Saturday, April 2, 2011

Afghans attack U.N. building, murder workers and each other after Qur'an burning

Rioters condemning America in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan
Remember Terry Jones? Not the guy from Monty Python, but the Florida pastor who threatened to burn copies of the Qur'an last August in response to the building of the Cordoba House Islamic cultural center a few blocks away from where the World Trade Center used to stand? And the president actually got on television to ask him not to do it? And Jones responded that he wouldn't, not ever?

He finally got around to burning a Qur'an about a week ago. Well, another pastor actually did it but Jones "supervised," during a mock trial of the text in which it was apparently found guilty. And nobody much cared...until some angry mullahs in Afghanistan encouraged a crowd of 20,000 Muslims to "avenge" the burning. Which they did yesterday, by attacking a United Nations compound in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, killing at least twelve people, none of whom were American. Seven of them were United Nations workers from European countries, and five were Afghani. The crowd had attacked the United Nations building because they had been unable to find any Americans on which to vent their anger.
Mr. Jones, the Florida pastor, caused an international uproar by threatening to burn the Koran last year on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Among others, the overall commander of forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, had warned at that time that such an action could provoke violence in Afghanistan and could endanger American troops. Mr. Jones subsequently promised not to burn a Koran, but he nonetheless presided over a mock trial and then the burning of the Koran at his small church in Gainesville, Fla., on March 20, with only 30 worshipers attending.
The act drew little response worldwide, but provoked angry condemnation in this region, where it was reported in the local media and where anti-American sentiment already runs high. Last week, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan condemned the burning in an address before Parliament, and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on Thursday called on the United States to bring those responsible for the Koran burning to justice. 
A prominent Afghan cleric, Mullah Qyamudin Kashaf, the acting head of the influential Ulema Council of Afghanistan and a Karzai appointee, also called for American authorities to arrest and try Mr. Jones in the Koran burning. 
The Ulema Council recently met to discuss the Koran burning, Mullah Kashaf said in a telephone interview. “We expressed our deep concerns about this act, and we were expecting the violence that we are witnessing now,” he said. “Unless they try him and give him the highest possible punishment, we will witness violence and protests not only in Afghanistan but in the entire world.”
Mr. Jones was unrepentant. “We must hold these countries and people accountable for what they have done as well as for any excuses they may use to promote their terrorist activities,” he said in a statement. “Islam is not a religion of peace. It is time that we call these people to accountability.”
Do I need to list off all of the absurd elements in this situation? Maybe I do:
  1. Both sides were blaming enormous groups for the actions of individuals. In Jones' case it was the entirety of Islam for the acts of some terrorists; in the mob's case it was the entirety of America for the acts of a small congregation of loony Americans. And in the mob's case they not only decided to punish the group as a whole, but couldn't even be bothered to make sure that the people they attacked were even members of it or that the property they destroyed was owned by members of it.
  2. Had the three mullahs in Mazari-i-Sharif not encouraged people to take to the streets and commit murder, they almost certainly would not have done so. Just as with the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad, none of this destruction would have happened had it not been for mullahs stirring up the anger of Muslims.  
  3. And yet, Mullah Kashaf holds Jones responsible. He, along with President Karzai, want the United States to bring Jones to justice for doing something that is perfectly legal here. Jones burnt a book in another country; the mullahs actively incited violence in the angry mob standing before them. Obviously, Jones is the guilty party. 
Let's be clear on one thing-- in no sense do I have to condone Jones' ideology, his hatred of Muslims, or his decision to burn a copy of their sacred text in order to hold the Afghani mullahs and rioters 100% responsible for what they did. They reacted violently in response to desecration of a symbol, a reaction to which Americans are not immune (as can be seen in the effort every couple of years to ban burning of the flag) but which for the most part we have rightly condemned as a fundamentally unacceptable response. Burning a sacred text is not shouting "Fire" falsely in a crowded theater; it is not incitement to violence; it is not a violation of anyone's property rights provided the copy you burn is your own. It is Constitutionally protected free speech in America, something that Afghanistan might want to try. There just might be fewer violent outbursts if their own government decided that the destruction of sacred symbols is not desirable but also doesn't justify attacking anyone or anything.  

Afghanistan, I'm sorry you are a country in which is considered okay to react to blasphemy in this way.  But that's not Jones's fault-- it is, ironically, part of what he was complaining about. He went wrong by blaming Islam as a whole, but it is the fault of specific Muslims that this happened. Just as with the Danish cartoons, reacting by wishing death on an entire country and taking to the streets to kill people and burn down buildings kind of puts the lie to that "religion of peace" thing.

