Explaining the inexplicable: Murder at Mazar

Published: April 8, 2011

The writer is an assistant professor at Georgetown University, Center for Peace and Security Studies and the author of Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States (The Lyon’s Press, 2008) and co-editor (with Sumit Ganguly) of Treading on Hallowed Ground: Counterinsurgency Operations in Sacred Spaces (New York: OUP, 2008)

In September of 2010, Pastor Terry Jones, an obscurantist preacher from Florida, caught the attention of senior US political, diplomatic and military leadership when he threatened to burn a copy of the Holy Quran. Ultimately, Mr Jones desisted from this inflammatory folly after achieving several days of sustained fame and after receiving various entreaties by US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others. Mr Jones promised to not revisit the subject in the future.

In early January 2011, he announced that he would hold an “International Judge the Koran [sic] Day”. This round of theatrics drew no press attention. On March 20, 2011 Mr Jones served as the judge in this ‘trial’ in which a copy of the Holy Quran was burnt. Despite the small turnout, Jones declared the event a success.

The bizarre mock trial and execution of Islam’s most revered book went unnoticed in the American and international media until April 1, when angry mobs in the usually peaceful northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif stormed a UN compound and slaughtered at least eight people. The violence quickly spread to Kandahar, Jalalabad and Kabul.

While Mr Jones was deliberately provocative, this butchery of innocent Afghans and international UN workers is mind-boggling. How is it possible that the actions of a reviled, fringe lunatic in central Florida could result in the deaths of so many people — including Afghan Muslims?

The Holy Quran crisis underscores a clash of juridical cultures. In the United States, though Jones’ actions are repugnant, they are legal. The pastor enjoys the same freedom of speech and freedom of religion that all Americans enjoy, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc. His right to offend is the other side of the coin that protects our religious freedoms. Tolerating hatemongering shenanigans is the price we pay for our freedoms.

While some Muslims may find this tolerance abhorrent, many Americans recoil at laws in Muslim countries, which are intolerant. Blasphemy laws in many such countries can carry a death sentence; are often employed for motives that are anything but religious; and are usually used against non-Muslims. In January, a zealot assassinated Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, because he suggested reforming Pakistan’s blasphemy law. While Pastor Jones is an obscure and reviled figure in the United States, Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, became nationally acclaimed as a hero and was even festooned with flowers and gifts.

Clashing legal and civil values alone cannot explain the bloody violence that has erupted across Afghanistan this weekend. Sensible people understand differences in legal regimes across states and do not easily mobilise into murderous mobs. Sensible people understand that killing innocent people is not condoned in any religion.

Nor does the act of desecrating the Holy Quran itself satisfactorily exculpate Sunni militants who have attacked and razed dozens of Shia mosques and Sufi shrines in Pakistan in recent years alone. This has not sparked outrage.

If senseless Holy Quran burning was so universally viewed as a legitimate precipitant of massacres of innocents, why has violence not erupted elsewhere? If frustration with international occupation and episodic but gruesome human rights violations of US and international troops had explanatory power, we should see this in Iraq.

Mr Jones’ act has been resoundly condemned by President Obama, among others.

How do we explain the savage butchery of utterly innocent people who are dedicated to helping Afghans? Here the finger must turn to Afghan politics: President Hamid Karzai.

Rather than explaining to his population that Jones is a fringe crank whose actions are reviled by most Americans, Karzai has made this his most recent anti-American cause célèbre, denouncing the Americans who have paid deeply in lives and treasure to support his corrupt and unaccountable government.

The April 1 conflagration likely would not have happened had it not been for President Karzai himself, who drew attention to the little known event on March 24 when he issued a press release in which he called the immolation of the Holy Quran “a crime against a religion and entire Muslim umma [community]”. He further called for the US and UN to “bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime”.

Karzai’s demands for Jones to be brought to justice are bizarre. Karzai knows that Mr Jones committed no crime in the United States and Afghanistan has no jurisdiction over him. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, have denied Jones entry into their country.

It is easy to conclude that Karzai chose this path of deadly controversy to demonstrate his strategic independence from the United States, which pays his bills while his supporters loot his country’s coffers. According to the recently downsized US defence budget, American taxpayers will still pay about $300 million per day for the military effort in Afghanistan alone. For all operations in the country, the United States will spend about $17 billion in Fiscal Year 2011 alone. This is in addition to the thousands of international deaths and many more Afghan deaths.

Washington must ask if it can justify squandering such life and treasure on Karzai when he time and time again undermines his and America’s interests. How can America continue to support a man who is willing to stoke the flames of violence in his own country for his own, deeply personal political gains? This is as inexplicable as the senseless violence in Mazar-i-Sharif and the bigotry of Mr Jones.

(A longer version of this piece was originally published by Foreign Policy’s Af-Pak channel.)

Published in The Express Tribune, April 9th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • John
    Apr 9, 2011 - 12:56AM

    The author fail to ask this also:

    How can US can continue to support the PAK Govt with billions of Aid money which is willing to stoke the flames of violence by passing resolution in its National Assembly against Terry Jones action and there by giving credence to the violence in the name of ” holy”.

    The “culture of impunity” is pervasive to modern day Islam, at least as the world sees it from the actions of those such as PAK NA, and Karzai who condone violence in the name of religion.

