Afghan dreams

Visions of feasting and revelry probably warm your holiday dreams. Visions of scorpions and assassins haunt Detroit attorney Khalid Sekander these nights as he prepares to leave his wife, family and home to travel to Afghanistan, where he will help write the country’s constitution and national laws.

As I sit with Sekander in the living room of his downtown Detroit apartment, he shudders to think he could be lured into a trap to eliminate his voice — a loud and constant call for the separation of church and state in his homeland Afghanistan. He’s not really scared, he says. More than anything, he’s proud and excited.

“It’s my life’s dream, to see Afghanistan develop and prosper under democracy. I never thought I’d see the day when the misery ended,” says Sekander. “In this land of chaos, I’m going to be a beacon of democracy. I’m going to represent the ideals of the American legal system. I believe Afghanistan can be the democratic showcase for the region. The Afghans can do it.”

On Jan. 8, Sekander is set to fly to Kabul to head the working group on international law for the constitutional committee; he may be named a vice minister of justice. When I exclaim, “Wow,” at the title, the normally intense man cracks up laughing.

“They told me I wouldn’t make much money, but I’d get a big title,” laughs Sekander. “And I guess in this world of titles, that’s a good thing.”

His six-month contract with the Islamic Transitional State of Afghanistan stipulates $500 upon arrival and $150 a month. He’s hoping to stay at an uncle’s hotel that has heat, running water and electricity, where the $5-a-day board will devour his salary.

“Every day I’m there will cost me money,” says Sekander, who is trying to spread the word and raise funds before he goes. Even if he doesn’t raise a dime, he says he wouldn’t miss this opportunity.

Like many Americans born elsewhere, Sekander’s love for country is split. He’s proud of what he sees as Afghanistan’s ancient and noble history, yet he’s an American patriot who speaks fiercely of democracy as the greatest form of government. He’s also a Dallas Cowboys fan and calls himself a “Texan-Afghan-American”; he came to this country at age 7 and spent 20 of his next 33 years in Texas before moving to Detroit, where he practices immigration law.

“I’m very pampered. I’m very American,” says Sekander.

He expects the trip will be surreal, “like living in the outback.” The Kabul he remembers from his youth was a land of milk and honey. Now he says, the life expectancy is 40 years and men who make it to that age are often wrinkled and worn and sport long white beards. People will probably think he’s about 20, he says.

As Sekander sits back in a blue velvety chair and lights a cigarette, he tells how in early November Afghanistan’s minister of justice, Abdul Rahim Karimi, called him at 1 a.m. The British-Afghan attorney interviewed Sekander and said his skills and American legal training are in need.

The task is daunting. Sekander will be working to develop a legal system that jibes with international law. He’s not sure how comfortable he is with promoting the separation of church and state while working for an “Islamist” government of men who’ve largely been educated by war; men who survived by killing.

Sekander gets off track explaining how Afghanistan got into the mess it’s in. He grows intense, his brown eyes boring into mine, possibly searching for prejudices that might linger deep inside.

Sekander’s family — middle class by Afghanistan’s standards, his mother’s grandfather was the king’s cousin — fled the country before the Soviets invaded in 1979. Sekander’s chest puffs when he tells of Afghanistan’s stunning defeat of the Soviets, who withdrew in 1989, and he grows angry when discussing the “American policy of abandonment” that followed.

He blames the rise of the Taliban — the Islamic fundamentalist Afghan government that treated women as chattel and harbored Osama bin Laden and his terrorist camps — on the abandonment by the United States and the international community. Now, after the American campaign in Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban and bin Laden’s camps, the county has settled into what he calls a peaceable lull.

Sekander believes the government sincerely wants democracy. “Why else would they want me? They know who I am.”

Realistically, the constitution and laws written by Sekander and others will likely govern only in Kabul. Outlying areas are still ruled by tribal chieftans, or “governors,” as Sekander prefers calling them.

The country desperately needs money to redevelop. Of the $4.5 billion promised by the international community, about $800 million has been delivered. President Bush says he wants to help redevelopment, but “he’s not funding it, for God’s sake,” says Sekander. But, at least now, American leaders recognize the need to keep Afghanistan from falling into chaos as it did after the Soviet defeat, he says.

Ultimately, it’s the separation of religion from government that Sekander believes will make the difference between success and failure in Afghanistan and the region.

“Religion is a threat to the safety, security and stability of the world. Religion keeps us split apart,” says Sekander, a non-practicing Muslim. “Religion and superstition are my two greatest fears.”

No matter the dangers ahead, the warrior inside Sekander seems ready to battle.

“I will fight with the pen,” says Sekander. “What good is fighting with violence? If I had done that, I would be dead. What good is a dead Khalid? If we all fought, there would be nobody left to think.”


Assistance for Khalid Sekander can be sent to 1321 Orleans, No. 607, Detroit, MI 48207.

Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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