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.

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