Danish cartoons: one Afghan's peaceful protest

Muhammad Sediq Afghan's hunger strike has inspired dozens to join his nonviolent efforts.

Hoshang Hashimi/Reuters
Protestors burn Danish and Dutch flags during a demonstration in Herat province, Afghanistan on Saturday. Thousands in Herat assembled to condemn the reprinting of a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed in Danish newspapers, and a film by a Dutch politician that compares the Koran to Hitler's 'Mein Kempf.'

Hundreds of demonstrators marched the streets of Kabul Sunday, calling for the eviction of Danish and Dutch troops, while in the western city of Herat, thousands assembled and burned the nations' flags.

Yet even as angry protests sweep the country in response to the republication of cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad, in one park in Kabul, protesters are taking a different approach – one they say better reflects their religion of peace.

Muhammad Sediq Afghan, a professor at the Kabul-based World Philosophical Mathematics Research Center, is sitting in a small tent near the center of town, where he has spent close to a week without food.

Mr. Afghan is leading a dozen others in a hunger strike to protest the Danish cartoons and a film by a Dutch politician that compares the Koran to Hitler's "Mein Kempf." "I will continue to fast until the authors apologize," he says. "Others are burning flags and rioting. We don't like this – we want to do things peacefully."

It is an unlikely tactic in a war-torn country with a history of violent protests. Two years ago, a Danish newspaper printed cartoon images of Muhammad that many Muslims considered offensive, sparking protests and riots across the Muslim world. Last month, Danish newspapers republished the images after police uncovered a plot to murder the cartoon's author. At the same time, Dutch papers announced the March release of a film that contends that the Koran is "an inspiration for intolerance, murder and terror."

Protests erupted again throughout the Muslim world, including in Afghanistan. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, furious protesters torched the Danish and Dutch flags, while more than 200 Afghan lawmakers shouted, "Death to enemies of Islam," in a demonstration outside the parliament building in Kabul.

But Afghan insists that the violent few do not represent most Muslims. When two locals passed by his solitary tent last week, they were inspired to plant tents of their own and join in the hunger strike.

"I was visiting from Kunduz [a distant province], when I saw Mr. Afghan's tent," striker Bashir Ahmad says. "I agreed with his message, and I don't think violence is the way to solve this issue. So I decided to join the strike, and I've been here ever since."

The following day a few more joined. By Day 5, more than 60 people had gathered in this small Kabul park, transforming one man's stand into a forum where strikers give passionate speeches defending Islam.

The protests come at a time when many Afghans feel that the West judges them unfairly, observers say. Local journalist Hamid Asir asks, "British newspapers agreed not to publish stories about Prince Harry's stay in Afghanistan. But when someone publishes something that is hurtful to over one billion people, why does the West talk about press freedom?"

Analysts warn that the specter of continued violence still looms large, especially if the Dutch film is released, and that some will seek to gain from the events. "Violent protests are often orchestrated or manipulated by powerful religious figures," says Nadim Shehadi, London-based analyst.

But Afghan and his fellow strikers hope their peaceful methods will strike a chord. "Europe has spent billions on Afghanistan," says the mathematician, pallid and emaciated from a week without food. "But we'd much rather just have them respect our religion."

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