Commentary Magazine


Topic: Koran burnings

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.”

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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.

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The Afghan Protests Over Koran Burnings

The protests over the Koran burnings appear to be over in Afghanistan–knock on wood. The violence directed against American personnel by insurgents, some of whom have managed to infiltrate the Afghan Security Forces (or been turned by the Taliban after joining in good faith, or simply become deranged), is, sadly, not over. But as emotions calm down it is worth taking a closer look at the protests and “friendly fire” killings and what they mean. That is just what two analysts at the Institute for the Study of War–Isaac Hock and Paraag Shukla–have done. They have produced a valuable backgrounder on the protests whose first paragraph is worth reproducing here:

Protests emerged in stages across small regions of Afghanistan following the accidental burning of Islamic religious texts at Bagram Airfield on February 20, 2012. Most of the protests are not spontaneous or self- organizing outbursts of anti-Americanism, but rather organized violence orchestrated by insurgent groups, Iran, and Afghan political factions aiming to harm their local rivals. Neighboring Iran has utilized its media outlets, especially radio, to influence Afghan demonstrators to be destructive during their protests. The Taliban have issued multiple statements encouraging violent actions. President Karzai and his administration, in contrast, have actively tried to quell violence.

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The protests over the Koran burnings appear to be over in Afghanistan–knock on wood. The violence directed against American personnel by insurgents, some of whom have managed to infiltrate the Afghan Security Forces (or been turned by the Taliban after joining in good faith, or simply become deranged), is, sadly, not over. But as emotions calm down it is worth taking a closer look at the protests and “friendly fire” killings and what they mean. That is just what two analysts at the Institute for the Study of War–Isaac Hock and Paraag Shukla–have done. They have produced a valuable backgrounder on the protests whose first paragraph is worth reproducing here:

Protests emerged in stages across small regions of Afghanistan following the accidental burning of Islamic religious texts at Bagram Airfield on February 20, 2012. Most of the protests are not spontaneous or self- organizing outbursts of anti-Americanism, but rather organized violence orchestrated by insurgent groups, Iran, and Afghan political factions aiming to harm their local rivals. Neighboring Iran has utilized its media outlets, especially radio, to influence Afghan demonstrators to be destructive during their protests. The Taliban have issued multiple statements encouraging violent actions. President Karzai and his administration, in contrast, have actively tried to quell violence.

That tallies with what I wrote in this Wall Street Journal oped in which I argued based on polling data that most Afghans don’t hate America and don’t want our troops to leave while a Pakistan-backed insurgency continues to rage. Given the relatively small size, and and political motivations of, the protests, they do little to suggest that there has been any reversal in the thinking of most Afghans. But there is no doubt that, Koran burning or no Koran burning, the Taliban tactic of encouraging members of the security forces to turn their guns on American troops has been an effective one–not because it poses a serious danger to our troops’ ability to accomplish the mission but primarily because it (wrongly) sends a signal to Americans back home that we have no reliable allies in Afghanistan.

This sense of disgust with the Afghans and despair about the state of the war effort add momentum to the efforts of those in the administration, led by Vice President Biden, who want to pull out troops out more quickly. But it is hard to see why their preferred approach, focusing on a small number of Special Operations Forces and advisers, is any better. A smaller number of troops will be be able to exert less control and will not be able to defend themselves as well as our force of nearly 100,000 can today. In fact, the faster we withdraw, the more likely it is there will be more shocking incidents of violence including “green on blue” attacks with Afghan soldiers killing American troops.

That, in turn, will feed into even greater opposition to the war effort back home and make it impossible for us to achieve any of our objectives in Afghanistan, even the most minimal.

It would be a tragedy if, after being driven out of their safe havens in Helmand and Kandahar, the Taliban were able to stage a comeback because of the willingness of a handful of killers wearing Afghan uniforms to ambush unsuspecting American advisers. It’s not much of a tactic for a conventional war but as a tactic for information warfare–in many ways the dominant battlefield today–it is fiendishly effective.

 

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Obama: Apology for Koran Burning “Calmed Things Down”

President Obama has received a storm of criticism for apologizing for the accidental Koran burning in Afghanistan, and some of it has been unfair. Mistakes were made at the Bagram Air Base, Afghans were offended, and the president wasn’t necessarily wrong at the time to acknowledge the error.

But it’s quite another thing for Obama to insist his apology worked to quell anti-American violence — and in a sense downplay the horrific way Afghan extremists have used the Koran burning incident to justify attacks on our troops — which he did last night during an interview with ABC:

While Republican presidential candidates and others have criticized Obama’s action, the president told ABC that his letter to [President] Karzai has “calmed things down.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Obama said. “But my criteria in any decision I make, getting recommendations from folks who are actually on the ground, is what is going to best protect our folks and make sure that they can accomplish their mission.”

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President Obama has received a storm of criticism for apologizing for the accidental Koran burning in Afghanistan, and some of it has been unfair. Mistakes were made at the Bagram Air Base, Afghans were offended, and the president wasn’t necessarily wrong at the time to acknowledge the error.

But it’s quite another thing for Obama to insist his apology worked to quell anti-American violence — and in a sense downplay the horrific way Afghan extremists have used the Koran burning incident to justify attacks on our troops — which he did last night during an interview with ABC:

While Republican presidential candidates and others have criticized Obama’s action, the president told ABC that his letter to [President] Karzai has “calmed things down.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Obama said. “But my criteria in any decision I make, getting recommendations from folks who are actually on the ground, is what is going to best protect our folks and make sure that they can accomplish their mission.”

