Killing for a Book

Afghanistan is a complicated place.

It’s full of fierce, brave people challenging entrenched traditions and trying to forge a new kind of society in the wake of the Taliban years. Its government is endemically corrupt and somewhat too keen to flirt with misogynists, but it’s blissfully moderate compared to the theocracy to its west, and the frightening common xenophobic opinions of the population to its east.

But some Afghans – or Afghan men I should say – are easily fooled into embarrassing themselves.

To date, nine people have been killed in violent demonstrations across Afghanistan in reaction to the discovery by some Afghan labourers that two Americans were incinerating bags of books that included copies of the Quran. The two were reportedly unaware that they were burning the Quran.

A simple accident. And the absolutely last thing that NATO or US forces would ever intentionally do in the current context, when the reactions are sadly predictable, putting their soldiers—and indeed all foreigners working in the country, not to mention Afghan civilians—at heightened risk. Last spring, 12 UN workers were slaughtered by an angry mob who attacked the UN compound in Mazar-i-sharif, incited by a Florida pastor’s threat to burn a Quran. In May 2005, 17 people were killed in Afghanistan after a Newsweek article reported that US soldiers had flushed a Quran down a toilet at Guantanamo detention facilities.

In each case, these tragic outcomes were followed by a chorus of smug commentaries in western media: those Americans should have known better. This time was no exception: both implicit and explicit statements of disapproval in news articles from the usual apologist suspects on up to the mainstream reporting. Angry comments were posted in response, suggesting the US must have done it deliberately (regardless of the fact that from a tactical military perspective, this makes no sense whatsoever).

Appalled reactions all round. But not towards the ludicrous violence with which offended protesters react to these incidents, but at the inconceivability that US forces in Afghanistan haven’t yet learned their lesson.

But the absurdity here is that there are sufficient numbers of Afghan men who allow themselves to get so wound-up over an accidental desecration of a symbol of their religion, that they feel compelled to take to the streets, armed with stones and/or other weapons, with the intent to maim and to murder. That is what’s appalling. That is what’s absurd.

The media, and much of the public in the west, is getting the story tragically wrong. We are so consumed in our cultural relativism that we take all religious practices as weighted equally: as worthy of serious respect and polite tolerance. We discard our criticism in favour of not stepping on toes (or setting off triggers). We get mixed up about who is actually instigating the violence: not US soldiers who did or did not damage a Quran nor even a batty pastor who most definitely did threaten to burn one. We stop seeing the obvious: that it’s the direct perpetrators of the violence who are responsible. They are the adults who make choices about how to respond to being upset. As with temperamental children, we no longer hold them to the same expectations that we would our own fellow citizens, to respond lawfully, and control their anger to the extent that they don’t need to kill others for the rage to subside.  And we ultimately fail to see the utter senselessness of taking human life on account of harm to a book. That’s the story. It’s that senseless, violent reaction that should shock you, not that there is anyone left in the world with the gall to do it.

But the Quran is not just some book, someone will no doubt wish to remind me. It’s the very foundation of the Islamic faith. It represents Islam itself for believers. It’s holy for god sake!

Certainly some of my insensitivity comes from the fact that I’m not a believer – in any faith. But if I were, I would hope that the way my religion was manifested in my actions might be more critical than reverence for physical objects symbolic of my faith. I’d like to think that how I lived my religious values would carry more weight than how they were represented. (But I suppose once one starts to feel that way, there is little role left for religion anyway).

It seems to me that the continued obsession over physical objects—whether with reverence or disdain—has a whiff of the mass hysteria of 17th century Salem to it- paranoia about black cats, belief in magic ointments, evil plants, and protective amulets. Objects and symbols come to embody religious significance, rather than religious practice. Don’t the ardently faithful generally insist that their faith is about larger-than-life spiritual questions, its purpose lofty and its meaning well above the grasp of the physical world? Yet for the Afghan Muslim men who gathered in the streets these past few days, the transgression most worthy of the grimmest response is the desecration of a physical object. That seems, well, pretty shallow. Are other Muslims not embarrassed by the protesters’ rather narrow view of their own religion?

In any case, for a faithless person like me, it’s just a book. But for a Muslim, can it not be a valuable, important, symbolic—even magical—book, without also being a book that ever justifies bloodshed? In the vitriolic reactions that swept Afghanistan in 2005, in 2011 and in 2012, it was not only foreigners, but Afghan Muslims too, who were killed. Is the Muslim book more precious than Muslim lives?

Further violence in the foreseeable future may be prevented by exceptional care by US and other foreign forces in Afghanistan in their handling of Qurans. But this isn’t a real solution, leading to real peaceful co-existence. A real solution is one where the pious learn to live with sometimes having their sensitivities offended, rather than erupting into rabid tantrums so severe they resort to carnage and inhumanity; and where outside observers are brave enough to put a plug on their cultural sensitivity when things go too far.

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