I've written before about the heckler's veto-- the attempt to convince someone not to do something by threatening that you will throw a fit about it. In the interests of preventing violence, otherwise decent people react to these threats by encouraging the speaker to not say whatever he or she was going to say. It's a means of transferring blame for violent behavior away from the actual violent person, and nobody should condone it. I was happy to see that Obama's comment on the U.N. attacks did not mention Terry Jones or his church at all:
In Washington, President Obama issued a statement strongly condemning the violence against United Nations workers. “Their work is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan for the benefit of all its citizens,” he said. “We stress the importance of calm and urge all parties to reject violence.” The statement made no reference to the Florida church or the Koran burning. 
It would have been better, of course, for the president to flatly reject any and all suggestions that Jones should be punished by his government for anything, and to affirm that desecration of religious symbols should be legal everywhere and reacted to with displeased words at most. But I probably would've fainted dead away if he'd said that.


  1. From the NYTimes article:

    When a Danish cartoonist lampooned the Prophet Muhammad, four people were killed in riots in Afghanistan within days in 2006.

    The "within days" phrase here is highly misleading. Of course, it is literally true, as those four people were killed over the span of a few days. But it seems to suggest a fast and immediate response. Which ignores that the Danish cartoons were published in September 2005...

    Anyway, great post. Though I have to say, I'm not sure if I would have actually liked it better if in that particular speech Obama had rejected suggestions that Jones should be punished. In a perfect world that conversation would be orthogonal to the one regarding condemnation of the random violence against the UN workers.

  2. You're quite right on that, James. And what happened in the months between when the cartoons were published and when people started getting killed is relevant. That was the time Danish imams spent touring the Middle East, showing the cartoons from the Jyllands Posten to people (as well as some they kindly added themselves) in order to stir up anger. Similarly, in this case it appears to have been condemnation by Afghani mullahs which provoked the crowds into rioting.

  3. It is something to hear from Karzai, that we must punish Jones. Does he truly have no idea of our free speech policies? A shop-keeper with only a basic education who has never left his locality; sure, I could understand, but I'm really hoping that his call for punishment was just pandering to the extremists so that he doesn't look disinterested or complicit with the American devils. The thought that he's not only potentially shoulder-deep in corruption but also a ignorant dimbulb who has our government's support anyway is...ah heck, it's SOP for the West, ain't it?

  4. I'd slightly disagree on one point. Burning the Koran is not rationally an incitement to violence; however, not everyone in the world is rational. Manifestly from the evidence, burning the Koran does incite Islamic fanatics to violence. Whether they OUGHT to be so incited is a separate question of whether they ARE.

    That said, I'd generally agree with your conclusions.

  5. I think Jones should be punished. Not for expressing his feelings he has towards Islams, but for the reaction he caused. He has put all soldiers who are over there at risk, but he has now put America at risk. He should be punished for his consequences. To be honest, I do hope that bastard gets what he deserves. I may be biased because my husband is in Mazar-i-sharif right now with the Army. I'm not happy to hear about any of this. Don't you think the Afgan people have relied on all of the soldiers, whether they are American, German, Japanese, whoever, to bring them peace and protection. How are they to trust them now? The way I see it is that America isn't all that religious as it used to be. People go day to day without even thinking of God, or religion for that matter. In Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, they prey multiple times a day. They are all strong believers together. So, when they burn our bibles in their countries, America doesn't hunt every Muslim living in America and kill them. They don't say "death to Muslims" because they did what they thought was right for their religion. As for them, though, it wasn't just a holy book being burned, it was a spit in the face. Straight disrespect for ALL they believe, for what they stand for, for who they are. I definitely do NOT agree with what they have done and are still doing is ok. What scares me the most is that the Quran reads a lot about holy wars. You conqueror battles in the name of Alla and the people you kill get you a ticket into heaven. I am now afraid that because of burning of their sacred holy book, that they will now consider this a holy war. Their mindset has probably changed. Scary when you think about it all. That's just me. Sorry I've taken up so much space...maybe I should get my own blog.

  6. Part of the problem with the ban-Koran-burning stance, as you suggested with the "heckler's veto" post, is that once we concede that free expression can be restricted whenever someone threatens to react violently to it, it pretty much vanishes, because we've given a veto to whoever is most violent. If Jones should be punished for burning the Koran or prevented from doing it, then by the same argument, if someone threatens random violence in response to (for example) a pro-atheism, then the blogger shouldn't be allowed to publish it. This would actually create an incentive for people to threaten violence when they're offended. When we reward behavior, we get more of it.


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