    One can not publish, act, or speak anything remotely related to criticism of Islam, even in so called liberal media of Pakistan. Such censorship of intimidation used to be only against non Muslims but now it also turned against the muslim members.

    One can forgive Afghanistan civilians, after all a whole generation of Afghans went through a period of Talibanization.

    What about the western educated elite, wealthy, western living ruling members of PAK national assembly and the press who condone the actions of violence in the name of religion either by passing resolution or remaining quiet?

    Hope this comment gets published. Nothing derogatory here except the criticism. If not it proves again my point. Recommend

  • faraz
    Apr 9, 2011 - 1:08AM

    Hundreds of copies of Quran get burnt when taliban attack shrines, mosques and imam bargahs. Why dont people react then?Recommend

  • Apr 9, 2011 - 1:08AM

    Yes! Yes! and Yes! But people would rather believe that the US government through the CIA, in cahoots with Mossad and encouraged by RAW orchestrated this. Recommend

  • M M Malik
    Apr 9, 2011 - 1:14AM

    The murder of one innocent person is like the murder of entire humanity and the UN personnel lynched in Mazar-e-Sharif were innocent.
    In Islam there is no temporal punishment for blasphemy, the punishment is in the hereafter. The blasphemy laws are the invention of weak and corrupt politicians and the misguided clergy.Recommend

  • Pakistan Khan
    Apr 9, 2011 - 1:23AM

    So then whats the solution? It seems if writer was trying to defend Tarry Jones by giving the rationale of freedom of speech and U.S law. If we accept,for a moment,that Muslims are intolerant then what about Americans? Is this heinous act of Tarry Jones acceptable? Killing innocent people is equally heinous act but should that Pastor given freedom to desecrate others holy books and beliefs? What about innocent Afghans who are killed by Nato and U.S forces for nothing. I think Americans intellectual should come out of their imperial and colonial thinking and stop considering other human beings of lower moral standards and intellectual capacity.
    Before scolding Afghans you should know that U.S was not invited by Afghans to invade their homeland!!! Recommend

  • pakpinoy
    Apr 9, 2011 - 4:59AM

    Amazingly insightful article! Thanks for running the story ET! Kudos to you.

    The bitter truth…yes, the bitter truth…Recommend

  • rahim
    Apr 9, 2011 - 9:45AM

    “How can America continue to support a man who is willing to stoke the flames of violence in his own country for his own, deeply personal political gains?”
    yes oh my god, how is this possible, america which has never done any wrong, never supported any foreign leaders or dictators slaughtering their own populations – oh wait they’ve alway s been doing that.

    Its incredible how you as part of the academia continue to litter these pages with obnoxious and poorly disguised propaganda. America has always installed leaders and dictators in innumerable countries and allowed them a free hand as long as their own designs are in place. Please dont make these non-sensical arguments, its insulting to the reader’s intellect. Recommend

  • nadir khan
    Apr 9, 2011 - 11:26AM

    Ms. Fair has, as usual, ‘fair’ and valid points to make (pun shamelessly intended ;)
    Well-written and thought provoking. I’ve posted this on fb….
    More power to you, ma’am!Recommend

  • New Delhi_India
    Apr 9, 2011 - 11:40AM

    Where were these “Great Muslim Protestors” when they destroyed 6th century monumental statues of The Buddhas of Bamiyan.Recommend

  • John
    Apr 9, 2011 - 1:59PM

    @pakpinoy:
    I saw your comment referring to this original article prior to this abridged publication. Good job and thanks. Recommend

  • nadir khan
    Apr 9, 2011 - 2:14PM

    err…WHY his ‘corrupt and unaccountable govt.’ is being ‘supported’ by paying such a steep price in terms of ‘lives and treasure’ is a different question. Entirely. That said, Ms. Fair is very right in pointing out the hypocrisy and Janus-faced opportunism of our brethren-in-faith. Kudos.Recommend

  • Salman
    Apr 9, 2011 - 4:23PM

    Some guy burns the Quran thousands of miles away and 50 people die protesting is Pakistan ,stories like these are very common. People like Karzai and Zardari cant do any real work so they play to the mullah gallery. Having said that, its the fault of those who pay to keep Karzai in power as much as Karzai himself. Recommend

  • Apr 11, 2011 - 6:39AM

    fab article – very much to the point, i do wish more pakistanis said stuff like this rather than look at cues from mullahsRecommend

  • myja
    Apr 11, 2011 - 3:24PM

    In one of your earlier articles you advised Paksitani people to ‘stop howling’ at US over the cold blooded killings committed by Raymond Davis and put their own house in order…now again you are defending your own system in the name of freedom of expression and want an explaination for killings of innocent people in Afghanistan. When will you start writing about the fallacies of your country’s unjust approach towards the rest of the world especially its contineous backing of Israel and not condemning attrocities committed by her, against the palestinians, by simply vetoing any resolution tabled for such a purpose in UN.Recommend

  • ba ha
    Apr 11, 2011 - 10:12PM

    Reactionary blog!!. OK- what you bottom line. We wont touch Saudia but you get you naval fleet out of thew Arabian Sea. Thats final offer. We can sink ships- maybe not countriesRecommend

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