Why Afghanistan has reacted so sharply to threat of Quran burning
Afghanistan's history is replete with examples of insults against religion -- real or imagined -- fueling uprisings against foreign powers.The Quran burning threat is just the latest.
The global response to small-time Florida pastor Terry Jones's on-again, off-again plan to burn the Quran has so far been mercifully muted. Small groups have burned American flags in Pakistan and the Gulf and condemnation of the plan has poured in from world leaders, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Even Pope Benedict XVI, not exactly the Muslim world's favorite man, has weighed in.Skip to next paragraph
2011 Reflections: Suddenly, a new era in the Middle East
2011 Reflections: the end of a landmark year for Latin America
2011 Reflections: Africa rises, taking charge of its affairs
How the 'Year of the Protester' played out in Europe
In Prague, a tale of communism past
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But so far, most of the action has taken place on television or in print, with one major exception: Afghanistan. In Kabul, parliamentary candidates have put up signs vowing retaliation against the US if Korans are burned and in at least two provinces, anti-American protesters have been shot outside NATO compounds. In one northeastern province, an Afghan National Army outpost was almost overrun and a protest in Kabul earlier this week included stone-throwing at US humvees.
All this contributed to the reason Gen. David Petraeus, who is running the Afghan war, said the Koran burning "could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan." Petraeus, often described as a scholar-soldier (a former professor, he has a PhD in international relations from Princeton University), is well aware of the powerful role that Islam can play in uniting disparate local groups against what are seen as foreign invaders, nowhere more so than in Afghanistan.
The 14th century Muslim historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun studied early Muslim kingdoms and dynasties that sought to exert central government control over often-fractious populations that resented such control and often fell to or were weakened by rivalries among their own elites. He found those that lasted longest, and most successfully, were ones that used Islam to cut across tribal and cultural rivalries. Religion acted as a sort of political glue that could tamp down the centrifugal forces of tribal allegiance.
Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield, in his excellent book "Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History," frames Afghanistan's Taliban as such a movement. The group's Islamic rhetoric has given the Taliban only limited success in breaking out of its reliance on its Pasthun tribal base. But the religion has helped the group reach beyond intra-Pasthun rivalries and become a movement that seized control of most of the country in the 1990s. It also remains a powerful force to this day.