit ironic that they’ve been so lacking, considering that muezzins are traditionally chosen for their superior vocal skills. The first, Bilal ibn Rabah, was supposedly plucked from obscurity by the Prophet Mohammad for his beautiful voice. The idea was that the more melodious and clear the expression, the more powerful the azan, and therefore the more compelling would be the spiritual ideology of Islam sung in those eight verses. Allahu Akbar (four times) / I acknowledge that there is no deity but God (twice) / I acknowledge that Mohammad is the Messenger of Allah (twice) / Hasten to Prayer (twice) / Hasten to success (twice) / Prayer is better than sleep (twice) / Allah is greatest (twice) / There is no deity but God (once). This standard of qualification seems not to be taken seriously in my Kabul neighborhood. Perhaps the benchmark here is pünktlichkeit, in which case I’ve no doubt that our muezzins would be considered rousing successes. It’s disappointing, though, that their rendition of the azan does not resonate across the land as an otherworldly call to the divine.

To make matters worse, our current prayer leader has taken to conversing with himself over the loudspeaker after the initial recitation. The intonation is thoughtful, even philosophical, as if he is contemplating deep and important questions out loud. One morning, as I was lying in bed listening to his slow, punctuated words, I started thinking about America and Constitutional law and Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. That wall was adopted by the Supreme Court, becoming authoritative in Reynolds and “high and impregnable” in Everson. In context, Jefferson’s pithy metaphor concerned his opposition to an established national church rather than a belief in strict separationism, but it is a comforting metaphor at dawn while being sermonized over a loudspeaker. In such moments, prayer is not better than sleep.


They call the enormous concrete blast wall surrounding the U.S. Embassy near Massoud Circle the King Kong wall because it is a barrier so overwhelming that only a fictional movie monster could surmount it. Last week as we were driving by, a colleague said, “That thing should be considered a wonder of the world.” The grey concrete casts a long shadow on passers-by and dwarfs all of the buildings in its vicinity. I’ve wondered recently if the song of the muezzin reaches past it, through the security maze of the Green Zone, and into the container homes of my compatriots at the U.S. Embassy. It must, I think, since after explosions in and around the city we hear the air raid warning and the “Duck and Cover” alert. And maybe they think it’s beautiful, even broken and uneven, the one authentic bit of Afghanistan they are able to experience from within the walls that keep them safe, but which also limit their exposure to the rest of the country. They see the sky above their compound and the streets of Kabul, but the latter only from 8,000 feet when leaving the base by MilAir helicopter.

Blast walls MOF

Because they can’t go out, we occasionally go in, and it was during a recent lunch meeting that I had occasion to speak to a diplomat from the Human Rights section about the International Religious Freedom Report commissioned by the State Department. It’s a baseline for discussion, as he put it, a report that describes the status of religious freedom in every country. He reminded me that in recent months ISIS has put religious extremism in the news, but it was the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that made religious freedom an important priority for U.S. Foreign policy. Despite Afghanistan’s liberal Constitution, drafted and adopted with the help of the international community after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, lack of religious freedom remains a problem, most visible to the outside world when tragic stories surface. The stoning of Rukhshana in Ghor Province and the lynching of Farkhunda in Kabul are just two of many.

We discussed the tension in the text of the Constitution, something that he believes many moderate Muslims are reluctant to admit. Islam is the religion of the state and no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, but the Constitution also says followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provision of law. “How many Afghan Christians do you know?” he asked, rhetorically. I shook my head. According to the 2014 Report, there are a few Christians in Afghanistan who practice their faith in hiding, as well as one remaining Jew. And while apostasy is no longer formally punished by the government, it is still regarded as a serious offense and may result in the deprivation of the accused’s property and possessions, the invalidation of marriage, and in some cases, beheading. Such punishments are determined via informal mechanisms, often per the dictates of community religious leaders.

Because there are no clear criteria or qualifications, almost any Muslim male can claim to be a mullah, a religious leader. As a result, there has been a backlash against informalism and lack of defined authority of late, and a move toward the more structured interpretations of Islam. I remembered that Farkhunda was a salafi, a devout Muslim who honed closely to the orthodox interpretations. The diplomat explained that some think a turn toward formalism will help curb other problems like the persecution of the Shia minority, the resurgence of the Taliban and the imposition of their interpretation of Islam, and similarly, the rise of Daesh. “When it comes to issues of law and religion in this country, nothing is simple,” he said.

