The United Nations mission in Afghanistan has been plunged into jeopardy after protesters enraged by the burning of a Qur’an by Christian extremists in the US stormed a UN compound in the north of the country and killed at least seven foreign staff members…Two of the UN workers were reported to have been beheaded.
After someone did this:
The controversy began in Florida on 20 March, when Pastor Wayne Sapp soaked a Koran in kerosene, staged a “trial” during which the Islamic holy book was found guilty of “crimes against humanity”, and then set it alight.
The incident took place under the supervision of Pastor Terry Jones, who last year drew condemnation over his aborted plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US.
The circumstances leading up to the attack appear to be this:
The Qur’an burning was the subject of anger at Friday prayers around Afghanistan yesterday. In Mazar-e-Sharif thousands of people poured out of the city’s famous Blue Mosque after a sermon by the presiding mullah, with one police official estimating that there were 4,000 people on the streets of the city.
The head of the Blue Mosque, Atiqullah Ansari, said only a minority were responsible for the violence, claiming they were the followers of a mullah who served under the Taliban regime. “They went to the UN compound and killed the foreigners, this is what they wanted,” he said.
Protests continue and have spread to other parts of Afghanistan as well as well.
Ten people in Kandahar died and dozens were injured following Saturday’s protests.
Probably you’re thinking a couple of things in response to this:
- That Florida pastor guy is an asshole
- My god, isn’t that a bit of an unreasonable response to some asshole in Florida burning your holy book, Afghans?
My initial response to this was certainly shock, horror, and disgust. I also realise that many observers of this atrocity are going to come to the following conclusion:
This happened because Muslim extremists get really, violently angry when someone does anything to insult Islam, due to their intense faith.
Many will certainly remember the violence by some Muslims in a variety of countries over some Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, and draw parallels. They should. However, they should also view both cases as manifestations of political violence borne of intense frustration and rage over perceived ‘Western imperialism’, probably far more so more than of faith. I recognise that my position here may be controversial to some, and acceptable but vague to others, and so to explain it I’m going to talk about the relationship between the desire to do violence and the justification for it.
I can think of two models for examining the relationship between the desire and the justification for violence. The first model is positivist: actors assess a situation, decide that there is justification for violence, and from that decision a desire to do violence develops. This is the rational actor model, and is assumed typically to be the one that governments follow. In this model, the desire for violence is contingent upon a calculation, and can therefore explicitly include the norms of Just War or the goals of deterrence, etc, in shaping violent acts. However, as anyone who considers those moments where they personally have felt the urge to do violence knows, this model isn’t the right one for most individuals. Desire and justification have a reflexive relationship; often the desire for violence preceeds the calculated justification, and only after the urge to fight develops does the question of whether that violence is justified or not get considered. If the desire is considered just, it may be intensified and acted upon. Suffice it to say, most of us decide our violent urges are wrong, and we don’t act on them. And of course, sometimes we do act on them. As those Afghans who attacked the UN compound did.
A lot of people in Afghanistan don’t like us. A lot of them think that the United States and its allies are waging a war against all Muslims everywhere. According to one of my professors, the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis think that 9/11 was a CIA-Mossad plot to justify the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq (not saying who, though he’s credible; Chatham House Rule). I imagine the current view is as prevalent in Kabul and Kandahar as it is in Islamabad and Karachi. Incidentally, according to this professor most Pakistanis were apparently quite understanding of the Nato invasion of Afghanistan before the invasion of Iraq, viewing it as a reasonable response to attack. In any case, the current view is particularly likely to lead to violence, given the right episode.
The mob that gathered after sermons at the Blue Mosque and attacked the UN compound comprised people looking for a reason to fight. It comprised people who already understood the relationship between their community and the community of foreigners as one of war (for a discussion of the social psychology of intergroup conflict, check out my other blog post here). The symbolism of an American cleric burning the Qur’an played into that understanding. They had an authority figure telling them it was right to fight. They had a ‘soft-target’ available: though the UN compound had armed guards – and those guards killed several members of the mob before being overrun – the compound was defended infinity more lightly than any Nato military installation would have been. This attack on UN workers wasn’t ’caused’ by the burning of a Qur’an, but by members of an angry population provoked into overcoming their apathy and given sufficient justification in their minds to commit acts of violence against their enemies.
Accepting this narrative of events should lead us to consider a few conclusions:
- Religious and political identities are conflated for many Afghanis. The mob that attacked the UN compound considered itself to be fighting in an intercommunal war that they did not start, but they justied themselves in religious terms. Religion is the language of politics.
- Preventing future Qur’an burnings through legal measures might appear to be showing a particular deference to Islam, which would be unjustified according to liberal understandings of freedom of expression, but it would also be a way of excluding ‘spoilers’ – a term often used to refer to terrorists who attempt to disrupt a peace process – from participating in the delicate and volatile politics of Afghanistan, by way of the global media.
- The apparent extreme intolerance that many Muslims seem to show for attacks on their religion, which has spawned UN resolutions and religious death-sentences, is connected closely to the dynamics of international geopolitics and the tensions between local tradition and foreign influence. We should therefore not assume that there is anything inherent to Islamic faith that produces violence against its detractors. We should instead assume that as their political attitudes change, so will the way many Muslims view slights to their religion.
*Image is of the body of Theo van Gogh, whose murder is related to this discussion.