Murder in Mazar and the Shame of Excuse-making
The murder of seven innocent people in Mazar-i-sharif, followed by violent demonstrations in other parts of Afghanistan over the last few days that have killed at least 17 people, has put Afghanistan back in the news for all the wrong reasons.
This despicable, hate-filled behaviour on the part of protesters is heartbreaking to me not only because of the terrible loss of life that has resulted, but also because I think of all the secular, progressive, liberal-minded Afghans I know and how the outside world’s perception of their country has just plunged further into a conviction that Afghanistan is a dangerous, violent, incorrigible place. In this case, the sad truth is that all the criticism is rightfully directed at Afghanistan: the violent demonstrators in Mazar-i-sharif, Kandahar and other cities, the Afghan Government, the mullahs who incited people to murder, and everyone who excuses the barbarity that took place Friday by citing blasphemy.
By feeding right into a deranged Floridian crackpot’s attempts at provocation, the men who murdered in Mazar have made Terry Jones the disgraceful winner of this ridiculous duel. Jones should have simply been ignored, or perhaps satirized, for the fundamentalist bigot that he is. Instead, media around the world elevated him to celebrity status, providing him with exactly the platform he sought.
Everyone should be offended by Jones, but no one should have responded to the pleas for attention of a man not right in the head, except perhaps a deserving mention in The Onion. As has been widely reported, his church has a grand total of not more than 60 members. He has been publicly condemned by Americans of all shades and stripes. There is not a shred of evidence that Jones enjoys any legitimacy or popular support in the United States. It is utterly ludicrous to associate Jones with Americans at large or with the US Government.
And yet, mullahs across Afghanistan have not only associated all of America with Terry Jones, they have evidently associated the entire western world with him as well, considering it fair game to murder Norwegian, Swedish, Romanian and Nepalese UN personnel serving the humanitarian cause in Afghanistan.
Let’s be clear: the only people responsible for the murder of innocent people in Mazar-i-sharif and elsewhere in Afghanistan this past week are the individuals who drew their knives and pulled their triggers. The responsibility lies with those who killed, and with those who told them to do so. To see it any other way is to imply that being offended gives one the right to kill in vengeance. This view is far more intolerant and backwards than anything that Terry Jones has yet done.
But evidently, many people defend the desecration of a book by a man who belongs in obscurity as grounds for murder. The Guardian newspaper asked its readers on April 1st whether they consider Terry Jones “morally responsible for the deaths in Mazar-i-sharif, and 44% responded, “Yes, it is a provocative blasphemy against others' beliefs.” The question itself is abhorrent, but the findings are nothing short of frightening.
Meanwhile, the UN Envoy to Afghanistan Staffan de Mistura has also stated that he blames Terry Jones’ theatrics for the deaths: "I don't think we should be blaming any Afghan. We should be blaming the person who produced the news - the one who burned the Koran. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from offending culture, religion, traditions."
For the UN mission in Afghanistan to be under the leadership of someone who opts to excuse a murderous mob by validating the claim that for one’s culture to be offended is sufficient grounds to kill, is an indicator of how far the UN mission has deviated from its own mandate. The UN was, afterall, founded on the premise that humans need to learn to peacefully co-exist with each other in spite of our differences and that intolerance and disagreements never merit the murder of innocents. Article 3 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. de Mistura is unilaterally waiving that right for his own staff.
As for the Afghan Government, President Karzai not only failed at every stage to deescalate the situation, he is reportedly the one who first alerted the Afghan public to Terry Jones’ mock trial of the Quran, saying that the US Congress and the United Nations must “bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime.” Once again, the feckless Karzai seized upon an opportunity to flirt with his conservative supporters, with utter disregard for the very deadly consequences.
Afghanistan’s Ulema Council, which has performed no useful function in the country’s recovery to date but instead spends its time dreaming up Islamist-inspired regressive laws to impose on the Afghan people, has failed to condemn the murders. Rather, they seem to threaten more violence in the following statement: “Unless they try [Terry Jones] and give him the highest possible punishment, we will witness violence and protests not only in Afghanistan but in the entire world.”
The euphemistic “anti-American” label fails to describe the trend here, downplaying the vitriolic hatred that pulsed through the thousands of protesters Friday. As Kabul journalist Abbas Daiyar pointed out back in September when Jones first announced his misguided stunt, there is a “Westernophobia” underlying a prejudice that keeps so many blind to their own manipulation by the extremists rampant in their society. Daiyar asks, for instance, why there has never been among his people “a mass protest rally against sectarian groups, Taliban or Al-Qaeda for carrying out attacks on mosques.” He bluntly acknowledges something most people fancy themselves too polite to notice, “People in our part of the world are very reactionary.”
It’s not Terry Jones or his weird church that will cause more bloodshed in Afghanistan. It’s the unbridled extremism constantly stoked by xenophobic, illiterate, hateful mullahs; and the sanction they enjoy from the very people who should be speaking out against violent reactionaries: the Afghan Government, its police force who failed to protect the UN compound on Friday, the UN mission, and Afghanistan’s religious leaders.
More than ever, Afghanistan needs to cultivate a society of freethinkers who will stand up to mullahs who spread hatred and intolerance. It needs a government that will uphold Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And it needs a UN mission on the ground that actually engenders the supposed values of the institution: freedom from fear, justice, peace, and the end of tyranny and oppression.
A world where offending one’s culture or religion justifies the atrocities of a bloodthirsty, fanatical mob is not the kind of world we should be aspiring to. It’s a cruel disservice to the dead in Mazar to claim otherwise.
Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.