“So if the Report is a baseline for discussion, what happens next? A new moral code for Afghanistan written by the State Department?” I asked. He reminded me that there are USAID programs that promote moderate Islam and engage Islamic leaders. The State Department funds efforts to combat Islamic fundamentalism through a variety of initiatives aimed at religious organizations and activities. “Remember the rhetoric after 9-11 about ‘combatting the root causes of terrorism?’” I nodded, and suddenly recalled my pre-dawn musings. “Has anyone considered Jefferson’s wall of separation?” I asked. He looked puzzled for a moment but then explained that he doesn’t deal with Establishment Clause issues. “I just write the report. As I understand it, the program can have a significant religious component, but that’s OK if it’s not the primary focus.”

City blast wall

I thought back to discussions from my Constitutional Law and Law and Religion classes. The Lemon test is used to determine whether government funding or action runs afoul of the Establishment Clause – secular purpose, primary effect neither advancing nor inhibiting religion, no excessive government entanglement. I paused for a moment, remembering the late Justice Scalia’s disdain for the test in Lamb’s Chapel: “Like some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried, Lemon stalks our Establishment Clause jurisprudence once again…” But surely the government, as part of its foreign policy agenda, can engage religious leaders – and religion – in a way that is apart from the domestic constitutional framework?

Now curious about the Establishment Clause implications of religion-focused foreign aid, I left the meeting with more questions than I came with. As I handed over my visitor badge and reclaimed possession of my passport and cellphone at the front gate, I asked the diplomat the last question I thought I could get a concrete answer to: “Can you hear the azan in here?” He wasn’t looking at me. “Hope that was helpful and let me know if you have any other questions about the report,” he said. Perhaps he hadn’t heard me. I wanted to repeat the question, but he had already slipped to the other side of the metal detector, his phone to his ear as he waved at me sideways.


Religion is woven into the social fabric of Afghanistan. There are the ritualistic and cultural manifestations like the azan, the scheduling of meetings around prayer times, the prayer rugs strewn across our conference room, and the pitchers for washing in all of the bathrooms. Women and men do not touch in public, and in most cases, women cover their hair. At the top of most legal charters, even commercial ones, the following phrase is written: In the Name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful. God is in the everyday spoken language, too: Salaam alaikum, Walaikum salam, Khoda hafiz (Peace be upon you, And upon you peace, May God protect you). And there are more direct involvements as well: state-funded religious schools; religious courts; the use of Hanafi jurisprudence as a constitutional gap-filler; and the existence of the Ulema Council which meets regularly with the President to advise him on Islamic moral, ethical, and legal issues. It’s difficult to imagine a high and impregnable wall between church and state in Afghanistan; it seems as untenable as the implementation of sharia in America.


The sun is setting on another day in Kabul. I can hear the incessant hum of military helicopters, and from the window of my office I can just make out a group of fighting kites. They look like black specks on the horizon. I’m waiting for the interruption of the late afternoon azan, thinking about constitutional law cases like Reid v. Covert, Lamont v. Woods, and Baker v. Carr. How far does American constitutional law reach? Does the Constitution serve as a structural restraint on the actions of the U.S. government, regardless of time and place? Allahu Akbar, the muezzin sings. Can the diplomats hear the call to prayer?

Photos: 1. Inside the Green Zone/International Zone in Kabul, Jessica Wright; 2. Near the outer walls of the Ministry of Finance in Kabul, Nabila Barmaki; 3. Kabul City blast wall, Jessica Wright; 4. At the Darul Aman Palace ruin overlooking Kabul, Wolfgang Müller.

Dispatches from Kabul: Herat, A Photo Essay

As part of our Dispatches from Kabul series, CLR Alum Jessica Wright ’14, who’s currently working as a lawyer in Kabul,  files the following photo essay. It’s from Herat, one of Afghanistan’s westernmost cities, in close proximity to Iran and Turkmenistan. To see the slide show, please click on the first image.

Dispatches from Kabul: A New Script


Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

Last Friday, as we were driving through downtown Kabul, our car was stopped briefly as the traffic ahead slowed at the checkpoint. Looking out from my backseat window, I was struck by the lack of rhythm, the absence of a familiar flow of city movement. In most places, lights change color, people cross the street, taxis honk, engines rev, and buses stop and go methodically. Instead, dirty, overfilled city cabs sat haphazardly in traffic, their lackadaisical drivers staring into the dusty commotion. Children with dirty clothes and charcoal around their eyes darted in and out of traffic, casting doleful expressions at foreigners in hopes of collecting an Afghani or two. Grizzled soothsayers moved slowly from car to car, wafting incense into open windows and mumbling incantations. In the absence of sidewalks, young men in shalwar kameez walked briskly through traffic, whole groups moving against the disorderly jumble, their prayer beads brushing against the sides of cars as they passed by. Policemen with tired, sun-worn faces ambled around aimlessly, occasionally blowing a whistle or commanding a car to move. Their uniforms looked like costumes from an outdated prop closet, faded and sagging, adorned with meaningless insignia. In fact, everything around me in that moment was reminiscent of a movie set after the cut. It was as if, off-script, no one knew exactly where to be or what to do. There are many metaphors for the state of affairs in Afghanistan, but this one struck me as particularly vivid.

