The causes of the protests in Afghanistan

Afghans themselves are making clear that their anger is about far more than the burning of Korans

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(updated below)

Most American media accounts and commentary about the ongoing violent anti-American protests in Afghanistan depict their principal cause as anger over the burning of Korans (it’s just a book: why would people get violent over it?) — except that Afghans themselves keep saying things like this:

Protesters in Kabul interviewed on the road and in front of Parliament said that this was not the first time that Americans had violated Afghan cultural and religious traditions and that an apology was not enough.

This is not just about dishonoring the Koran, it is about disrespecting our dead and killing our children,” said Maruf Hotak, 60, a man who joined the crowd on the outskirts of Kabul, referring to an episode in Helmand Province when American Marines urinated on the dead bodies of men they described as insurgents and to a recent erroneous airstrike on civilians in Kapisa Province that killed eight young Afghans.

“They always admit their mistakes,” he said. “They burn our Koran and then they apologize. You can’t just disrespect our holy book and kill our innocent children and make a small apology.”

And:

Members of Parliament called on Afghans to take up arms against the American military, and Western officials said they feared that conservative mullahs might incite more violence at the weekly Friday Prayer, when a large number of people worship at mosques.

Americans are invaders, and jihad against Americans is an obligation,” said Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a member of Parliament from the Ghorband district in Parwan Province, where at least four demonstrators were killed in confrontations with the police on Wednesday.

The U.S. has violently occupied their country for more than a decade. It has, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal himself explained, killed what he called an “amazing number” of innocent Afghans in checkpoint shootings. It has repeatedly — as in, over and overkilled young Afghan children in air strikes. It continues to imprison their citizens for years at Bagram and other American bases without charges of any kind and with credible reports of torture and other serious abuses. Soldiers deliberately shot Afghan civilians for fun and urinated on their corpses and displayed them as trophies.

Meanwhile, the protesters themselves continue to be shot, although most American media accounts favor sentences like these which whitewash who is doing the killing: “running clashes with the police that claimed the lives of another five Afghan protesters” and “in Nangarhar Province, two Afghans protesting the Koran burning were shot to death outside an American base in Khogyani District” and “protesters angry over the burning of Korans at the largest American base in Afghanistan this week took to the streets in demonstrations in a half-dozen provinces on Wednesday that left at least seven dead and many more injured.” Left at least seven dead: as As’ad AbuKhalil observed, “notice that there is no killer in the phrasing.”

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It’s comforting to believe that these violent protests and the obviously intense anti-American rage driving them is primarily about anger over the inadvertent burning of some religious books: that way, we can dismiss the rage as primitive and irrational and see the American targets as victims. But the Afghans themselves are making clear that this latest episode is but the trigger for — the latest symbol of — a pile of long-standing, underlying grievances about a decade-old, extremely violent foreign military presence in their country. It’s much more difficult to dismiss those grievances as the by-product of primitive religious fanaticism, so — as usual — they just get ignored.

 

UPDATE: Beyond all these points, it’s perversely fascinating to watch all of this condescension — it’s just a book: who cares if it’s burned?  – pouring forth from a country whose political leaders were eager to enact a federal law or even a Constutional amendment to make it a criminal offense to burn the American flag (which, using this parlance, is “just a piece of cloth”). In fact, before the Supreme Court struck down such statutes as unconstitutional in 1989 by a 5-4 vote, it was a crime in 48 states in the nation to burn the flag. Here is what Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in dissent about why the Constitution permits the criminalization of flag burning (emphasis added):

The American flag, then, throughout more than 200 years of our history, has come to be the visible symbol embodying our Nation. It does not represent the views of any particular political party, and it does not represent any particular political philosophy. The flag is not simply another “idea” or “point of view” competing for recognition in the marketplace of ideas. Millions and millions of Americans regard it with an almost mystical reverence, regardless of what sort of social, political, or philosophical beliefs they may have.

Might one say the same for Muslims and the Koran? Along those lines, just imagine what would happen if a Muslim army invaded the U.S., violently occupied the country for more than a decade, in the process continuously killing American children and innocent adults, and then, outside of a prison camp it maintained where thousands of Americans were detained for years without charges and tortured, that Muslim army burned American flags — or a stack of bibles — in a garbage dump. Might we see some extremely angry protests breaking out from Americans against them? Would American pundits be denouncing those protesters as blinkered, primitive fanatics?

Glenn Greenwald
Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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