Commentary Magazine


Korans vs. People in Afghanistan

When an unhinged U.S. soldier gunned down 16 Afghan civilians – including women and children – in a pre-dawn massacre a couple of weeks ago, Americans immediately recoiled in horror and dismay. But to Afghans, this atrocity was far less outrageous than the accidental Koran burning at a U.S. military base a few weeks earlier. And while the Koran burning sparked violent protests in Afghanistan, the local response to the senseless murders was much more restrained.

The Associated Press reports on how religious leaders have justified the discrepancy:

When mullah Abdul Rahim Shah Ghaa thinks back to the day in February when a couple of Afghan employees at a U.S.-run detention center outside of Kabul yanked five partially burned Korans out of a trash incinerator, he shudders with anger and revulsion. “It is like a knife to my heart,” says the head of the provincial religious council. The March 11 slaying of 16 Afghan civilians by a lone U.S Army staff sergeant named Robert Bales in Kandahar province, however, has left less of a scar. “Of course we condemn that act,” he says. “But it was only 16 people. Even if it were 1,000 people, it wouldn’t compare to harming one word of the Koran. If someone insults our holy book, it means that they insult our faith, our religion and everything that we have.”

It’s a disturbing concept, and almost the inverse of our culture, which views the protection of life and freedom of expression as our top values. There’s also the long Pashtun history of revenge-killings, which bizarrely may make the recent massacre somehow understandable in their eyes. And there are the politics. Because the Taliban kills people all the time, it’s really not able to rile up as much public anger on that issue. But the Korans are a different story:

Comparing reactions to the two atrocities is not just a question of the sacred vs. the profane, says parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi. As with everything else in Afghanistan, politics plays a role. While she has no doubt that antigovernment elements and even opposition politicians sought to capitalize on both incidents, she believes that Afghans have become savvy to the political opportunities presented by yet another case of civilian deaths and have learned not to react. Bales may have murdered nine children in his rampage, she notes, but just a few days later an insurgent bomb planted in the road of a neighboring province killed nine more. “Why don’t we stand strongly against the Taliban when they massacre people?” she asks. “People are clever enough to understand that this is a political issue, and the Koran is not.”

So while the massacre may have contributed to the mess the U.S. military now finds itself in, the real provocation was always the Koran burning.