Two years ago, when I was working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Casteau, the streets of Brussels were filled with life. We would spend weekends walking through the city, enjoying quaint cafes, chocolate shops, and the old Dutch masterpieces at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. On winter evenings, we would marvel at the Gothic and Baroque architecture and the beauty of La Grand Place glistening with Christmas lights. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 and the subsequent lockdown in Brussels, I’ve been thinking of the European capital, and about how ironic it is that life here in Kabul, chaotic city of blast walls, checkpoints, and indiscriminate violence, has been less affected by terrorism in the past month than my previous home in the heart of Europe.



While at NATO, I was writing about humanitarian intervention as applied to the ongoing civil war in Syria. In conversation with military strategists and political advisors from the Alliance, my arguments for intervention, even for the limited purpose of constructing humanitarian corridors, were met with vague statements about the impenetrability of Assad’s air defense and the NATO members’ “lack of political will.” I found such reluctance remarkable; at the time, the United Nations was estimating that more than 100,000 had been killed and millions more displaced.

I still believe there was a moral responsibility to protect the Syrian people, but I am more willing to acknowledge and consider the drawbacks of intervention now, particularly in light of the current situation in Afghanistan. Resolute Support, the follow-on mission to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), still operates from the Green Zone in Kabul, but after fourteen years and billions of dollars, the Taliban now controls 29 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts, and 36 more are contested. The New Unity Government (NUG) is riddled with corruption, and the Afghan National Police seem unable to effectively control the provinces, as seen most recently in Kunduz. Ethnic violence in recent days has threatened to undermine the fragile cohesion that exists between the country’s disparate ethnic groups, and the Islamic State is gaining a foothold in several provinces.

At the invitation of President Ghani, and in the interest of maintaining stability, the United States has committed troops to Afghanistan for another year. Still, the question on everyone’s mind is how the government will manage to control the country once the donor money has dried up and the foreign troops are gone. The terrorist attacks in Paris have only highlighted the problem of Islamic extremism in the country, perpetuated by a resurgent Taliban and reinvigorated by an aggressive Islamic State. Despite robust efforts at reform in the economic, political, and legal sectors, no one seems to know exactly where to be or what to do.

* * *

My plate is always heaped with rice; sometimes it’s fluffy plain white, but more often it is flecked with sliced carrots and raisins – Kabuli palaw. Lunch at the office has become an enjoyable midday ritual. The cook comes in to assure me that the unidentifiable meat on my plate is not goat and that I should eat all the vegetables. Then I sit with one of our young paralegals, Nabila, learning new Persian words, usually relating to food: Gau is cow, Anar is pomegranate, palaw is rice. We discuss important topics like where to get a ball gown hemmed and how to keep a headscarf from slipping, but the conversation inevitably turns to politics and what is happening in Afghanistan.

The recent stoning of a woman in Ghor Province for the crime of zina (extramarital sex) angered Nabila. “This practice is not allowed in Islam. Many of the people in the provinces don’t know what Islam teaches,” she said. I countered, “But the Quran establishes zina as a punishable crime.” As expected, she explained what I had learned previously from other liberal Muslims: the Quranic verse that defines zina is accompanied by an extremely high standard of proof for establishing that the crime actually occurred. All but one of the madhhabs or distinct schools of Islamic law agree on this point. President Ghani called the stoning, “extra-judicial, un-Islamic, and criminal,” and condemned the incident in the strongest terms. The Taliban has been blamed for the stoning, although tribal elders may have been responsible; a variety of groups in the provinces employ strict Taliban-like interpretations of the Quran.

Nabila has explained that the Sharia – the word of God in the Quran and the lived example of the Prophet Mohammad in the sunna – isn’t knowable except through distinct methods of human interpretation. “Muslims who want to justify violence can find plenty of passages to cite and terrible ways to interpret them,” she said. “We shouldn’t focus on that.” She and others like her are confounded by the too common perception that all Muslims are extremists, and that they must choose between extremism on one hand and secularism on the other. “Why can’t people learn more about Islam? We learn about your prophet,” she said. “Harchi bakhair basha. Whatever is in your goodness. It’s a phrase I learned and it’s a type of prayer. I think Jesus said it.”

