Why Terry Jones Quran burning spurred two days of deadly Afghan protests

Protests over Terry Jones's Quran burning spread to the southern city of Kandahar Saturday. By contrast, there was little popular reaction to recent photos of US soldiers posing with the bodies of Afghans they had killed for sport.

Allauddin Khan/AP
Protesters in Kandahar march with sticks during a demonstration condemning a Florida pastor's burning of the Quran. Violent protests over the burning have killed at least nine in southern Afghanistan.

Protests in response to a US pastor burning the Koran spread across Afghanistan for a second day on Saturday, killing at least nine people and injuring more than 70 in the southern city of Kandahar. On Friday, a demonstration in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif turned violent when an angry mob stormed a United Nations compound killing seven members of the foreign staff and five Afghans.

The sustained unrest over Quran burning in Afghanistan stands in sharp contrast to the virtual shrugging off of another shocking incident involving US forces. A day after Terry Jones, the pastor of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., a church of about 30 congregants, burned the Quran on March 20, the German magazine Der Spiegel published photographs of US soldiers posing with dead Afghan civilians they’d killed for sport. Yet there was little, if any, popular reaction.

The disproportionate responses to the two incidents reveal Afghans’ increasingly complex attitude to the ongoing foreign presence in their country. Internationals have become increasingly unpopular, but after nearly a decade of the current war, many Afghans say they are numb to civilian causalities. Some say they assume that killing innocent people is business as usual for foreign forces.

“The people of Afghanistan are very sensitive about Islamic principles. But ... there was a lot of blood shed for three decades in Afghanistan. Also it has become common since 2001 that many civilians are killed during military operations,” says Baryalai Hakimi, the head of the law and political science department at the National Center for Policy Research in Kabul. “The issue of killing civilians is serious, but not so serious as the Quran burning.”

The photographs in Der Spiegel surfaced last month, just as members of the US Army who were accused of operating in so-called kill teams and murdering Afghan civilians in 2010 went on trial. In the graphic photos, soldiers posed with their victims like hunters showing off a trophy deer. One soldier was convicted last week, receiving a sentence of 24 years in exchange for agreeing to testify against other men in his unit.

As the photos began to spread across the Internet, a number of officials feared it could create a violent public reaction like the one that followed the release of prisoner abuse photos at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Yet in a country where only 28.1 percent of the population is literate and many Afghans, especially those in rural areas, have only sporadic access to TV, such a news story is difficult to translate.

Most reaction, therefore, was confined to political circles and educated Afghans. And among the broader population who were aware of the killings and trial, the muted response may simply confirm the well-entrenched view that international forces place limited value on protecting civilians.

“When it comes to the general population’s perception of what is being done in terms of civilian casualties, I believe it has promoted a very negative picture of international forces. I think that for the legitimacy of the Afghan government, for the legitimacy of the international community, we have to avoid such perceptions getting stronger and stronger,” says Walilullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.

A story about Americans burning a Quran, on the other hand, moves easily by word of mouth and is readily understood by all Afghans.

"Afghans are religiously conservative people and most of our population, they are not even middle class. So the lower class level of Afghans are highly tribal and religious and this religious sector always motivates things," notes Mr. Rahmani.

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