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