* * *

It’s difficult to say whether the situation in Afghanistan would be worse today had the United States and western allies not invaded in 2001. I now have a greater appreciation for the complexity of military intervention and the drawbacks of state building operations, but I have also been reminded that non-intervention has unintended consequences too. Despite the generally gloomy outlook, and the fact that hundreds of thousands are trying to abandon the war zone of Afghanistan for Europe, some things have markedly improved in the country since the Taliban fell from power, which likely would not have happened without a western presence.


These days in Kabul, I see boisterous groups of girls in white headscarves walking to school. In fact, close to nine million children are now in school compared with fewer than a million before 2001, and half of those children are girls. At a business conference organized by the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, I sat at a table of young Afghan women who studied at university and now work in businesses across the city. The days when women were only allowed to be seen in public with a mahrem, a close male relative, are long gone. Some women still wear the light blue chadri on a daily basis, mostly for their own comfort, but they are now regarded less as the ultimate symbol of oppression under the Taliban regime, and more as a novelty of a bygone era. Expats can now buy chadri wine bottle covers – “made from real Afghan chadri” – and “burka bears,” stuffed animals covered head to paw in nylon, in varying shades of blue.

And there are other signs that Afghanistan is slowly continuing to change for the better. On November 11, thousands of men and women gathered on the streets of Kabul to participate in the largest peaceful protest in Afghanistan’s recent history. They were demanding justice and protection after seven innocent Hazara hostages were beheaded by the Taliban and/or the Islamic State. People marched with signs that read “Down with the Taliban” and “Down with ISIS,” but the protests were aimed mostly at the Afghan government; President Ghani was seen as ultimately responsible for failing to provide protection. In the past it has been easy for Afghans to side with whichever strongman our militant group seemed most capable of providing security and stability, but now, it seems, Afghans want more.


We see how corrupt and mismanaged the national government is on a daily basis in our roles as international lawyers in Kabul. Last week, one of our clients came to us with a stack of papers bearing the emblem of the Taliban. It was an old administrative regulation issued under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the now defunct Taliban regime – and signed by Mullah Omar himself. One of the government agencies demanded that our client comply with the regulation. We were startled to see the old black and white emblem in place of the new coat of arms of the Islamic Republic; it was as if the Taliban had resurrected under the guise of the NUG and no one working in the government had noticed. Still, reference to the regulation had been an administrative slip; it was not meant to herald the reemergence of an extremist regime.

Despite the severe deficiencies of the current order, Afghans are making sense of the chaos by learning a new script, provided in part by western countries under the Bonn Agreement. Like the traffic in downtown Kabul, progress is stop and go and there is not yet a discernible flow, but if there is to be meaningful change in Afghanistan, it will be led by the new generation of Afghans who believe in constitutional government and free enterprise. Future leaders will draw their legitimacy from commitment to security, the dignity of communities, and the rule of law.

Photos: 1. Kabul traffic, Getty Images; 2. Brussels La Grand-Place, Jessica Wright; 3. Women in Kabul, Jessica Wright; 4. Protests in Kabul over ethnic unrest, The New York Times.

Dispatches from Kabul: On the Banks of the Kabul River


Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

A Public Murder

She was a 27-year-old student of Islamic law and a devout Afghan Muslim. After praying at the Shah-e Du Shamshira mosque at the center of Kabul, Farkhunda Malikzada confronted the caretaker about the practice of selling charms or tawiz, amulets containing Quranic verses and incantations. Like many other conservative Muslims, she believed they were superstitious and un-Islamic. As she admonished the caretaker and the confrontation escalated, he began shouting, “In the name of God, kill her! She has burned the Quran!” Within minutes, a mob of hundreds had assembled, and while the police stood idly by, Farkhunda was stoned, beaten, set on fire, and left to die on the banks of the Kabul River. Some of those present filmed the lynching on their mobile phones.

Violence is endemic in Afghanistan and modern political and legal institutions have faltered since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but the brutal murder of Farkhunda – which took place just last March – was particularly shocking given the cultural understanding in Afghanistan that public violence toward women is taboo. Despite the outcry from within the country and abroad, a number of prominent Afghan officials and religious leaders immediately endorsed the murder, highlighting Afghanistan’s complicated relationship with Islam and shattering the cautious hopes of reformers, particularly women’s rights advocates. The official spokesman for the Kabul police characterized Farkhunda’s protestations as a publicity stunt with the aim of attaining U.S. or European citizenship, and during his Friday prayer sermon, Ayaz Niazi, the prominent imam of the Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque, said, “If someone disrespects the Quran, you cannot expect people to control their emotions and wait for judges to decide the punishment.” Mullah Hassam of the Bagh-e Bala mosque argued that mahkama—e sahrayi or arbitrary execution is the appropriate punishment for insulting Islam. Soon thereafter, an investigation by the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs found no evidence that Farkhunda had burned the Quran, and concluded that she had been slandered.

