Afghanistan: Koran burning

Updated February 26, 2012

Associated Press: “More than 30 people have been killed in clashes since it emerged Tuesday that copies of the Muslim holy book and other religious materials had been thrown into a fire pit used to burn garbage at Bagram Air Field, a large U.S. base north of Kabul.

The death toll from days of unrest includes four U.S. soldiers – two killed last week by an Afghan soldier, and two military advisers shot Saturday at the Interior Ministry.”

By AMIR SHAH, Associated Press, February 23, 2012

“The unrest started Tuesday, when Afghan workers at the sprawling American base noticed that Qurans and other Islamic texts were in the trash that coalition troops dumped into a pit where garbage is burned. Some Afghan workers burned their fingers as they tried to salvage some of the books. Afghan government officials said initial reports indicated four Qurans were burned.

“The materials had been taken from a library at Parwan Detention Facility, which adjoins the base, because they contained extremist messages or inscriptions. Writing inside a Quran is forbidden in the Islamic faith, although it was unclear whether the handwritten messages were found in the holy book or other reading materials.

“A military official said it appeared that detainees at the prison were exchanging messages by making notations in the texts.

“A delegation of Afghan religious leaders, lawmakers and government representatives visited Bagram as part of the investigation. They issued a statement late Thursday calling for an end to protests and accused insurgents of infiltrating the gatherings to foment violence. They said they expected those responsible for the Quran burning to be prosecuted through the U.S. military court system.”

In response to these events I addressed the following question to a group of young Afghan intellectuals in Kabul:

“I am very interested in your comments on the Koran burning event in Afghanistan.

“The U.S. military made a regrettable mistake in burning some Korans at Bagram airbase. It was the result of ignorance of Afghan and Muslim attitudes toward the destruction of their holly book.  It was not the results of malice. President Obama personally apologized for the act to President Karzai, an extremely rare thing for American Presidents.

“In the West, idolatry is not respected. What is holly in the Bible, Koran, or Torah are their words, not whatever pieces of paper they might be printed on. Thus the reaction of some Afghans to burning some Korans is incomprehensible to us. Over a dozen lives have been lost because of this reaction.

“The Washington Post reported the following yesterday: “Those behind the act should be asked about their deed and must be punished,” said an officer near a U.S. military base in Kabul. “If I find the opportunity, I would shoot them in the head.” For us it is truly barbaric to put the burning of a book on the same level as taking a human life. I assume such views do not represent modern Afghan thinking and seriously doubt that Islam teaches such things, but I would be grateful for your views on these questions.”

Here is the resulting exchange followed by some non-Afghan comments first:

Diba Hareer

Warren Coats, you are right. For us, the educated Afghans, it does not make any sense at all. The incidents and the killings, which happened, cannot be justified. How on earth you could say, “We are killing each other, destroying buildings because our holy book was burned”. It’s unfortunate that we have very few educated people in our country. Our elites are getting out of the country and living in the west, as they cannot tolerate the chaos in Afghanistan. Their security is also at risk at times. We have only 34% literate men and 13% literate women. In our schools students are not taught the right values. If we teach our kids love, respect and patience, we can prevent these incidents to a high extent. The illiterate isolated masses can easily be manipulated. The manipulators took advantage of this opportunity and further encouraged the public to get crazy. I still believe the educated youths even few can bring a change since its proved that you can make a difference with as few as two persons. I hope those of us who are studying right now, get together and find a way to get Afghanistan out of this situation.

Masoud Dost

Miss Diba,
With respect to those elites that realize value of our holy Books.
It seems you are in big misunderstanding that our elites are out of country, it might be your own perception.
Any how, I really condemn those who do not respect holy books whether it’s mistakenly or with full understanding.
I accept that the illiterate isolated masses can easily be manipulated. The manipulators took advantage of this opportunity and further encouraged the public to get crazy.
The questions arises who pave such illiteracy, low level or high level, educated or uneducated, elite or …?

Diba Hareer

Masoud, by elites who are out of country I was pointing to those whose knowledge can contribute to reconstruction of our country but they do not want to work with the corrupt government. The majority (if not all, while I think so) are working with the government only to serve their pockets by taking the advantage of the corrupt system. Azizullah Lodin the chairman of high office of oversight and anti- corruption was complaining from corruption at his own office. I and you know that many of the current and ex-ministers’ files are with the office of Attorney General who are accused of corruption.. I wish I was able to tell u who the elites are. I am sure neither you nor I want to argue over those figures. The point here is to confirm that, killing and injuring one another and destroying the buildings are not sensible ways of showing that you are angry over burning Quran. What can u achieve by killing your country folk? I doubt if even a few number of these protestors know what is written in Quran and what does that mean. Besides that, they are destroying the image of Islam. They once again represented us as barbaric to the world.

Shoaib Rahim

Warren Coats i’ll try and share an observation on why this reaction took place then. The Jihad against the soviets created a new identity for the majority of Afghan population; i believe this identity to be obsessively revolved around a very specific and rigid interpretation of Islam. We were occupied, slaughtered and kicked out of our country during the Soviet war for being Muslims..and on the flip side, we were funded, armed and supported by all for strengthening the same identity. After the soviets left, although we failed to form a nation and keep the peace, Islam was the only alleged uniter among our people and more or less still is since notions of nationalism are still in its infancy. Secondly, life is not valued in our society and a life lost in the path of ‘defending islam’ is a virtue…it was enshrined in our value system during the Jihad against the soviets and this value lives on strong. This essentially means that you can’t compare Afghan society with other non-war afflicted societies because the values differ greatly. Third is a very strong notion of victimization by the ‘imperialist west’ and its anti-islamic agenda. Neo-conservative policies during Bush, Guantanamo Bay, constant targetting of muslims by western media..all play its role in demonizing the masses with anything “western”…and the US forces have had many instances of killings and quran burnings which have made the image worse. so we have Rigid Religious Interpretations + Cheap value of life in our society/celebration of life lost for religious cause + anti-western sentiments. Add in foreign hands and opportunists and you get the reality behind Afghan riots. At least I would see it like this.

Alessandro Califano

Warren Coats, I’d like you to focus on a different setting on regard of your question. Let’s imagine a Western country (why not the US?) being occupied by armed forces of a different religion and culture. Let us now imagine someone among these “alien” forces throwing a New Testament copy in the garbage can, along with used kleenex tissues and potato peels – are you really sure that locals would say: “Oh, please, we are strongly against idolatry, keep going in your doing…”? In my humble opinion, malice or not, people have been mowing down reciprocally for much less in some un-barbaric Western countries… Ever heard anything about Northern Ireland, yourself?

Two non Afghan comments. The first comment, from a Saudi friend, sheds light on the seeming anomaly of the routine practice of the Saudi government burning Christian Bibles confiscated in the Kingdom with no public outcry from anyone.

Yousef (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

I think the main cause of outrage in Afghanistan is because of “who” did it. As of my knowledge, the only way to dispose Quran in Islam is to actually burn it. It is not to be thrown with other waste since it contains the words of god. Basically because it’s holy.

I think if they let Muslims do the burning and clarified the reasons behind it before actually doing it it wouldn’t have had the same public response.

Tom Lutton (Washington DC)

Warren, thank you for sending this; it is good to hear from you.  Your simple act of asking a question, listening to the response, and sharing the response with others is a welcomed start to bridging a cultural divide that has been so wide for so long.  The lack of education on both sides certainly does contribute to the deplorable violence.  Honest communication and consistent efforts to understand differences ironically seem to be the weapons of choice to eliminate the cycles of violence.

Author: Warren Coats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.

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