No, the apology did not “calm things down,” as anyone can see from the news today that two more American soldiers were killed, reportedly by Afghan National Army members. That’s in addition to the six American soldiers and civilians killed last week. By claiming the apology diffused tensions, Obama is giving a pass to the extremists who’ve exploited the accidental Koran burning to incite anti-American and anti-NATO violence.

Obama needs to stop talking about his apology and start condemning the actions of extremists, for which there are no excuses.

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Afghan Apologies Beside the Point

The latest attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan put the ongoing debate about the many apologies made by President Obama and members of our government over the inadvertent burning of Korans by U.S. personnel in new perspective. While I completely agree with the points that Max Boot made on Thursday about the president being right to apologize, it’s clear that it doesn’t matter how many times Obama or Secretary of State Clinton or any American general utter contrite statements. The incident has merely served as the latest excuse for Islamist violence and riots whose purpose is to vent hatred against the West and perhaps also to serve the interests of our al Qaeda and Taliban foes in Afghanistan.

As Max said, the United States is not in Afghanistan as a favor to President Hamid Karzai but to buttress our security needs. Yet as much as Obama is obligated to say what he can to lessen the chances of attacks on U.S. soldiers there, the spectacle of continual apologies from members of the administration does grate on the sensibilities of many Americans. As with previous incidents in which Muslims sensibilities are said to be offended, whatever sympathy we might have for those who are angry about the incident is overwhelmed by disgust at their resort to violence and murder in the name of their faith. The problem here is not so much what Obama said in this instance but a willingness by this administration and much of the mainstream press to buy into a false narrative in which the history of interactions between the United States and the Muslim world is a one-sided story of Western insults to Islam. As Charles Krauthammer said on FOX News, Americans are sick of seeing their government grovel. It is high time to point out that Muslim violence against non-believers far outweighs the few isolated incidents for which a Western apology to Muslims is in order.

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The latest attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan put the ongoing debate about the many apologies made by President Obama and members of our government over the inadvertent burning of Korans by U.S. personnel in new perspective. While I completely agree with the points that Max Boot made on Thursday about the president being right to apologize, it’s clear that it doesn’t matter how many times Obama or Secretary of State Clinton or any American general utter contrite statements. The incident has merely served as the latest excuse for Islamist violence and riots whose purpose is to vent hatred against the West and perhaps also to serve the interests of our al Qaeda and Taliban foes in Afghanistan.

As Max said, the United States is not in Afghanistan as a favor to President Hamid Karzai but to buttress our security needs. Yet as much as Obama is obligated to say what he can to lessen the chances of attacks on U.S. soldiers there, the spectacle of continual apologies from members of the administration does grate on the sensibilities of many Americans. As with previous incidents in which Muslims sensibilities are said to be offended, whatever sympathy we might have for those who are angry about the incident is overwhelmed by disgust at their resort to violence and murder in the name of their faith. The problem here is not so much what Obama said in this instance but a willingness by this administration and much of the mainstream press to buy into a false narrative in which the history of interactions between the United States and the Muslim world is a one-sided story of Western insults to Islam. As Charles Krauthammer said on FOX News, Americans are sick of seeing their government grovel. It is high time to point out that Muslim violence against non-believers far outweighs the few isolated incidents for which a Western apology to Muslims is in order.

The problem here is not that Obama and Clinton continue to apologize in a vain effort to assuage the Afghan mobs. It is the mute acceptance of a situation in which any insult to Islam by any American or European under any circumstance is seen by the Muslim world as a justification for violence and murder while no amount of bloodshed or act of terror or deliberate insult to non-Muslim faiths is considered worthy of any notice by either side.

Throughout the Muslim world, Christian churches are burned and Jews are persecuted, as are Bahais and other minorities. Christians are under siege in Egypt. Jewish shrines have been attacked and desecrated in the West Bank. Synagogues were burned in Gaza. Yet none of this is considered important enough to notice by most in the West let alone to demand an apology from Muslims. Attacks and murder of Israeli Jews in the name of Islam over the years has become such a routine event that such crimes must be of the spectacular variety to attract much attention. The official media of Egypt, Iran and the Palestinian Authority crank out vicious hate speech about Jews and few care.

Yet let a cartoon satirizing the Prophet Muhammad be published or if a crackpot American pastor burns a Koran to get attention and we are told these acts are sufficient to justify mayhem and bloodshed.

It is to this set of unfortunate facts, and not just the president’s statement, that many Americans are reacting this week. This resentment is not so much at an apology that was probably be justified as it was at the entire tenor of this administration’s attitude toward the Muslim world. This is, after all, the same president who went to Cairo in June of 2009 to reach out to Muslims with a speech that symbolized his attempt to appease Islamic sensibilities. Predictably, that effort failed, as did his overtures to the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring protests. The weakness of our posture has only invited more extremist attempts to inflate minor incidents into causes for violence and murder.

America’s dilemma is that it is locked in a life-and-death struggle with Islamist forces. After all, the only reason we are in Afghanistan is that its Taliban government allowed its soil to be used a base for attacks on American citizens such as the 9/11 atrocities. In order to prevail we must seek and win allies within the Muslim world who want nothing to do with the Islamist agenda of unending war. To do that, we must show respect to their faith but so long as we accept a situation where we do not demand or expect respect in return, we are doomed to failure.

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