I first read about Farkhunda while weighing the pros and cons of moving to Kabul to practice law. I knew about Afghanistan’s abysmal human rights record, and had read up on the fragile legal protections for women and girls, as well as the “moral crimes” they are often prosecuted for and the oppressive customary rules they are subject to. Nevertheless, I was stunned by the savagery of Farkhunda’s murder. Afghanistan has “entered a new period of instability in 2014” the reports read, but Taliban-style murders were, I thought, a thing of the past.

Several friends and colleagues asked if I would be defending victims of human rights abuses, particularly women, and strongly advised against it. I assured them that I would be working in the commercial sector, focusing on corporate law and taxation, and would remain far outside the controversial limelight. Free enterprise is the surest path to prosperity and human rights, I would tell them. And surely it is. But even though I am not an Afghan woman, and life in Kabul is comparatively easy for me, Farkhunda’s story affected me deeply and became a catalyst for deeper study into a troubled country.

Afghan Law

Afghanistan’s legal system has been shaped by the country’s multiethnic population and chaotic history, as well as its distinctive culture. Under the veneer of monotheism, it is actually a country of competing belief structures. Afghanistan is overwhelmingly Muslim, but it is also clan-based, and as such its two primary sources of law have long been customary tribal law and Islamic law. The current formal legal system – designed in Bonn after Allied forces and the Northern Alliance gained control of the country in 2001 – aims to blend both traditions within a constitutional order defined by civil codes and formal courts. The Constitution designates Islam as the religion of the state and stipulates that no law shall contravene its tenets and provisions. It also suggests that Hanafi jurisprudence – one of the four Sunni Muslim schools – should be used as a kind of gap filler, consulted when there is no provision in the Constitution or others laws regarding a particular issue. And while Islam has been used as a source of authority to unite Afghanistan’s disparate clans under the auspices of the government since the late eighteenth century to the present, legal authority has never been fully consolidated in the hands of the state. This is due in part to ongoing conflict, lack of infrastructure, and an overarching lack of legitimacy, but also because of the prevalence and perceived authority of informal or customary law.

Within the informal system in Afghanistan, the ulama or religious leaders adjudicate disputes by employing common cultural and ethical standards that are assumed to conform to Islamic law. Most of these tribal leaders, who meet in shuras or jirgas – the main institutions that operate as mechanisms of dispute settlement – are untrained in the classical Islamic law tradition. In Pashtunwali, an unwritten ethical code with its own particular set of customs or urf, individual identity is inextricably linked to membership within a particular tribe, and the concept of nang or honor is paramount. Certain actions help to build one’s honor within the tribe while others negate honor and bring about shame. Namus or the practice of observing gender boundaries, for example, is routinely extolled as a virtue. Women abide by purdah or seclusion to maintain these boundaries since it is believed that a woman who is almost invisible to others cannot shame herself. These norms and others like them are not codified; urf assumes space within Islamic law. As such, the formal and informal legal systems operate in parallel with significant tensions between them.

During my first month in Kabul I met Kimberley Motley, the spirited American defense attorney who represented Farkhunda’s family at the initial trial. Motley is, in her words, on a “quest for justness,” which means using existing laws for their intended purpose: to protect. She keeps records of all legal proceedings, and insists that court officers, judges, and parties to the dispute sign off on them. Since the principle of stare decisis does not apply in the Afghan legal system, and judicial interpretation cannot be relied upon to clarify interpretive voids, Motley often relies on this self-made precedential system to argue her cases.

Forty-nine suspects were tried in the Farkhunda case at a trial noted for its unusual brevity. Motley wrote a petition for the family, in which she cited the Afghan Penal Code, the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, the Afghan Constitution, the Quran, a body of tribal law, and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. She requested civil compensatory damages for the family and criminal punishment to the extent of the law for the perpetrators. Motley also demanded punishment for those who stood by and watched the murder. “To take good care of and protect women is one of the principles of Islam,” she wrote. “To allow society to ignore this obligation promotes anarchy and discord, and perpetuates further violence.”

