For moderate Muslims around the world, the scenes were horrific: hordes of rage-filled men swarming the United Nations compound in Mazar-e-Sharif, "hunting down" foreign infidels and killing them brutally. Stabbing and shooting, they slaughtered the very people who were there to help them, to guard them and guide them out of the religious fanaticism imposed by the Taliban. For moderate Muslims, the image was searing to the mind: the madness of it, the sheer inhumanity.
Two weeks earlier, thousands of kilometres to the west, a nutcase pastor in Florida with an insignificant cult following had decided to put the Koran on trial. It was a silly exercise, worthy of an SNL skit. "We tried to set it up as fair as possible," he told reporters afterward, "which you can imagine of course, is very difficult." Naturally, Pastor Terry Jones found the Koran guilty. And, in a medieval frenzy, burned it.
Most moderate Muslims ignored the event. "Terry Jones had his 15 minutes of fame," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, "and we're not going to help him get another few minutes." A prudent course of action.
And yet here we are, two weeks on, and Rev. Jones is still in the spotlight. The UN compound in Mazar-e-Sharif is smouldering, Kandahar is in chaos and at least 24 innocent people are dead, likely many more. Meanwhile, thousands of Muslims around the world, perhaps even millions, believe the killers have done right in the name of Islam.
They are wrong.
In Kandahar, my Taliban sources tell me, Muslims are simply protecting the honour of their religion. They justify the attacks on foreigners with tales of terrible deeds: Americans hate Islam. Muslim women are suffering rape and abuse at the hands of the infidels. Korans are being burned by the truckload.
Reports from Mazar-e-Sharif, 600 kilometres north of Kandahar, paint a similar picture. Witnesses say flyers and posters plastered around the city, alleging the mass burning of Korans by American churches, riled up Afghans in the days leading up to the protests there. Some UN officials allege Taliban militants harnessed the power of mass anger and fed its flames with hysterical untruths, turning what began as a peaceful and orderly march into a mob attack on a symbol of the West in Afghanistan.
This is what happens when fact and fiction converge.
The facts are undeniable: A fringe pastor described by his own colleagues as a "deeply confused" man living in a constant state of fear manifests his rabid paranoia in an act of such utter puerility that it deserves little more than pity. He is brandished by Islamist militants as an avatar of the West's hatred of Islam. Equally unhinged Islamic preachers rant and rave against the West and are held up by an increasingly Islamophobic West as examples of the violence inherent in Islam.
But the facts don't seem to matter much any more. Fiction is now the dominant pathology.
Here in Pakistan, the confluence of fact and fiction has reached epic proportions. It's not just the uneducated, the disconnected and the easily manipulated who are falling prey to the disease.
A doctor friend of mine told me over dinner a few nights ago, "It's the Americans who are behind all of the violence in Pakistan. All the assassinations, the suicide bombings, the Taliban … the CIA's hand is in all of them."
I tried to explain the history, the facts. Like the fact that it was Pakistan's own Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), along with Saudi intelligence, that made the Taliban into what they are today. The CIA operates in Pakistan, I argued, but their role is limited - by U.S. domestic law, by international treaty obligations, and by the CIA's own self-interest. "If you read the history of the CIA, you'll see that they have no love for the Taliban," I said. "The crimes you're alleging the CIA is carrying out are so monumental that they couldn't remain secret for long." But to argue against such an ardent sense of conspiracy is to then be treated like a naive child. Poor boy, you really don't have a clue do you?
Rev. Jones has adopted a similar tone toward his naysayers. They are all willfully blind to Islam's dangers, he says. This is the common retreat of the conspiracy-minded: Everyone else just doesn't get it.
But we do get it, those among us with some degree of rational thought left.
There are pastors and politicians in the West who view all Muslims with fear and suspicion. There are also Muslims in the West who should be feared and watched closely. Both are a very small group of fanatics. There are some CIA agents, security contractors and U.S. soldiers in Pakistan and Afghanistan who are engaged in activities that run counter to the fundamental tenets of Western morality and ethics. There are also some ISI agents, indoctrinated jihadi contractors and Pakistani and Afghan soldiers who operate with a complete disregard for the morality and ethics of Islam.
Through their actions, they are all guilty of feeding the frenzy of misinformation. The danger now is that these insignificant practitioners of the inane have become significant; they have managed to dominate the debate.
Those of us watching as all of this misguided mayhem unfolds feel a chill running through our bones. The facts are being diluted in a sea of fiction. And there seems to be nothing we can do to stop it.
Adnan R. Khan is a writer and photographer based in Islamabad.