Afghanistan anti-US protests heartfelt and spontaneous

Demonstrations against the anti-Islam YouTube clip turned violent in Kabul Monday. Afghan clerics haven't pushed for public protests. Instead demonstrators took their cues from news of riots elsewhere.

Omar Sobhani/REUTERS
Riot policemen run towards protesters during a demonstration in Kabul September 17, 2012. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Afghan capital on Monday, setting fire to cars and shouting "Death to America", the latest in demonstrations that have swept the Muslim world against a film mocking the Prophet Mohammad.

Demonstrations against the anti-Islam YouTube video flared in Kabul on Monday, following days of unrest and similar protests throughout the Middle East and Africa. Afghanistan has seen several small-scale protests in recent days, but Monday marked the first time since the release of the controversial video that hundreds of demonstrators gathered for a protest that turned violent.

The protesters marched down a major road on the outskirts of Kabul toward Camp Phoenix, a NATO base here. Police officials say the demonstration lasted about 90 minutes and escalated when demonstrators began throwing large rocks at police, injuring dozens of people. Protesters also set fire to two police vehicles, leaving one completely destroyed, and damaged several local shops.

“The people were really angry,” says Rashid Khan, a grocer whose store was damaged during the demonstrations. “Even if they tried to burn my shop I wouldn’t have tried to stop them.”

In the wake of international incidents involving the desecration of Islamic symbols or beliefs, Afghanistan has often been one of the first and only Muslim countries to see widespread, violent demonstrations. Following the controversial video, however, Afghanistan remained largely quiet, with many local religious leaders reportedly calling for calm, even as the Middle East and Africa erupted in violence.

For the American and international officials in Afghanistan working to stabilize the country as much as possible before the end of their combat mission in 2014, the calls for calm are a welcome sign that many Afghan leaders see greater advantage in stability than unrest at this point.

Protesters in Kabul say that Monday’s demonstration was not provoked by any single group or individual, but rather was a display of solidarity with other Muslims who have acted out in response to the film.

“The main reason for our demonstration was that other Muslims from around the world have condemned and reacted against this film that has disrespected our holy prophet,” says Malim Abdul Ghani, a teacher who participated in the demonstration. “This cannot be tolerated by any single Muslim in the world so we wanted to show our unity with other Muslims around the world and condemn this film and the people who made it.”

Still, many Afghans, including demonstrators like Mr. Ghani, say that they’re disappointed the protest spiraled into violence. Afghanistan has seen a number of demonstrations in response to Islamic issues, such as those in April of 2011 following a Quran burning led by fringe American pastor Terry Jones.

An unfortunate irony of such demonstrations remains that the people killed and injured or those whose property is destroyed are almost exclusively Afghans unconnected to the source of the public anger. Shortly after the 2011 Quran burning protests, mullahs in Kandahar reminded locals that Mr. Jones burned only one Quran while demonstrators in Afghanistan's second largest city had inadvertently burned many more when they set fire to local shops, all of which kept a copy of the Muslim holy book.

“The people need to think about how they demonstrate. They’re just causing problems for their own government and their own people,” says Mohamoud Daoud Amin, deputy to the Kabul police chief. “There were some civilians' shops and property destroyed by the demonstrations. These demonstrations just cause problems for the local people.”

It remains uncertain whether protests will continue in Afghanistan, however, with unrest currently taking place without the overt support of religious leaders there is some optimism that the demonstrations are likely to fizzle out. Additionally the Afghan government has blocked YouTube to stop people from seeing the video that sparked the unrest.

“Hopefully the protests will not grow, but I am not fully confident,” says Mirwais Yasini, the first deputy speaker of Afghanistan's lower house of parliament. “The society here is unpredictable. We have to wait until next Friday, that will be really important. If we make it peacefully to Friday, hopefully things will be over.”

Demonstrations throughout the Muslim world traditionally take place following the afternoon prayer on Friday, the main congregational prayer in Islamic society.

* Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report

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