In the end, four of the perpetrators were given death sentences and eight were sentenced to 16 years in prison for murder, assault, and encouraging violence. Nineteen more were sentenced to one year in prison for failure to protect, and 18 were acquitted. “The trial was about Farkhunda and her family,” said Motley. “But to some extent, this ordeal has also put the Afghan legal system on trial.” Critics contend that the rapid convictions were a result of public pressure, and came at the cost of serious failings in the judicial process. Motley, too, acknowledged that there were monumental flaws, but also noted that it was the most well run trial she has ever seen in Afghanistan. She added, “I hope the judges, police, and the wider community in Afghanistan have learned from this case and better understand that the laws exist to protect not oppress women.” Unfortunately, this seems not to be the case. Two months later, during a secret and unlawful hearing, the Appellate Court overturned the death sentences. Motley hopes the case will now be brought before the Supreme Court.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of Farkhunda’s murder, the largest women’s protest in the Afghanistan’s history took place. Women poured onto the streets of Kabul to demand justice and an end to gender-based violence. Many decried the notion that “men are fundamental and women are secondary,” as declared by the Afghan Ulama Council in 2012, saying that such a concept exists in neither classical nor contemporary Islamic jurisprudence. One women’s rights activist said, “The men who killed and attacked Farkhunda were mostly those who have lived in Kabul and have grown up as boys in Hamid Karzai’s government. . . they learned how to wear jeans and look modern but their mentality towards women hasn’t changed.” This attitude, split between a yearning for modernity and fidelity to tribal custom and regressive norms, applies most visibly to issues affecting women.

The dissonance between customary practice, Islamic law, and the state legal code makes it difficult to use existing laws to effectively protect the rights of individuals or to hold accountable those who have violated the rules, norms, and customs of the existing constitutional order. Preventing tragedies like the murder of Farkhunda in the future depends, at least in part, on building and sustaining a robust legal system in Afghanistan. And because that legal system will develop within the strictures of Islam – a religion focused on jurisprudence – many believe change must begin with the ulama.

Photos via Wikimapia and The Guardian

Dispatches from Kabul: Warlords and Takeout

Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 recently moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she works with a team of local and international lawyers at Rosenstock Legal Services, a commercial law firm. In this series of dispatches from Kabul, she will share her insights on issues of law and religion in the context of practicing law in the Islamic Republic. The following personal narrative is an introduction to the series.

Mostly, I was exhausted. There was the packing and repacking, a sleepless night, the flight from Milan to Istanbul, and a four and a half hour layover in the dead of the night. When I arrived at the overcrowded international terminal at Atatürk International, a dark sense of dread came over me. I ordered a venti chai tea latte, bought two bags of Haribo Gold Bears, and sat in front of the lounge monitor watching GO TO GATE flash across the screen for destinations like Najaf, Sulaimaniyah, and Baghdad. When “impoverished, Taliban-infiltrated, suicide-bombed city” is all you have to associate with your destination, it’s hard to rally. KABUL–3:10–WAIT FOR GATE. I wasn’t overcome by the urge to buy a one-way ticket back to Chicago, but as the minutes ticked by slowly I became increasingly angry with myself for having made this decision in the first place.

I couldn’t quite will myself out of the lounge on time, so I ended up sprinting down the terminal to the gate where all but one anxious-looking passenger had been loaded onto the bus that would take us to the outer reaches of the airfield. I remember passing rows of shipping containers and other miscellaneous cargo and wondering if I hadn’t read the fine print well enough.

The flight was full of Westerners. Men with buzz cuts, prominent biceps, and army green t-shirts; tall bespectacled Dutch men with reporter notebooks; women wearing Western tunics and headscarves and speaking the language of project management. A beautiful Afghan girl with kind and vibrant eyes sat next to me. She looked very stylish in her elegant black tunic and hijab, and we struck up a conversation about Islamic dress. She asked me if this would be my first time in Afghanistan – pronounced in a lilting and graceful accent – and then enthusiastically told me all the things she loves about her country. Later, I fell asleep to her conversation with another Afghan woman, the singsong words bale, bale playing in my head. Dari, the Afghan version of Persian and one of the national languages of the country, is really beautiful.

I woke in time to see the sun rising ahead of us in the east, and as we approached Kabul, the desert disappeared and the Hindu Kush came into view. I thought about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and his tiny asteroid, and about the surface of Mars and the moon. “Kabul might as well be outer space,” I whispered to myself. From high above, it looked as though you could be stuck forever in this place surrounded by a vast mountain range encased in endless deserts. The city itself appeared brown and dusty and flat, and the rows of concrete buildings gave the impression that we were landing in the middle of a sprawling detention center or military compound. But as we began the descent I felt a rush of adrenaline and excitement. I had finally made it to Kabul and there was no room for panic.

