The Koran burning incident, which has raged in Afghanistan since the last couple of weeks, is symptomatic of the mutual misunderstanding with which the US and regional players have bumbled on for the last 10 1/2 years – with no clear goal in sight.
If the US goal in Afghanistan was to train the security forces to handle their own defenses, the incident of US soldiers burning the Koran outside Bagram prison – allegedly to thwart planning by Taliban soldiers against them – indicates that the decade long war has not taught American soldiers basic cultural norms of Muslim societies.
The Afghans have refused to buy the argument by US soldiers that the notes written on the Korans by Taliban prisoners may have been code words for an insurgency. Instead, the issue has touched a far deeper chord than the video of US soldiers humiliating the corpses of Taliban soldiers…which was repeatedly played in the US media.
The Koran burning incident has thrown world leaders into a bind. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, knowing that his fate will be decided by the Afghans after his US patrons leave, has turned to the Ulema (religious clergy) to defuse the crisis.
On the other hand, US President Barak Obama – with his multi-cultural upbringing – has apologized, but failed to contain the violence that has infiltrated into the Afghan security forces.
If the US had taken a leaf from history, it would found the need for greater sensitivity in a cultural milieu where tribal Afghans have fought off Western influences like the plague.
For example, the former Soviet Union was forced to end its modernity campaign in Afghanistan shortly after its invasion in 1979, after Russian literacy workers were murdered by conservative Afghans. Millions of Afghans migrated to Pakistan, where they coalesced into the Mujahidin. These “holy warriors” were subsequently funded and armed by the US against the Soviets in Afghanistan… in a movement that has fathered the Taliban.
Today, with history come a full circle, Afghan conservatism raises new challenges for the Obama administration.
The Koran burning issue has already spilled into Pakistan where the religious parties (who served as the mid-wives for the Taliban during the 1990s) have used it to capitalize on anti-US sentiment.
In Pakistan, the victimization of religious minorities and even Muslims suspected of sacrilegious acts mushroomed after 1984, when the Gen. Zia ul Haq’s military coup was followed by passage of the Blasphemy Laws to award the death penalty for insulting the Prophet of Islam and the Koran.
In 1994, I visited Gujranwala town in the Punjab to see how a Muslim who had even memorized the Koran, suffered the ultimate penalty for alleged blasphemy. The unfortunate Muslim, Hafiz Farooq Sajjad whose Koran caught fire…it is impossible to verify how it happened… was spotted by his neighbor while the Holy Book was burning, and reported he had burnt it on purpose.
As the news of the Koran burning spread through the town, the clerics announced it from the mosque. An angry mob descended on Sajjad’s home, tied him to the back of his motor bike and dragged him till he died of his wounds.
The most virulent Muslim sects have since emerged from the small towns of the Punjab – groups like the Anjuman Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan and the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi – who have singled out Shias, Christians, Ahmediyas and even Muslims for extermination.
Only last week the anti Iranian group, Jundullah took responsibility for singling out Shias traveling in a passenger bus in Pakistan’s northern areas – whence they were forced to disembark and shot on account of their sect.
In this complex scenario, where nations use religious and ethnic groups to fight proxy wars in the Pak-Afghan region, the dangers of religious extremism rise in proportion to incidents like Koran burning.
Indeed, as the Taliban claims military successes in Afghanistan… the religious extremists moving across the porous borders to Pakistan carry the seeds of intolerance that threaten to destabilize the nation still further.
If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience. – George Bernard Shaw