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.

Rahmat Gul/AP
Afghans burn tires and block a highway during a protest, in reaction to a small American church's Quran burning threat, at Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday.

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.

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.

WATCH VIDEO: Build a 'mosque' near ground zero?

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.

While it's hard to see an isolated Quran burning in Florida driving many ethnic Tajiks or Uzbeks to the Taliban's side, the history of Afghanistan is replete with examples of insults against Islam – real or imagined –- lighting the dry religious tinder that cuts across ethnic lines there. That's a strategy the Taliban has pursued for decades.

For Afghans, the physical Quran has symbolic force of its own. In traditional tribal battles, if one side was seeking to parlay or surrender, it would typically send a woman out holding high a Quran, much as Western armies once used white flags. Ironically, one of the pro-communist rulers of Afghanistan in the 1970s called a press conference at which he waved a Quran that he said had been desecrated by his political opponents. The attempt to rally political support failed, since his Soviet sponsors were well understood not to favor religion.

Perceived insults have affected Afghanistan in the past. In 2005, a riot broke out in Jalalabad after Newsweek incorrectly reported that a US interrogator had flushed a Quran down the toilet at Guantánamo Bay. Not only were examples of the foreign presence attacked (the UN withdrew staff from the city after two of its guesthouses were attacked), but so were Afghan government installations, since the administration of President Hamid Karzai is seen by many Afghans as a symbol of the foreign presence as well. Four rioters were killed before the incident petered out.

In January this year, antigovernment protests broke out in the town of Garmsir in Helmand Province on a rumor – apparently spread by Taliban agents – that US soldiers had desecrated a Quran. After protesters tried to storm the local office of the National Security Directorate, an Afghan government intelligence agency, Afghan forces shot and killed eight of them. Locals blamed the US for the deaths.

This is of course not new. Britain's imperial adventures in Afghanistan in the 19th century were fraught with local beliefs that their mere presence was an insult to Islam, as well as claims that the British were violating Afghan women's honor. The Jihad that led Gen. William Elphinstone to withdraw from Kabul in 1842, and saw only one of his 16,000 soldiers and camp-followers make it to Jalalabad (though as many as 2,000 in all survived the ordeal), was partly inspired by such rumors.

WATCH VIDEO: Build a 'mosque' near ground zero?

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