The hot, dry air smelled like summer in Mumbai, but the atmosphere at Hamid Karzai International was more subdued. An Afghan man loaded my suitcases onto a cart, and we exited the building and began the dreaded walk from the international arrivals terminal to the entrance and parking lots. I felt exposed in the open air, but more curious than frightened, and I managed to snap a few pictures of the “gardens” – wilting rosebushes among weeds – as we made our way to the gate. Given the recent airport bombings, I thought I would be sick with fear, but the ten-minute walk felt strangely normal. A coworker greeted me warmly at our meeting point, and we set out to the city with our driver.

The next hours are a blur of checkpoints, armed men, and seemingly perilous moments on a journey through Kabul’s manic “streets.” When we finally arrived at my new house in a quiet residential neighborhood, I met my housemates – journalists, NGO researchers, communications specialists – as well as the very gracious guards, drivers, and cleaners who make life here easier. We have gates and blast walls, 24-hour chakidors, CCTV, a safe room, and a semi-automatic weapon. Even so, we live “outside the wire,” to borrow a military phrase, which means our security approach is to remain under the radar and as out of sight as possible. Our cars have no markers, we wear headscarves and abayas, and we do not keep regular schedules. Consequently, we are able to move around the city with relative ease. I have only felt anxious once or twice when passing a checkpoint or sitting too long in traffic, and for the most part, the days pass by in a normal rhythm. But I guess this is the reality in a conflict zone. Everything’s fine until it isn’t. You’re safe until you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. You forget about the danger until your friends get captured or killed. It’s the vague, speculative fear, I suppose, that looms large.

My first week in Kabul has been filled with takeout dinners at home, all day brunches in private gardens, and bonfires at night. These are things you wouldn’t think possible in Afghanistan. I’m excited about the work – more on that later – and happy to have met many interesting and enthusiastic people. The low-flying helicopters that regularly shake the house still throw me off, as do glimpses of abject poverty seen through the car window. I like hearing the call to prayer five times a day, but the light blue burkas that cover the body with a single piece of cloth, the chadri, are an eerie reminder of the Taliban’s hold on this country.

As we ventured into a different neighborhood a few nights ago, our driver pointed to a newly built, outsized mansion and said, “That is Dostum’s house.” I looked on in awe as I recalled Ahmed Rashid’s description of General Dostum, the Uzbek warlord:

“He wielded power ruthlessly. The first time I arrived at the fort to meet Dostum there were bloodstains and pieces of flesh in the muddy courtyard. I innocently asked the guards if a goat had been slaughtered. They told me that an hour earlier Dostum had punished a soldier for stealing. The man had been tied to the tracks of a Russian-made tank, which then drove around the courtyard crushing his body into mincemeat, as the garrison and Dostum watched. The Uzbeks, the roughest and toughest of all the Central Asian nationalities, are noted for their love of marauding and pillaging – a hangover from their origins as part of Genghis Khan’s hordes and Dostum was an apt leader. Over six feet tall with bulging biceps, Dostum is a bear of a man with a gruff laugh, which, some Uzbeks swear, has on occasion frightened people to death” (Taliban, pg. 56).

Somehow, all of us, even warlords and lawyers, have a role to play in this strange but fascinating place.

Photos by Jessica Wright, September 2015

Classic Revisited: Dalrymple, “From the Holy Mountain”

from-the-holy-mountain-001In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the many, multidimensional conflicts in the Middle East, with a particular focus on the influence of radical Islam. Many are inclined to see a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations, a “clash” that divides East from West. Perhaps this is why some do not know and others have forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion, firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East. This is important to remember, as the last remaining Christian communities are driven from the region by Islamist groups or misplaced by the ravages of civil war. William Dalrymple’s classic, From the Holy Mountain (1997) provides a detailed and insightful look into this dying culture. It is a timely read as Christians around the world celebrate the Easter Season.

Writing from an austere monastery cell on Mount Athos, Dalrymple tells us in the first chapters that the journey we are about to embark upon will follow in the footsteps of a wandering monk and his student, John Moschos and Sophronius the Sophist. The purpose of their journey across the entire Eastern Byzantine world in the spring of 578 A.D. was to collect the wisdom of the desert fathers, sages, and mystics of the Byzantine East “before their fragile world – already clearly in advanced decay – finally shattered and disappeared.” Fourteen hundred years later, Dalrymple replicates their journey, staying in monasteries, caves, and remote hermitages across the Eastern Mediterranean, collecting anecdotes from the remaining inhabitants of long-forgotten communities. Dalrymple’s book is not a plodding travelogue, nor is it a dry commentary on asceticism or obscure monasticism. With witty and elegant prose, he brings to life the old Byzantine world and its modern incarnation. Dalrymple reminds us, “From the age of Constantine in the early fourth century to the rise of Islam in the early seventh century – the Eastern Mediterranean world was almost entirely Christian.”

In Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey), Dalrymple brings us to the pillars of the stylites, Christian ascetics who lived atop high, unsheltered pillars where they would preach, pray, and fast. Byzantines looked on the stylites as “intermediaries, go-betweens who could transmit their deepest fears and aspirations to the distant court of Heaven, ordinary men from ordinary backgrounds who had, by dint of their heroic asceticism, gained the ear of Christ.” Acknowledging the strangeness of the practice, Dalrymple says, “It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of skeptical Western rationality.”

In Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey), one of the first towns outside Palestine to accept Christianity, Dalrymple notes the absence of churches and the dwindling, almost nonexistent Christian communities that once flourished there. There has been no Christian community in the area since 1915, when the governor began deporting Armenians – that is, rounding them up and murdering them “in the discreet emptiness of the desert.” In Diyarbakir (also in Turkey), once one of the largest Armenian communities in Anatolia, only one church remains. Dalrymple emphasizes the degree to which the Armenians have been erased from the history and even physical landscape of the region.

The Suriani, too, were driven out. Once surviving in the barren hills of Tur Abdin (in southeast Turkey), where hundreds of Syrian Orthodox monasteries maintained the ancient Antiochene liturgies in the original Aramaic, a community of only nine hundred still lived there when Dalrymple visited in the 1990’s. Speaking with Christians who have remained, Dalrymple highlights the striking lack of Western support for these communities: “The Christians of the West have never done anything for us. . . the Turks help other Muslims if they are in trouble in Azerbaijan or in Bosnia, but the Christians of Europe have never shown any feelings for their brothers in the Tur Abdin.” As we well know, support is still lacking.

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Upon entering Syria, Dalrymple attempted to interview a group of Nestorian Christians in a refugee camp. He was told that it was impossible for outsiders to get in, and that even trying would attract the attention of Assad’s secret police. The Syrian local who gave this information also suggested, dryly, that Dalrymple simply interview the Nestorians of England when he returned home, in Ealing. “Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late twentieth century,” wrote Dalrymple, “Go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.” This story reminded me of my own plan to travel to Assad’s war-torn Syria to hear a liturgy sung in Aramaic. A professor suggested, instead, that I simply drive 20 minutes to St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck, New Jersey to achieve the same goal–which I did.

Before the civil war intensified, it was widely held that Christians were better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East (with the possible exception of Lebanon). Syria was considered a sanctuary for Christians, due in part to the way Assad built his regime: “Assad kept himself in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria’s many religious minorities – Shias, Druze, Yezidis, Christians, and Alawites – through which he was able to counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority.” Considering the current situation in Syria, one wonders if there are any safe havens left.

Dalrymple takes the reader on a memorable historical journey through cities and regions now more readily associated with strife and militant Islamism than with Christianity. Through his stories and observations, Dalrymple also gently suggests that a way forward through present conflict may lie in acknowledging the similarities between the cultures and communities of the region. He writes, “In an age when Islam and Christianity are again said to be ‘clashing civilizations,’ supposedly ‘irreconcilable and necessarily hostile,’ it is important to remember Islam’s very considerable debt to the early Christian world, and the degree to which it has faithfully preserved elements of our own early Christian heritage long forgotten by ourselves.” One should read From the Holy Mountain to learn about or remember the history of Christianity – it is, as one reviewer put it, an evensong for a dying civilization. But one should also read this book to put into perspective contemporary cultural and religious conflicts in the Middle East and the role Christian communities have played, and could still.

Photos by Jessica Wright: 1. The Altar of the Crucifixion, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 2. Icons, Istanbul; 3. Chapel of St. Helena, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 4. Armenian Shrine, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 5. The Aedicule, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 6. The Stone of the Anointing, Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Around the Web This Week

Some interesting law & religion stories from around the web this week:

Emon, Levering & Novak, “Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue”

9780198706601_450This May, Oxford University Press will publish Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue by Anver M. Emon (University of Toronto), Matthew Levering (Mundelein Seminary), and David Novak (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows.

This book is an examination of natural law doctrine, rooted in the classical writings of our respective three traditions: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic. Each of the authors provides an extensive essay reflecting on natural law doctrine in his tradition. Each of the authors also provides a thoughtful response to the essays of the other two authors. Readers will gain a sense for how natural law (or cognate terms) resonated with classical thinkers such as Maimonides, Origen, Augustine, al-Ghazali and numerous others. Readers will also be instructed in how the authors think that these sources can be mined for constructive reflection on natural law today. A key theme in each essay is how the particularity of the respective religious tradition is squared with the evident universality of natural law claims. The authors also explore how natural law doctrine functions in particular traditions for reflection upon the religious other.