The murder of an Afghan women's rights activist and the attacks by a section of the Iraqi police on gay men and boys are reminders of the limits of the international community's influence on virulent Islamist fanaticism and the fertile soil it finds in the region. Western countries have the military power to topple governments, but even with large numbers of troops on the ground they remain powerless to stop the persecution of women and minority groups.
The targeted assassination of Sitara Achakzai, a provincial legislator in Kandahar who worked bravely to advance the cause of women, was carried out by the Taliban. But Afghanistan remains a society where stultifying and objectionable views of the place of women remain widespread, and where even the Western-backed government has passed legislation that would give state sanction to rape within marriage unless a woman is ill or menstruating and would limit the freedom of women to leave their home except for “culturally legitimate” purposes.
The death of Ms. Achakzai, then, is but an extreme manifestation of attitudes that enjoy support in the country, and more to the point among clerics. Sheik Mohammad Asif Mohseni, a leading Shiite cleric, was one of the drafters of the family law that applies to the country's Shiite population. He not only defends it against Western critics, but has also complained that amendments made by the Afghan parliament make it too liberal. He is particularly critical of the introduction of a legal age for marriage of 16 for women, preferring no minimum age. Human-rights advocates argue that the measure is needed to help prevent forced marriages of young girls.
Similarly, there has been a surge of homophobic murders in Iraq by death squads. More than two dozen men and boys have been killed over the past few weeks. Some of those have had the word “pervert” in Arabic on notes attached to their bodies. One of the victims, Ahmed Khalil, was a boy of 14 shot dead by men in police uniforms. The gunmen said he was killed for “corrupting the community.” In Iraq, the fanatics apparently reside within the security services, as well as within religious militias.
Yet here too support for the extremism is rooted in the public attitudes that are encouraged by clerics. Human-rights groups trace the murders of gays in Iraq to a religious decree issued by Iraq's most prominent Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, that said gay men and lesbians should be “killed... in the worst, most severe way of killing.” It is not Western soldiers or an infusion of aid money from Western countries that will end attacks on women, and gays and other minorities. It will require some moral leadership from those to whom the people of Afghanistan and Iraq look for it.