“So why don’t they protest about the children freezing to death?”
It was a salient question voiced by a friend as fury over the burning of several Korans at a U.S. air base last week gathered momentum and cut a swath of violence across Afghanistan. After seven days of protests, the death toll is estimated at 40, including two American officers shot dead inside the Interior Ministry.
Earlier in the month, nearly two dozen children froze to death in flimsy tents on the outskirts of Kabul just steps from Western military headquarters and international aid organizations. Not much was heard about these deaths.
But there is endless hand-wringing over religious and cultural sensitivities regarding the Koran. Barack Obama took the unusual step of apologizing for the Koran burning. Others in the Western world disagreed with the U.S. President’s regrets and shudder in disgust at the needless violence over religion in a place where so much death occurs with barely a murmur.
It’s extraordinary that, after a decade of engagement, the Americans could be so clueless about the handling of Islam’s holy book, an ignorance the Taliban leadership deftly used for propaganda purposes by dispatching a suicide car bomber on Monday to a NATO air base in eastern Afghanistan. At least nine people were killed.
It’s a cynical business far removed from spirituality or Islam.
These protests are not really about religion, as offensive as it is to burn any holy book. They’re about poor, disenfranchised people expressing anger over lack of progress and security and finding an easy vehicle for that rage.
The oft-heard refrain that the West has spent billions of dollars in the past 10 years on a failed nation-building experiment simply doesn’t hold up. The vast majority of the money has never reached ordinary Afghans. It has paid for Western armies, the building of embassies, inflated overheads of international aid organizations and corrupt contracts that end up lining the pockets of a few Afghans and Westerners. Western taxpayers, including Canadians, are rightfully fed up with paying for this intractable war.
Afghans have also had enough. In a recent Asia Foundation poll of 6,348 adults across the country, respondents cited personal security, unemployment and poverty as their top concerns.
Despite the fact that the Taliban are responsible for 80 per cent of civilian deaths, the vast majority of Afghans – 82 per cent, according to the poll – want peace negotiations to start. And they want peace at any cost because they’re paying the price: The mullahs who encourage girls’ education are killed, thwarting education; and police officers who return to their villages are executed as traitors, hindering the rule of law. Corrupt courts settle cases based on who can pay more cash. The economy, driven by foreign aid, may crash to a halt when NATO pulls out.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai vacillates on every issue, his cronies run the country, many aid workers jet off to Dubai every few weeks for rest, and NATO armies retreat behind high walls when the violence gets too much.
Refugees pour into Kabul by the thousands to escape the fighting. As a result, makeshift tent cities have sprouted. Little help is given to these people and, when a harsh winter sets in, the young freeze to death.
It’s hard to articulate anger over these deeply troubling and complex issues, because people feel helpless. A religious blunder is easier to grasp.
A central tenet of Islam is providing social justice, and zakat, the giving of alms, is a pillar of the faith. Afghans haven’t seen much fairness.
The image of burned holy texts is not only deeply offensive to religious Muslims but a symbol of the terrible injustices that ordinary Afghans face as they struggle to live under horrific circumstances.
Hamida Ghafour, who has reported extensively from the Muslim world, is currently based in the Netherlands. She is the author of The Sleeping Buddha: The Story of One Family’s Past, and Afghanistan’s Search for a Future .