Blasphemy riots: 6 examples around the world

Protests over a film mocking the prophet Muhammad erupted in Egypt and Libya on Sept. 11, 2012. Violence surrounding the Libyan unrest led to the deaths of four Americans, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens. 

Many Muslims consider any depiction of the prophet to be forbidden, and Islamic teachings call for handling the Quran with respect. Incidents of both intentional and unintentional disrespect have occasionally prompted protests and violence around the world. Here are six examples:

'Innocence of Muslims'

Egyptian protesters climb the walls of the US embassy with Arabic graffiti that reads 'any one but you God's prophet' during protests in Cairo, Tuesday, Sept. 11. (Nasser Nasser/AP)

The most recent example is a US-made film called the “Innocence of Muslims,” which reportedly spurred demonstrations in Egypt and Libya that ended with the deaths of the US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three of his consular staff. In Cairo, protesters scaled the walls of the US embassy compound and replaced the US flag with an Islamist one, but no one was hurt.

The two-hour film paints the prophet Muhammad as a pedophile and fraud. The details of the amateurish film's provenance are still being sorted out, but it was reportedly made in America. A YouTube trailer of the film was dubbed into Arabic and portions were later picked up by Egyptian TV stations and discussed in the local media. 

Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad

In 2005 and 2006 a Danish newspaper, followed by other European papers, published 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed – an act considered blasphemous by many Muslims. (Not all Muslims believe it's forbidden to depict the prophet. The New York Times notes evidence of a tradition of Islamic and Western art representing the prophet without negative repercussions).

The cartoons − many of which were unflattering − triggered violent protests throughout Muslim communities in Africa and the Middle East. Rioting lasted for close to a month, embassies and churches were burned, and rioters clashed with police. In the end, more than 200 people died and many more were injured.

Violence has flared up from time to time as the cartoons have been reprinted or referenced. In 2008, after the foiling of a murder plot against one of the Danish cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, 17 Danish newspapers republished the incendiary cartoons in solidarity with Mr. Westergaard. This reignited protests across the Muslim world, not just in the Middle East, reaching as far as Indonesia.

After the cartoons were reprinted, the parliamentary speaker in Egypt claimed the cartoons violated the International Declaration of Human Rights, while Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for a revenge bombing outside the Danish embassy in Pakistan. In 2010 Pakistani officials briefly blocked Facebook after a proposed “Draw Muhammad Day” campaign was announced.

Guantanamo Bay Quran 'flushing'

On May 9, 2005, Newsweek ran a story alleging that American interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base in Cuba flushed copies of the Quran down a toilet in the detention center.

The Newsweek report led to protests and several days of rioting across the Muslim world, resulting in at least 15 deaths and many injured. The story was retracted a week later, according to CNN. Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker said, "Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay." The Pentagon called the story “demonstrably false,” and blamed Newsweek for the violent clashes that followed the publication’s “irresponsible” reporting, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

Pastor Terry Jones

In 2010 the pastor of a 60-person congregation near Gainesville, Fla. announced he would host an international “Burn a Quran Day” to commemorate the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and protesting “the brutality of Islamic law.”

Pastor Terry Jones’s announcement was met with international outcry, and US Gen. David Petraeus warned that the burning of the holy book could put US troops at risk in Afghanistan. Mr. Jones cancelled the 2010 event, but thousands of Afghans, reportedly encouraged by the Taliban, took to the streets burning tires and chanting “Death to America.”

Less than a year later, on March 20, 2011, Jones followed through with burning the Quran while hosting an “International Judge the [Quran] Day,“ where he put the text “on trial” and burned copies of the holy book. Though the event initially garnered little media attention in the US, it was condemned by the Pakistani government and when video of the burning was posted online it led to five straight days of large-scale protests and violence across Afghanistan.

In one of the most violent reactions, a mob of more than 100 people stormed the United Nations compound in northern Afghanistan and killed seven foreigners, including four Nepalese guards and four Afghans. The next day nine more people died in mob-related violence in Kandahar.

Jones continues to rile people with his controversial statements on Islam, with some linking him to the recent “Innocence of Muslims” film, according to the Daily Mail.

Bagram Quran burning

In February 2012 thousands rallied outside the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan after NATO and US troops reportedly burned copies of the Quran. The texts were removed from a library at a nearby detention center for what was believed to be extremist messages written in the texts and exchanged among detainees.

When news of the burning, which took place at a trash dump, reached Afghan employees at Bagram who reportedly saw charred remains of the texts, they passed the news beyond the military compound, leading to protests by thousands of Afghans chanting anti-American slogans and more than 12 deaths.

President Barack Obama apologized for the event and six US army officials received administrative penalties. An Army investigating officer wrote in a March report that the men showed poor judgement but did not have “malicious intent,” according to Bloomberg. “Despite all the missteps, at no time was the path chosen by the involved US service members motivated by hatred or intolerance of a particular faith,” the report said. (Here are some appropriate ways to dispose of a Quran.)

Not just Western offenders

Accusations of blasphemy and large-scale riots aren’t directed at Westerners alone: Local accounts of questioning the Quran or offending the prophet Muhammad have commonly led to mob violence and protests as well.

In 2005, a Pakistani man was killed after a mob of close to 400 people – instigated by the local mullah – chased him up a tree after an argument with his wife led him to throw a Quran, which then hit the floor, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

Another example took place in Pakistan in 2009, when local Christians were accused of desecrating the Quran at a wedding celebration, according to Agence-France Presse. A mob burned homes and churches in the Punjab town of Gojra and killed close to 10 people.

And in 2012 a mob of roughly 2,000 people took a mentally disabled man from a police station in Punjab and attacked him for reportedly burning pages of the Quran. Pakistani legislation says insulting the prophet can be punishable by death and defacing a Quran can lead to life in prison, though to date no one has been executed via death penalty for blasphemy charges, reports the AFP.